Exhausted, half-starved, the troopers rode at last into a cattle ranch near Nacozari; where, after turning the stock over to a dozen cowboys, they were asleep almost before they could satisfy the pangs of hunger.
Twenty miles behind them, their deep chests rising and falling unhurriedly, trotted the twenty upon their trail. There were old men among them and youths yet unmatured, but nowhere was there sign of fatigue, though for three days and nights they had hung doggedly to the trail of mounted men, gaining in the last day almost all the distance they had lost while the horses of the Mexicans were fresh.
Just before dark they halted within sight of the ranch and from vantage points of concealment saw their herd grazing under the watchful eyes of the dozen vaqueros. Quenching their thirst in the nauseous, sun-heated contents of their septic water bottles, allaying their hunger with bits of dried meat, tough as leather and stinking to heaven, they waited. They were not resting, they were merely waiting.
Mighty men were these, as nearly immune to fatigue as human flesh may ever be, or ever has been. Some there were among them, however, who, feeling perhaps a hint of rebellion upon the part of overdriven muscles, cut switches from ready mesquite and lashed recalcitrant legs until they bled, scarifying them to renewed life and vitality.
Shoz-Dijiji was not of these. He had not tired. Prone behind a little bush, chewing upon a bit of strength-giving carrion, his sober, unchanging eyes bored through the dusk down to the unsuspecting vaqueros and the herd. They held mostly upon a browsing pinto, Nejeunee, friend, as his name implied, pal, comrade, prized possession of this son of Geronimo. Shoz-Dijiji owned two other ponies. They, too, were there; but they were not to him as was Nejeunee.
The youth chafed to move forward to the battle. He glanced behind him in the direction of Geronimo who would give the signal for advance and attack. He saw that the old chief and the other warriors had removed their shirts and cotton drawers. They were stripped now to moccasins, G-strings, head handkerchiefs, and they were greasing their bodies and painting their faces. Shoz-Dijiji thrilled. The war paint—Ah! how it had always filled his brain with fire and his breast with savage emotions that he could not fathom, that he could only feel as they raised him to an exaltation, to a fanaticism of the spirit such as the old crusaders must have felt as they donned their armor to set their lances against the infidels. Deep within him smouldered the savage fires of his Caledonian ancestry that made him one with the grim crusaders of the past and with the naked descendants of the Athapascans preparing for battle.
The hearts of the crusaders were upheld by the holiness of their cause; the soldiers of the Sultan Saladin died defending Allah and the right; Usen looked down upon the Be-don-ko-he and was pleased. Who may judge where the right lay?
Geronimo sent a warrior to relieve Shoz-Dijiji that he might strip and prepare for battle. Dusk deepened into a moonless night canopied by a star-shot heaven so clear and close that the stars seemed friends that one might reach out and touch. The Apaches, lovers of Nature, sensed beauties that many a dull frontier clod of the usurping superior race lacked the soul to see. Even on the verge of battle they felt and acknowledged the wonders and beauties of the night, casting hoddentin to the heavens and the winds as they prayed to their amulets and consulted their phylacterics.
The time had come. The war chief had issued his orders. Each brave knew his position and his duties. One by one they crept from the concealment of the mesquite thicket behind which they had made their preparations. Below them and up wind was the herd. No bush was too small to offer them concealment as they crept down toward the enemy.
Half the band was to circle to the opposite side of the herd, which, being composed principally of Indian stock, would not be excited by the scent of Indians. Geronimo went with this detachment. At his signal the Apaches would attack simultaneously upon all sides. Certain braves were to be the first to seize mounts and attempt to drive off the balance of the stock. Shoz-Dijiji was one of those chosen for this duty. He would rather have remained and fought, but the word of the war chief was law to Shoz-Dijiji.
Following the braves with Geronimo, the youth, belly to the ground, crept stealthily to the rear of the herd, giving the vaqueros a wide berth. The warriors, increasing their distances, spread out until a thin line entirely surrounded the Mexicans and their charges; then they closed in. The Apaches worked with almost the precision of trained troops but without word of command.
