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(This is one of the adventures which may be included in the next Lone Star Sons volume. I am intending this to be released in time for Christmas. If the plot seems somewhat familiar, it is because I have lifted one element – the US Army going rogue and joining an Indian tribe –  from the book and movie Dances With Wolves. From a historical perspective, that seemed to be almost too late in history for that development to be entirely convincing. But an officer leading an exploring party in the Southwest some fifteen years earlier? That seemed to me to be much more workable, as a plot.)

 

Part 4 – Into the Wild

 

“Camels!” Ned Beale exclaimed in delight, when he showed Jim and Toby their means of transport at least as far as the fabled canyon of the Colorado in the vast New Mexico Territory. Beale was a little younger than Jim, a lively and gangly young Yankee with a high sloping forehead which merged into a magnificently beaky nose adorned at the lower margin with an equally magnificent and bushy mustache. His Navy rank on a strength report was a relatively lowly one – but his functioning level appeared to be much higher, due to friends in high places and to his recent daring exploits in crossing the continent several times on his own, armored with nothing but a spirit of his own recklessness. With a certain sinking of heart, Jim realized that here was another enthusiast with an insatiable appetite for adventure, for experiences and arcane knowledge. Not that there was anything amiss with such qualities, in moderation – but individuals possessing an excess of them were apt to go haring off in unexpected and usually dangerous tangents. “Ain’t they a marvel? And what better use for traversing the vast deserts than creatures ideally suited to it! They carry burdens which would buckle the knees of half a dozen mules, without complaint, go for days without food and water …”

“They look like a horse designed by a government committee, smell like Satan’s own privy, and frighten the daylights out of all the horses, mules and oxen around,” Jim replied, refusing to be moved by Ned’s enthusiasm.

“But you see, Jim – I may call you Jim, may I? And you should call me Ned, of course. They are perfectly designed by nature for the harsh climes of this new territory! What better use can we make of them… I am charged to explore the natural route to California from Texas and to see how the camels perform …Hey, Walid Ali – what do you think of their fitness for six months in crossing the southern deserts?”

“A desert – like any other, sire,” replied one of the beasts’ hired handlers, a wiry sun-burned man, who wouldn’t have appeared out of place in a Ranger company, save that his head was wrapped in a turban of fine green cloth. He spoke English fluently enough, although with a strange accent. The other handler looked off into the distance; he was an older man with a thick grey-streaked beard, who never spoke, but was usually to be found somewhere about the camel corral.

“Nonetheless, I am not riding on one of those critters,” Jim announced, flatly. “I’ll stick to the evil I know, rather than fly to that which I know nothing of.”

“You have no sense of adventure, Jim,” Ned laughed in delight. “I tell you, it’s a delightful experience – rather like rocking along in a row-boat on a mild swell … certain I cannot convince you to try it out? We’ll be away tomorrow at first light now that you are here and ready for traveling.” Ned hesitated, and then blurted, “I’m not really sure of why your fellows are detailed to join us. A Texas ranger, and a Delaware Indian, with a wet-behind-the-ears ensign and an old soldier like Owen; you must know that my fellows will be curious, having such an odd collection added on to our party at the last minute. We were supposed to test the camels, map out a good alternate road, and hurry along to California… you know, they have found gold there – and in amazing quantities, just this last autumn – and I know about secrecy and the security of missions and all that. I won’t ask your purpose in this, but the fellows will wonder. A word to the wise, Jim – have some convincing story to tell in answer to questions. For they will ask them, you know. Around the campfire of an evening.”

“Certainly,” Jim replied. “Should anyone ask of you – tell them that we are to recover certain records and items left in a cache on the banks of the Colorado, after the failure of the O’Neill expedition. The party was sent out at great expense, and following upon the disaster which cost the lives of so many – those records were left concealed for later recovery. Sergeant Owen is our guide in this, as he was one of that party, and Mr. Shaw serves as translator, should we encounter any of the local natives.”

Ned Beale nodded, comprehending. “Yes, that is a yarn which will convince. Although there will be embroideries upon it, trust me on that, Jim.”

Jim felt a sudden conviction that Ned was far cleverer and more diplomatic than he had let on. Best to change the subject, then. “Gold in California, you say? I had read of it, but thought it was only stories in the sensational press.”

