The War Chief

Chapter V

On the War Trail

Edgar Rice Burroughs

THROUGH rugged mountains Geronimo led his war party toward the south, avoiding beaten trails, crossing valleys only after ten pairs of eagle eyes had scanned them carefully from the hidden security of some lofty eminence. Where there might be danger of discovery he sent a scout far ahead. At night he camped upon the rocky shoulder of some mountain inaccessible to cavalry. There the novitiates brought the firewood, carried the water, if there was aught to carry, did the cooking and performed whatever labor there was to be performed.

All this they did in silence, speaking only when directly addressed by a warrior. They ate only what they were told they might eat and that was little enough, and of the poorest quality. In every conceivable way were their patience, nerve and endurance tried to the utmost, and always were they under the observation of the warriors, upon whose final report at some future council would depend their acceptance into the warrior class.

On the third day they entered Mexico, and faced a long, waterless march upon the next. That morning Shoz-Dijiji filled a section of the large intestine of a horse with water and coiled it twice over his left shoulder and beneath his right arm. Presently the water would become hot beneath the torrid rays of chigo-na-ay, and the container had been cleaned only according to Apache standards of cleanliness, yet its contents would in no way offend their palates. In quantity there was sufficient to carry them far beyond the next water hole.

Shoz-Dijiji hated to carry the water. The container sloshed about his body and ever had a tendency to slip from his shoulder. With the thermometer 118 in the shade, a hot water bag adds nothing to one’s comfort, and, too, this one was heavy; but Shoz-Dijiji did not complain. He stepped lightly along the trail, nor ever lagged or sulked.

Always he watched every move that the warriors made and listened with strict attention to their few words, since the procedure and terminology of war are sacred and must be familiar to every candidate for warrior honors.

The familiar names of articles used upon the war trail were never spoken, only their war names being used and the observance of every act, however trivial, was tinged with the hue of religion.

Perhaps during the long span of man’s existence upon Earth there has never been produced a more warlike race than the Apaches. They existed almost solely by war and for war. Much of their country was a semiarid waste land, producing little; their agriculture was so meager as to be almost nonexistent; they owned no flocks or herds; they manufactured nothing but weapons of war and of the chase and some few articles of apparel and ornament. From birth they were reared with but one ambition, that of becoming great warriors. Their living and their possessions depended almost wholly upon the loot of war; and for three hundred years they were the scourge of a territory as large as Europe, a thickly settled portion of which they entirely depopulated.

Upon such facts as these had Shoz-Dijiji and Gian-nah-tah been raised, and now they were taking the first step toward becoming one of these mighty warriors, the very mention of whose names was sufficient to bring terror to an entire community of white men.

Sometimes when they were alone or unobserved the boys conversed, and upon one of these occasions Shoz-Dijiji exclaimed: “How wonderful to have been born an Apache! I should think that the white-eyed men would prefer death to the shame of not being Apaches. They have no great warriors or we should have heard of them and no one is afraid of them. We kill their people and they fear us so that they promise to feed us in idleness if we will kill no more. What manner of men are they who are so without shame! If other men kill our people, do we feed them and beg them to do so no more? No! we go among them and slay ten for every Apache that they have killed.”

“There are many of them,” sighed Gian-nah-tah. “For every ten we kill, there are a hundred more to come. Some day there will be so many that we cannot kill them all; then what will become of the Apaches?”

“You have listened to the talk of Nanay,” replied Shoz-Dijiji. “He is getting old. He does not know what he is talking about. The more white-eyes there are the more we can kill. Nothing would suit Shoz-Dijiji better. I hate them and when I am a great warrior I shall kill and kill and kill.”

“Yes”’ said Gian-nah-tah, “that will be great medicine, if it does not happen that there are more white-eyes than we can kill. If there are we are the ones who will be killed.”

In the mountains of Sonora Geronimo camped where he had an almost impassable mountain fastness at his back and a view of a broad valley spread out below him, and he was secure in the knowledge that no enemy could reach him undetected.

The very first day their scouts discovered a wagon train winding up the valley at their feet and Geronimo sent two braves down among the foothills to spy upon it. All day the train wound up the valley and all day savage, unseen eyes watched its every move, saw it go into camp, saw the precautions that were taken to prevent attack, and carried the word back to the war chief, who had been scouting in another direction.

“There are twenty wagons, each drawn by eight mules,” the scout reported to Geronimo. “There are twenty Mexicans, well armed. They ride with their weapons beside them. It is as though they feared attack, for they are often peering this way and that, and always those in the rear keep well closed up and glance back often—there are no stragglers.”

“And in camp?” inquired Geronimo.