Geronimo saw a vaquero a few yards in front of him turn in his saddle and peer intently at the shrub behind which the war chief lay. For a long moment the Mexican watched intently; then, apparently satisfied, he looked in another direction. Geronimo took deliberate aim and pressed the trigger of his Springfield. There was a flash and roar. The Mexican fell forward upon his horse’s neck.
Simultaneously the quiet of the night was blasted by a bedlam of hideous war whoops. From all sides, from all directions they fell upon the ears of the vaqueros. There was the cracking of rifles and the shouts and curses of men. Shoz-Dijiji, Gian-nah-tah and another rushed into the midst of the herd. The Black Bear whistled shrilly and Nejeunee, at a distance, half-frightened by the noise and confusion, about ready to break for liberty and safety, heard. Halting, he turned with up-pricked ears and looked back in the direction of the familiar sound. Again the youth whistled and there was an answering nicker from the stallion.
Arrows and lances and bullets flew thickly through the air. Only the fast movement of the participants, and the darkness, held down the casualties. The Mexicans, separated, surprised, outnumbered, readily assumed the attacking force much greater than it was, yet strove valiantly to protect the herd and hold it from stampede. The Apaches, profiting by the darkness, advantaging by the shrewd strategy of Geronimo, carried through their well-planned attack with whirlwind rapidity.
Shouldering through the frightened herd, Nejeunee galloped to his master. A vaquero, catching sight of the youth, wheeled his mount and bore down upon him. Shoz-Dijiji hurled his lance and missed as the other fired point-blank at him from a distance so close that the next stride of his horse brought him abreast the youthful brave. The powder from the six-shooter of his assailant burned Shoz-Dijiji’s cheek as the bullet whizzed by his ear, and at the same instant the Apache leaped for the vaquero, caught his arm, and swung to the horse’s rump behind the saddle of the Mexican.
The frightened horse leaped forward as its rider, dropping the reins the better to defend himself, sought to rid himself of the savage Nemesis upon his back. At their side raced Nejeunee, harking to the low words of Shoz-Dijiji urging him on. About the neck of the Mexican went a sinewy left arm, a well-greased, muscular, copper-colored arm, as the Apache’s right hand drew a hunting knife from its sheath.
As they flashed by them Geronimo and two other warriors saw and voiced their applause of the Black Bear in savage whoops of approbation. His black hair flying from beneath his head band, his muscles tensed to the exigencies of mortal combat, his black eyes flashing fierce hatred, Shoz-Dijiji with a forearm beneath his adversary’s chin had forced back the latter’s head until now they rode cheek to cheek while the knife of the Apache hovered above the back-stretched throat of the Mexican. For but an instant it hovered. Seeing, the terrified vaquero voiced a single shriek which ended in a bloody gurgle as the keen blade cut deep from ear to ear.
Slipping from the horse’s rump clear of the falling corpse, Shoz-Dijiji leaped to Nejeunee’s back and, bridleless, guided him in a circle that rounded the rear of the herd, where, whooping, yelling, he commenced the task of turning it toward the north, assisted by Gian-nah-tah and the warrior who had been detailed for this duty. One by one the other warriors of the party caught mounts from the milling, frightened herd—in itself a highly arduous and dangerous undertaking amid the flying heels and bared teeth of the half wild, wholly frightened animals—as the remaining vaqueros, believing themselves attacked by the full strength of the six Apache tribes raced for the camp of the soldiers. Of the twelve two were dead, and one, his horse shot from beneath him, rode behind a comrade.
Awakened by the shots and the war whoops the sleepy soldiers were stumbling to arms under the oaths and urgings of their officers as the ten vaqueros galloped into camp with as many excited versions of the attack and the battle as there were survivors. The commanding officer listened, asked questions, swore luridly when he discovered that not only all the stock that he had won from the Apaches in the face of torture, death and unspeakable hardship had been run off by the renegades, but all the horses of his command, as well as those belonging to the ranch, with the exception of the nine that had come back from the scene of battle.
Bad as this was it did not constitute his greatest concern, for if the Indians numbered but a fraction of what the vaqueros reported, their force was sufficient to wipe out his entire command; and it was not at all unlikely that, after starting the herd at a safe distance on the way toward Arizona, they would return in force and attack his camp. Thoughts of defense, therefore, were paramount to plans of pursuit, and the officer set about placing a strong guard about his position.