“No,” Ned shook his head. “Tis all true about the gold. I brought the samples east myself, not three months ago. It is real and an amazingly rich find – so rich that every fortune-hunter in these States – and even farther afield – will be heading California-ward. No, strike that; Captain Reade, I am assured they will be heading to California even as we set out.”

“As long as they do not interfere with our mission,” Jim insisted, and Ned Beale laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “Nor mine as well. I tell you, Jim – I do not hunger for riches, myself. Knowledge, experiences, the sight of new horizons… all that is worth more to me than any quantity of gold. Still, ‘tis curious. The Spanish came to this place, this new world, avid for gold. And found it, now and again in rich mines and taken from the native tribes in Mexico and Peru. But they never found it here, no matter how their conquistadores searched for the Seven Golden Cities, for Quivera, the greatest of them all. It is a curious coincidence that once their hold on these places in the northern continent was shattered … that a man building a humble saw-mill should find gold, gold in such quantities to beggar the imagination.”

“An irony, indeed.” Jim replied. Another thought occurred, as he and Ned watched the camels in their enclosure, walking to and fro with their particular swaying stride. “Ned, what do you think? What do you know of our Sergeant Owen? Is he a man to be trusted?”

“I honestly do not know,” Ned replied after a moment of considering silence. “I have heard nothing disparaging to his character. But he is an enlisted man, not an officer. Two worlds, Jim – to us of the profession of arms. I would trust him with my life and the lives of my men, based on his repute. But I do not know him, having never served with him, not as you have with Mr. Shaw.” He added, with a smile, “I do not know you, either, save that Colonel Hays, whose reputation as a commander of irregular soldiers is a byword – has vouched for you to the satisfaction of my own commander – and to my own.”

“Thank you, Ned,” Jim replied. “We’ll be ready in the morning. Mr. Shaw and I are accustomed to travel light and fast – although I cannot speak for our Army contingent.”

“They’d better be ready as well,” Ned chuckled. “Or they will be playing catch-up all the day.”

“We’ll be ready,” Jim said, and strolled away to the ramshackle and rambling quarters – a crude-built dog-trot cabin of logs, from which most of the chinking had already fallen, which the commander at Camp Verde felt to be all the hospitality necessary for visitors, important or not. Toby was already sitting outside of it, cross-legged in Indian fashion, contemplating the fading sunset, a blaze of red, purple and gold on the western horizon.

“We’re away in the morning,” Jim said, softly. There was a rough bench sitting on the bit of turf outside the cabin. He sank into it. He and Lt. Barnes were bunked for the night in one part of the cabin, Sergeant Owen and Toby in the other – although Toby, as was his usual habit, had taken his bedroll and spread it out underneath a generously sheltering oak nearby.

“We’re away at sunrise,” Jim told him, “Camels and all,” and Toby nodded.

“As I expected.”  He returned to his contemplation of the sunset. Very little surprised Toby. “James, do you think that we will find the missing Captain O’Neill? And that if we do – will he want to return?”

“Of course, we will find him,” Jim replied. “We’re Jack Hays’ finest stiletto-men. And he will wish to return – he is a white man, a soldier. Duty requires it. Why would he not?”

“I have been talking a little with young Barnes,” Toby replied. “He said that Captain O’Neill had a … fondness as a cadet for the tales of Fenimore Cooper, and a great interest in relics and weapons of my people, and those Others. Barnes says that he used to laugh at himself – saying that he was meant to be a wild Indian or an Arab corsair, but by mistake his soul was wrapped in the flesh and bones of a Christian. It struck young Barnes as curious, which is why young he remembered. If such is the case, your Captain may not wish to return, and what would we say to convince him?”

“I don’t know,” Jim replied. Yes, this was another dimension. “We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it, I guess.” And yet another random thought occurred to him; his own instinctive dislike of Sergeant Owen. “Toby, do you remember that treacherous Englishman, Vibart-Jones – the one involved in the Wilkinson letters, and the matter of the Spanish treasure at San Saba? I am given to wonder if he has turned up again, in disguise. The man was an actor, after all. And at a squint, Sergeant Owen looks enough like him, and the age is right…”

“No, James,” Toby shook his head, very definitely. “They are not the same man, even though there is a likeness.”