“They form their wagons in a circle and inside the circle are the mules and the men. There were two armed men on guard. They are vigilant.”

“They are men,” said Geronimo. “Some time they will relax their vigilance.” He turned toward the youths who were busy at the camp fire. “Shoz-Dijiji,” he called, “come here!”

The lad came and stood before the war chief. “There, in the valley,” said Geronimo, pointing, “the Mexicans are camped. Go and watch them. Creep as closely to them as you can. If they see you you will be killed. Return at dawn and tell Geronimo all that you have discovered. Do not alarm them and do not attack unless you are discovered. Go!”

Supperless, Shoz-Dijiji faded into the twilight. A shadow, he moved in denser shadows, keeping to the hills until he came opposite the camp fires of the freighters. It was dark; the men around the camp fire could not possibly see far out into the night; yet Shoz-Dijiji did not relax his wariness.

Stooping low, sometimes creeping upon his belly, taking advantage of whatever cover the plain offered, he advanced closer and closer to the parked wagons. While yet a considerable distance from them he silently whittled a bush from its stem, close to the ground, and when he had come within a hundred yards of the nearest wagon he was crawling forward upon his belly, holding the bush in front of him. He moved very slowly and very cautiously, advancing by inches, for the art of successful stalking is the art of infinite patience. After a short advance he would lie still for a long time.

He could hear the voices of the men gathered about the fire. He could see one of the armed guards, the one nearer him. The man moved back and forth just inside the enclosure, occasionally pausing to watch and listen at the gaps between the wagons. It was when he was turned away from him that Shoz-Dijiji advanced. At last he lay within a foot of one of the wagon wheels and directly behind it.

Now he could hear much of the conversation and what he heard he understood fairly well, for his people had often traded amicably with Mexicans, posing as friendly Indians, though the next day they might be planning to massacre their hosts, and there had been Mexican prisoners in the camps of the Be-don-ko-he. Through, such contacts he had gained a smattering of Spanish, just as he was to acquire a smattering of English, above the border, within the next year or two.

He heard the guard, passing close in front of him, grumbling “This is foolish,” he called to someone at the camp fire. “We have not seen an Indian or an Indian sign this whole trip. I do not believe that there is an Apache within three hundred miles of us.”

A big man, with a black mustache, squatting before the fire, removed his cigarette from his mouth.

“Neither do I,” he replied; “but I do not know. I am taking no chances. I told you before we came out that we would stand guard every night, turn and turn about, and as long as I am captain of this train we shall.”

The other grumbled and turned to look out toward the mountains across the pole of one of the wagons. Within six feet of him lay an Apache. All night he lay there watching, listening.

He learned where they would halt during the heat of the following midday; he learned where they would camp the next night and the night following that; he saw that guards were changed every two hours and that thus the men lost but two hours sleep every other night. There was no reason, therefore, on this score, why they should be too sleepy to watch efficiently. He saw that all of the men slept with their rifles and six-shooters within easy reach. He knew that a night attack would find them ready and would have little chance for success.

Shortly before dawn the wind, which had been blowing gently up the valley, changed and blew from the hills behind Shoz-Dijiji and across the camp. Instantly the Apache noted the change and watched the mules. At the same time he commenced to worm himself away from the park, holding the bush always as a screen between himself and the camp of the enemy.

He saw a mule raise its head and sniff the air, then another and another. They moved about restlessly and many of them were looking out in his direction. This he could see in the light of the fire that the sentries had kept burning all night. He retreated more rapidly for he knew that the animals had caught the scent of an Indian, and he feared that the men would interpret their restlessness correctly.

Already the nearer guard had called to his fellow and both were straining their eyes out into the night, and then, just behind him, Shoz-Dijiji heard the wail of a coyote. He saw the tense attitudes of the men relax as they turned to resume their beats, and he smiled inwardly as he realized that they attributed the restlessness of their stock to the scent of the coyote. An hour later he entered camp as silently as he had left it the previous evening.

Geronimo listened to his report, and, after the custom of the Apaches, without interruption or comment until Shoz-Dijiji indicated that he had done speaking. He gave no praise, but he asked no questions; rather the highest praise that he could have bestowed, since it indicated that the youth’s report was so clear and so complete as to leave no detail of information lacking.

For two days and two nights thereafter the Apaches followed the freighters, and there was scarcely a moment during that time that the Mexicans were not under close observation as the Indians waited and watched patiently for the moment that the guard of the quarry would be momentarily lowered, the inevitable moment that the shrewd Geronimo knew would come. Keeping to the hills, along the foot of which the wagon road wound, the noiseless, invisible stalkers followed doggedly the slow moving train.