But no attack materialized. The Apaches did not reappear. They were far away upon the northern trail, urging their ponies to greater speed as they drove the captured herd ahead all during the long night. In their rear rode Geronimo, Shoz-Dijiji and another warrior to guard against a surprise attack by pursuers. Stopping often to watch and listen they fell far behind.
“Shoz-Dijiji did well,” said Geronimo. “You are young, but already you have three battles to your credit—a fourth and the council of warriors can accept you. Geronimo is proud. He laughed when he saw you cut the throat of the Mexican. That was well done. Kill them, Shoz-Dijiji, kill them—always.”
“But Geronimo does not always kill them,” said the youth. “Sometimes Geronimo goes among them to trade, and laughs and jokes with them.”
The war chief grunted. “That,” said he, “is the wisdom of an old chief. Go among them and trade and laugh and make jokes so that when you come the next day to cut their throats they will not be prepared to resist you.”
A simple, kindly soul was the old chief when compared with the diplomats of civilization who seek by insidious and false propaganda to break down the defenses of whole nations that they may fall easier prey to the attacks of their enemies. Yet ever will the name of Geronimo be held up to a horrified world as the personification of cruelty and treachery, though during his entire life fewer men died at the hands of the six tribes of the Apaches than fell in a single day of many an offensive movement during a recent war between cultured nations.
This was the first time that Shoz-Dijiji had been permitted to enter into conversation since the war party had left in pursuit of the Mexicans and so, while far from garrulous, he made the most of it, as he never tired of listening to the too infrequent tales of his sire, and tonight, as they rode side by side, he felt that Geronimo was in good humor and ripe for narrative.
“Shoz-Dijiji knows why Geronimo hates the Mexicans,” said the youth, “and Shoz-Dijiji hates them, too—also, he hates the pindah lickoyee. But before the Mexicans murdered the mother of Geronimo and his wife and children, and the soldiers of the white-yes slew the Apaches they had invited to have food with them, and before Mangas Colorado was treacherously murdered, did the Apaches have reason to hate the Mexicans and the white-eyes?”
“Many years ago,” commenced Geronimo, “when Go-yat-thlay was yet a youth, El Gobernador del Chihuahua put a price upon the scalps of Apaches, just as the pindah lickoyee do upon the scalps of wolves. For each Apache scalp brought to him he offered to pay thirty dollars, nor was this for the scalps of warriors only, but included the scalps of women and children. They treated us even then you see, not like men but like wild beasts. But even this offer, large as it was, did not bring him many scalps of Apaches, for few there are who will hunt scalps who have scalps to lose and always, then as now, the name of the Apache turned the hearts of his enemies to water.
“But there was a pindah lickoyee called Gal-lan-tin whose heart was very bad. He was chief of a band of white-eyes so wicked that everyone feared them. This Gal-lan-tin determined to become rich by killing Apaches and taking their scalps to El Gobernador; but collecting the scalps of Apaches is not either a safe or easy pastime.
“We drove Gal-lan-tin and his band from our country, but later we learned that he was collecting much money for ‘Apache’ scalps. Then we heard that we had been raiding the villages of the Papago, the Opatah and the Yaqui, killing many, and that we had entered Mexico upon the war trail and killed many Mexicans. All this time we had been in our own country, not having made a raid into Mexico, or upon any other Indian tribes. We were not at war. We were at peace.
“After a while Gal-lan-tin and his band were caught by Mexican troops in the act of scalping some Mexicans they had killed, and then everyone knew, what the Apaches had known for a long time, that it was Gal-lan-tin who had killed the Papagos, the Opatahs, the Yaquis and the Mexicans; and we laughed in our blankets when we thought of El Gobernador del Chihuahua paying out good silver for the scalps of his neighbors and his friends.
“Thus, by accident, was the truth learned in this case; but there were many other murders committed by white-eyes and Mexicans that were blamed upon the Apaches. That is the way of the pindah lickoyee. They are fools. They find a dead man and they say he was killed by Apaches. The Apaches find a dead man and they can read all about him the story of his death. They do not have to guess. Not so the pindah lickoyee.”