“How can you be so certain?” Jim was diverted, but not convinced. Toby considered gravely, before replying. “Two things, James; things which no man can disguise through art or effort for very long. First, the lobes of Sergeant Owen’s ears are not attached to his head, but droop, separately, to the width of my thumb. Vibart the English spy – the lobes of his ears were narrow and attached. And have you not noticed how a man favors one hand over the other, for holding a pistol, a knife, a pen? Vibart the English spy favored his left hand. You and I, and Sergeant Owen, all favor our right hand. Sergeant Owen is not Vibart. He is who he claims to be, a soldier of long service in many lands. I would say we can trust him with our lives. Perhaps not with the good name and virtue of our sisters, though.” Toby added, with a grin.

 

In the cool of a dew-spangled morning, Ned Beale’s exploring party set off; twenty men and a dozen camels, most laden with half-a wagon load of gear, and led on a string by Walid Ali and his assistant, the mute Hassim.  Jim could not find the proper words to express how very strange and alien they looked – the long necks and longer legs, the oddly-humped bodies piled high with gear and supplies, plodding relentlessly along the track from Camp Verde to the north-west.

“They say that every one of them can carry more than four pack mules,” Young Joe Barnes observed in admiration, and Jim replied, “And smell worse than four pack mules, too. He had already agreed with Ned Beale that he, Toby and the others in their party would ride upwind of the camels on the trail, and picket their horses apart from them at night, although Ned assured him that their horses would eventually become accustomed to the odor and behavior of the beasts. Jim doubted that, profoundly; his own horse – normally a steady-tempered brown gelding turned jittery and restless whenever within sight and smell of the camels, his eyes showing white all the way around. The one pack mule that he and Toby shared was even more reluctant to associate with the camels. He could only hope that any curious Comanche with a taste for stealing exotic stock would be just as unsettled – and their own horses even more so.

Still, the first part of the journey was a relatively pleasant one; folk came out from their houses and fields, just to watch the camels amble past, and to cheer the Federal soldiers in their neat blue uniforms. At long last, perhaps there would be a relief from the dangers of Comanche war parties, striking deep into settled territory! They were invited to settle for the night in pleasant pastures, and more came to marvel at the gangling camels, and to offer hospitality, food, and drink to the soldiers – which was much appreciated. At one camping-place, an obliging Walid Ali clipped a fine harvest of hair from the camels, presenting the women of the locality with better than a bushel of coarse stuff, which they carried away in triumph, saying that they were going to spin it into yarn and knit stockings from it.

What Jim also appreciated – especially when it rained, or an unseasonable spring norther blew – was that among the burdens carried by the camels were several commodious canvas tents. They lived in some comfort, for the soldiers were most practiced at setting up the tents of an evening, and the baggage also included numerous items of folding camp furniture. One soldier in particular proved to be a most accomplished cook, for which all were grateful.

“He was detailed for that skill, let me assure you,” Ned Beale asserted. “French creole from New Orleans, prolly got a drop of the African in him, but he looks white enough, and so I don’t enquire too close. Best not, when someone is cooking the food you eat. Tastes prime, though – doesn’t it?”

“Best Army meal I’ve ever eaten,” Jim acknowledged – for it was. Corporal Fournier was indeed a masterful cook, commander of the cook-fire, the array of skillets and iron ovens deployed over them, the Army rations seasoned with spices and additions conjured up from his own private stores. Even the corporal’s corn-dodgers were amazing.

Even better, of an evening after a supper provided by the expert corporal were the yarns told around the fire, for the party proved to have some excellent spinners of same around them. Ned Beale, as a raconteur, ordinarily would have been a champion among them, but his stories of California and the fabled gold mines paled next to those told by Sergeant Owen, and most unexpectedly – by Walid Ali. The sergeant had an inexhaustible fund of stories, of his service in India for the British crown and the India Company; accounts of intrigue and spectacle, of Indian princes and princesses, clad in silks and jewels of incredible richness, of deeds of derring-do – most of which Sergeant Owen modestly averred had been those performed by other men, and of which he had only heard second-hand. Walid Ali also had stories; fantastical stories of the middle east, in which names of towns known in the Bible featured heavily; Damascus, Jerusalem, Babylon, and Antioch. Such enthralled the party, every evening, even the mute Hassim, who did not speak but apparently could understand English.

“Poor fellow,” Ned explained early on. “He’s from Baku on the Caspian Sea, so I was told – I’d guess that he is mostly Russian, or Crim Tatar. They say that the local Bey’s men cut out his tongue as a punishment for something or other. But he’s a hard worker, and does what we tell him. God knows, he could have finished up in worse conditions.”

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