In the gory lexicon of Apache military science there appears no such word as chance. To risk one’s life, to sacrifice one’s warriors needlessly, is the part of a fool, not of a successful war chief. To give the other fellow a chance is the acme of asininity. In the event of battle men must be killed. If all the killed are among the enemy so much greater is the credit due the victorious chief. They have reduced the art of war to its most primitive conception; they have stripped it stark to its ultimate purpose, leaving the unlovely truth of it quite naked, unadorned by sophistries or hypocrisies—to kill without being killed.

At length Geronimo was convinced of the truth he had at first sensed—that the Mexicans were most vulnerable during their midday rest. Then their wagons were not parked into a circular fortress. The men were hot and tired and drowsy. They were lulled into a fancied security by the fact that they could see to great distances in all directions. Nothing as large as a man could approach them unseen. He had even noted that upon one occasion the entire party had dozed simultaneously at a noonday stop, and he made his plans accordingly.

From his intimate knowledge of the country, the trail, and the customs of freighters he knew where the noon stop upon the third day of the trailing would be made. That forenoon only one Apache trailed the unsuspecting Mexicans; the others were far ahead.

Noon approached. The complaining wheels of the great wagons jolted over the ruts of the road. The sweating mules pulled evenly and steadily. The drivers, with their single lines and their great bull-hide whips, urged their teams only sufficiently to keep the train well closed up.

Lackadaisically, soporifically, mechanically, they flicked the leaders with their long, pliant lashes. They did not curse their mules in strident voices as would American skinners. Sometimes they talked to them in low tones, or, again, they sang, and the mules plodded on through the dust, which rose in great clouds as they crossed a low, alkali flat, from which they emerged about noon upon higher, sandy ground, where the pulling was harder, but where there was no dust.

Presently the leading wagon stopped and the others drew up about it, but in no regular formation.. To their left the flat plain rose gently to meet the hills a mile away. To the right, in front of them and behind they could see to the distant mountains, empurpled by haze. A brilliant sun seared down upon the scorched land, a pitilessly revealing sun in the light of which nothing could hide. There was no breeze; nothing moved and there was no sound. Just silence was there except as it was broken by the breathing of the mules, the creaking or the jangling of a bit of harness.

The captain of the train scanned the landscape in all directions. Nothing moved, there was nothing irregular within his range of vision. Had there been he would have seen it, for he had spent the best part of his life tracking back and forth across Sonora.

“Keep a watch, Manuel,” he directed one of his men, for even now he would not relax his vigilance.

Manuel shrugged, rolled a cigarette, and looked about. His companions had crawled beneath several of the wagons, where they lay in the shade smoking, or already dozing. As far as he could see the land lay rollingly level, dotted with small bushes, not one of which would have offered concealment to anything larger than a jack rabbit. The sun was very hot and the shade beneath the wagons looked inviting to Manuel. He walked along the edge of the teams to the rearmost one and then back again. Glancing beneath a certain wagon he saw the captain curled up in sleep.

The guard walked all around the twenty wagons, looking off as far as he could. There were only Indians to fear and there were none in sight. Jesus Garcia had said that there was not an Apache within three hundred miles and Jesus was a famous Indian fighter. He had fought the Apaches and the Yaquis both. Manuel yawned and crawled beneath a wagon, just to finish his cigarette in the shade.

The mules had settled down to rest, sensible as mules always are. The men dozed, even Manuel, though he had not meant to. Before there were ears to hear there could not have lain upon the earth a deeper silence . . .  There seemed no life—but there was. Within twenty feet of Manuel a pair of eager, savage eyes appraised him. Within a radius of two hundred feet eight other pairs of eager, savage eyes watched the dozing forms of the unconscious prey.

Lying prone, completely buried in the sand, except their eyes, their pols hidden beneath cleverly held bushes, seven warriors and two youths awaited the moment of attack. From the hills, a mile away, another warrior watched. He would come leaping down to battle when the attack was made. All day he had been following and watching the train, ready to warn his fellows of any unforeseen danger, or inform them of a deviation from the assumed plans of the quarry; but there had been no change. The train had moved as though ordered by Geronimo.

Manuel slept and dreamed of a soft-eyed senorita in Hermosillo. Geronimo moved and the sand fell from his painted naked body as he rose noiselessly to his feet. Eight other grim figures arose from scattered beds of sand. At a sign from Geronimo they crept forward to surround the train.

The mules commenced to move restlessly. One of them snorted as a brave approached it. Geronimo held his lance above his head; from nine throats issued the blood-curdling war whoop of the Apaches. Manuel awoke and scrambled from beneath the wagon, fumbling with his rifle. A young Indian leaped toward him and as the Mexican raised his weapon an arrow from the bow of Shoz-Dijiji, the Black Bear, transfixed his heart.