“What became of Gal-lan-tin?” inquired Shoz-Dijiji.
“He escaped from the Mexican soldiers and brought his band to New Mexico. There they bought some sheep and stole more than nab-kee-go-nay-nan-too-ooh, making in all some twenty-five hundred head, and with these they started for the country which the pindah lickoyee call California.
“On the shores of a great river which separates that country from ours the Yuma Indians fell upon them and killed them all. The Apaches were sorry that it had not fallen to their lot to kill Gal-lan-tin and his band, for they had many sheep.”
Shortly after daylight the Apaches camped while Geronimo, Shoz-Dijiji and one other watched the trail behind. The Indians made no fire lest pursuers might be attracted by the smoke. A few held the herd in a grassy canyon while the others slept. Far to the south of them Geronimo and the warrior dozed in the shade of a stunted cedar on a hillside while Shoz-Dijiji watched with untiring eyes the rearward trail.
Having eaten, Shoz-Dijiji quenched his thirst from his water bottle, drawing the liquid into his mouth through his drinking reed, a bit of cane, attached to his scanty apparel by a length of buckskin, for no water might touch his lips during his four novitiate excursions upon the war trail, Treasured therefore was his sacred drinking reed without which he must choose between death by thirst and the loss of credit for all that he had performed upon the war trail, together with the attendant ridicule of the tribe.
Only slightly less esteemed was another treasure dangling from a second buckskin thong—a bit of cedar three inches in length and less than half an inch in width. This was his scratch stick, an article that he found constant use for, since he might not scratch himself with his fingers during this holy period of initiation into the rites and mysteries of the sacred war trail. These two necessary adjuncts to the successful consummation of his ambition he had fashioned in the high places under the eyes of Usen; he had sanctified them with prayer and the sacrificial offering of hoddentin and he had brought them to Nakay-do-klunni, the great izze nantan, to be blessed, and so he set great store by them, but he was glad that soon he would not have to carry them upon the war trail.
With one more test of his fitness, which might come this very day or the next, he would be ready to go before the council prepared to lay away forever the last vestiges of his youth; and so he strained his eyes in an effort to discover the first signs of pursuit which might afford him the opportunity he craved.
A warrior! The young blood surged hot and savage in his veins, conjured by that magic word. A warrior! To come and go as he wished, master of his own destiny, answerable to none; his achievements limited only by the measure of his own prowess. He saw himself a great chief-war chief of all the Apaches. And in the vivid picture that imagination projected upon his screen of dreams the same figures, the same scenes recurred interminably; the war trail, where he fought the blue-clad soldiers of the pindah lickoyee side by side with his best friend, Gian-nah-tah; the council, with the sinister figure of Juh thwarted, confounded at every turn and finally locked with Shoz-Dijiji in a duel to death; the camp, where in his own tepee he rested after the war trail and the chase in the arms of Ish-kay-nay.
Geronimo awoke and relieving the youth told him to sleep. The day wore on, the three relieving one another in turn. Shoz-Dijiji had led the three horses to a tiny spring to water them and to fill the water bottles of his companions and his own. Geronimo was watching—back toward the south.
Throw yourself prone beside this savage sentinel and follow his gaze along the back trail. Your eyes just top the summit of a ridge which hides your body from an enemy approaching from the south. A small bush, from which you have broken a few branches that you may have an unobstructed field of vision, masks that portion of your head that rises above the ridge. An enemy might approach you up the southern slope of the ridge to within a few feet of the concealing bush and not detect your presence.
Just below, to the south, is a tiny meadow, its grasses sere and yellow; for the rains passed months ago. Beneath a single tree at the upper end of the meadow is a mud hole where Shoz-Dijiji, having filled the water bottles, is letting the ponies drink. Farther on the canyon widens where it debouches on a rolling plain that stretches on and on to hazy mountains in the south. There are mountains to the west, too; and close at hand, in the east, rise the more imposing Sierra Madre.