In old Hermosillo tears would come to the soft eyes of a senorita. Far to the north, near the headwaters of the Gila, the fire of savage pride would burn in the big, dark eyes of Ish-kay-nay when she heard of the valor of her playfellow.

The Mexicans, utterly surprised, had no chance. Confused, startled, seeing Indians in front of them they backed from beneath the wagons only to receive lances and arrows in their backs from the Indians darting in and out between the wagons of the train. Curses and screams, mingled with the savage cries of the Apaches, added to the bewilderment of the freighters who had not died with the first volley. There were but nine Apaches, yet to the handful of men who survived the first onslaught there seemed to be Indians everywhere, so quickly did the savage warriors move from point to point, driving home a lance here, speeding an arrow there, or grappling hand-to-hand as they plunged their knives into the bodies of the foe.

The captain of the train, bleeding, staggered to his feet from beneath the wagon in the shade of which he had been sleeping.. As he arose he saw a huge buck leaping toward him with bloody knife upraised. Clubbing his rifle the Mexican swung the stock down upon the warrior’s head and as the Indian collapsed at his feet he whipped his six-shooter from its holster and stood at bay.

A few yards from him a stalwart Apache was on the point of driving his lance through the chest of Jesus Garcia who had fought Apaches and Yaquis all his life and knew that there was not an Indian within three hundred miles. The captain raised his weapon and leveled it full at the back of the Indian. Thus close was Geronimo to death; and then a young Apache hurled himself violently upon the captain of the train and the two went down together. It was Shoz-Dijiji who had intervened to save the war chief’s life. Two warriors saw the act—one of them was Juh.

Rolling upon the ground the white man and the Indian lad struggled; the one to use his firearm, the other to prevent that and to drive his knife home. Shoz-Dijiji was strong for his age, but he was no match for the Mexican except in agility; but he had one advantage in a hand-to-hand struggle that the Mexican did not possess—he was naked and his body was slippery with grease.

Shoz-Dijiji clung to the pistol wrist of his antagonist, while the other grasped the boy’s forearm in an effort to prevent him from driving his knife home. Rolling over and over the Mexican finally succeeded in getting on top of the Apache. Slowly he forced his weapon toward the boy’s head.

Shoz-Dijiji, struggling but making no outcry, thought that his hour had struck; yet he did not relax his efforts, rather he redoubled them to wrench free his knife hand. He saw the finger of the Mexican pressing upon the trigger of the six-shooter as the muzzle of the weapon drew gradually in line with his forehead; then he gave a final terrific tug at the arm of his enemy just as the latter fired.

The report deafened Shoz-Dijiji, the powder burned his brow; but at the same instant he wrenched his wrist free from the slipping clutch of the Mexican and drove his blade home between the other’s shoulders. The man uttered a hoarse scream and fired again; but the shock and the pain of the wound rendered this shot but the result of the spasmodic clutching of his fingers and the bullet went into the ground beside Shoz-Dijiji’s head.

Again and again the quick knife of the Be-don-ko-he was plunged home. The body of the Mexican writhed, his agonized eyes glared down from his contorted face upon the savage beneath him, he struggled once again to level his weapon and then he slumped forward upon Shoz-Dijiji.

The youth wriggled from beneath the dead body of his adversary, leaped to his feet and looked about him. The battle was over; its grim aftermath was being enacted. A few of the Mexicans, less fortunate than their companions, still lived. Upon these Geronimo, Juh and their fellows wrought hideously. Gripped, seemingly, by a cold, calculating frenzy of ferocity, that in another day and among a more enlightened race would have passed for religious zeal, they inflicted unspeakable torture upon the dying and nameless indignities upon the dead that would have filled with envy the high minded Christian inquisitors of the sixteenth century.

Shoz-Dijiji searching for loot upon the dead was conscious of the orgy of blood about him, but if it aroused any marked emotion within him his face did not reflect it. As he removed a cartridge belt from a Mexican the man moved and opened his eyes. The Apache shoved the sharpened quartz of his lance thrdugh the man’s heart and resumed his search for plunder. He did not torture; he did not mutilate; but he was not deterred therefrom through any sense of compassion. He felt none. These were the enemies of his people.

They would have slain him had they had the opportunity. It was only fear or caution that prevented them and their kind from hunting down him and his kind and exterminating them; and it was through torture and mutilation that the Apache kept green in the hearts of his enemies both fear and caution. To most of them it was merely a well-reasoned component of their science of war, which is, after all, but saying that it was a part of their religion. To Geronimo it was something more.

The War Chief - Contents    |     Chapter VI - The Oath of Geronimo

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