The plain shimmers in the heat that is still intense, though the sun is low. The sage and the greasewood point long, shadowy fingers toward the Mother of Mountains. Nowhere in all that vast expanse that your eye can see is there a sign of life. You might he looking upon a dead world or a painted canvas. The slow lengthening of the shadows is imperceptible. You see nothing that might even remotely suggest life, beyond the solitary brave watering the ponies below you; but that is because the asthenia of civilization has left you half blind as well as half deaf, for where you see nothing and hear nothing Geronimo is conscious of life, movement and sound—of rodents, reptiles and birds awaiting, quiescent, the lessening heat of dusk.
Of these things he is merely conscious, his attention being centered upon some tiny specks moving in the haze of the distant horizon. These you could not see if they were pointed out, much less recognize; but Geronimo has been watching them for some time. He has recognized them, counted them. He half turned toward his companion who was freshening the paint upon his face.
“The vaqueros are coming after their ponies,” he said. “There are nine of them.”
The other crawled to his side and looked. “They will camp here tonight,” he said. “It is the first water.”
Geronimo nodded and grunted some brief instructions. The warrior made his way leisurely down to the water hole, which Shoz-Dijiji had now left. Arrived at his destination he proceeded to carry out the instructions of his chief, muddying the water hole and then befouling it beyond use by man or beast. Disgusting? Hideous? Cruel? Do not forget that he was on the war trail. Do not forget that he was only a savage, primitive Apache Indian. Make allowances for him. Had he had the cultural advantages of the gorgeous generals of civilization he might have found the means to unloose a poison gas that wouid have destroyed half the population of Sonora.
For two hours the three Be-don-ko-es watched the approaching Mexicans. Then Geronimo told the warrior to take three ponies and go northward along the trail of the herd for a mile or two, awaiting there the coming of him and Shoz-Dijiji.
It was nine o’clock before the nine vaqueros, tired, hot, dusty, thirsty, threw themselves from their saddles in the little meadow and sought the water hole. Presently there arose upon the still night air lurid profanity. Above, looking down upon the starlit scene, the two watchers grinned while the vaqueros held council. Should they press on or should they remain here in a dry camp for the night?
Their horses were jaded. It was ten miles to the next water; but most serious of all, they might overtake the Apaches in the dark defiles of the mountains, and they did not want the Apaches to know that they were following until they found a place where they might strike with greater likelihood of success. To be discovered by the enemy now, at night, would be to court extermination. They decided to remain where they were until dawn, and so they left one man on guard while the others slept. Just above them lay the war chief of all the Apaches with his son, Shoz-Dijiji, watching their every move.
An hour passed. The tethered horses of the Mexicans, jaded, stood with drooping heads. The camp slept, even to the single sentry. He was but a youth—a very tired youth—who had fought manfully against sleep until it had become torture. Then he had succumbed.
Geronimo whispered to Shoz-Dijiji and the young brave slipped silently over the summit of the ridge and wormed his way down toward the sleeping bivouac. With the caution of a panther moving upon its prey he crept. No loosened stone, no complaining twig, no rustling grasses bespoke his passing. The shadow of a floating cloud had been as audible. Above him, his Springfield cocked and ready, Geronimo covered the youth’s advance, but there was no need.
Shoz-Dijiji went quietly to the horses, calming them with soothing, whispered words. Quickly he cut both ends of the picket line to which they were tethered, and grasping one loose end in his hand moved slowly up the canyon, the horses following him. Half a mile from the camp Geronimo joined him. Behind them the vaqueros slept on undisturbed, their lives preserved by the grim humor of the Apache war chief.
Geronimo was pleased. He derived immense satisfaction by picturing the astonishment and chagrin of the Mexicans when they awoke in the morning and found themselves afoot many weary, waterless miles from the nearest rancho. He visualized their surprise when they realized that Apaches had been in their camp while they slept; and he guessed that they would not loiter on the trail toward the south, for he justly appraised, and gloried in, the fear that that name aroused in the hearts of his enemies.
Presently Geronimo voiced the call of the owl and faintly from afar he heard it answered ahead of them, and knew that their companion was awaiting there with their ponies.
At noon the next day they overtook their fellows and turned the newly captured stock in with the balance of the herd. With great gusto they recounted their exploit. That is, Geronimo and the warrior did. The ban of silence kept Shoz-Dijiji’s tongue still in his head, but it did not prevent him strutting just ever so little.