With Lieutenant Pike - Edwin Sabin

The Fort in the Wilderness

Across the Great White Mountains at last!

That had proved to be not such a hard trip, after all, although uncomfortable on account of the snow. First, the meat from the other buffalo (three) had been brought into camp—had been sliced and the strips hung on frames, to dry. There was a great quantity of it; more than could be carried on foot. So Hugh Menaugh, whose frozen feet still crippled him badly, was left to guard the extra amount, at this supply depot; and, loaded well, the twelve others marched on.

The lieutenant and the doctor led into the mountains. Now was the time to cross while the men had meat and felt strong. In spite of the snow three feet deep they made fourteen miles, following the low places; and at evening they were over—they had come upon a stream flowing west! It surely was a feeder of the Red River!

Again they all cheered. But if they were over, they were not yet through, for ahead they could see only the same bald or timbered swells and ridges, snow-covered and still without end.

Near noon, the next day, the lieutenant and the doctor, in the advance as usual, turned and gladly beckoned, and pointed before. They all hastened. The signs were good—the brush had been flattened or cut off, down a long draw, and the trees had been blazed and curiously painted with rude figures. It was an Indian pass.

The lieutenant and the doctor had gone on. When the others arrived at the spot, they saw. "We're coming out, boys!"

"We'll be out before night!"

A separate, distant range of mountains might be sighted, through the gap made by the blazed trail; and below, nearer, there was glimpse of the low country, bordered on this side by bare sandy foothills of these Great White Mountains themselves.

At sunset they were down and into the open, between the timbered slopes and the rolling sand-hills. On the west, beyond the sand-hills there appeared to be a wide valley; and beyond the valley that other range of mountains.

Camp had to be made soon, here at the base of the Great White Mountains. The lieutenant went out alone, to climb the sand-hills, for a view. They could see him, a small figure, toiling up and standing, to peer through his spy-glass. He came back in the dusk, but his face was aglow.

"I have good news," he announced. "We have won success. With the glass I can see from those sand-hills a larger river coursing from northwest to southeast through the valley beyond. There can be no doubt that it is the Red River."

They cheered and cheered, and ate with fine appetites. It was a happy night. As Sergeant Meek said:

"Once there—and 'twon't be long—we can send back for Menaugh, and poor Sparks and Dougherty, and Baroney and Smith and the hosses; and we'll all be together again, ready for the march home."

The sand-hills were five miles wide, and looked to be about fifteen miles long. The river came down obliquely through the valley—which was indeed a broad bottom of prairie-land; so they cut across at an angle, and not until the second evening, after a day's march of twenty-four miles, did they reach the bank of the river itself, January 30.

It certainly was the Red River, issuing from the western mountains, and here turning more southwardly, in the middle of the valley.

The valley was a wonderland. It lay fiat, with little snow, full fifty miles wide and in length almost farther than eye might say. The mountains in the west were bald, snowy and grim. The Great White Mountains on the east appeared to end opposite in a huge, dazzling peak with three crests, but a lower range veered in, narrowing the valley in the south Afar in the north, the valley was closed completely.

The bottoms were dotted with herds of deer, browsing on the thick dried grasses. Many smaller streams joined the big river.

"Aye, 'tis a hunters' paradise, this," sighed Freegift Stout. "We're in a land o' plenty. We can send back word that'll gladden the hearts of the boys behind."

The lieutenant had decided to make a fortified camp, so as to have protection from the Indians and perhaps from the Spanish while the men behind were being sent for and boats were being built. He intended to descend the Red River by boat and horse, both.

There was no timber at this spot. Some appeared lower along the river. They marched for it—eighteen miles. The larger trees were across the river; therefore the lieutenant led across, also, by way of the ice and several islands. Then they came to another river, that looked like a fork, entering from the west. About five miles from its mouth the lieutenant found a good place. The fort should be here.

It was a small piece of level bottom, grown to cottonwood trees on the north side of this west fork. The fork was all open water, about thirty paces wide. Opposite, on the south side, there was a high, partly bare hill, out of gunshot.

The next morning, which was February 1, the lieutenant staked a plan of the fort, on the ground. Axes rang, spades scraped, picks thudded. As soon as the fort was far enough along so that it would stand an attack, a party should be sent back across the Great Snowy Mountains to get the other men and the horses.

"But what I'd like to know, is, what are we loin' on this side the main river?" queried Corporal Jerry, that night.

"To get at the big trees, and because 'tis the proper place for the fort," answered Sergeant Meek.

"Yes, maybe. But bein' as this is the Red River, we're on the Spanish side, ain't we? From all I hear, the Red River's the dividin' line betwixt the United States an' Mexico, an' we're across it into Mexican territory."

"That's not for you or me to say, my boy," Sergeant Meek retorted. "The cap'n has his orders, you can bet, and all we need do is to foller him. But sure, this is a fork, at the headwaters, and we're on the north side the fork. In a bit more we'll be starting on down, like as not keeping safe to our own side again. And meanwhile if the Spanish tackle us here, all the worse for 'em. Not the whole Spanish army could budge us from this fort when it's done. I wouldn't mind having a dust with 'em, for a change from shooting buff'lo and deer."

"You're right. A dust at real fightin' would serve to pass the time, sergeant," the others cried. "Didn't we foller 'em, an' didn't they lead us wrong?"

"Or else we led ourselves wrong, mistaking Injun trail for white man trail. At any rate, here we are; and as soon as the ice breaks—which won't be long—we'll all be marching on, for home."

The fort was to be a strong one. Lieutenant Pike, who took great pride in it, explained the scheme, himself, to Stub.

"Thirty-six feet square, inside, fronting upon the river, where the current is too deep to ford. Bastions (which were small block-houses) at the two rear corners, to cover the walls on three sides. The walls, six feet up, of large cottonwood logs two feet through. Smaller logs to be laid for another six feet. A ditch will be dug all around, inside, and sloped off toward the walls, for pickets to rest in. The pickets will be sharpened and will slant two and one-half feet over the top of the walls, like a fringe, so that nobody can climb in. All around, outside, there will be a deep ditch four feet wide, and filled with water. This is called a moat. We will cut a row of loopholes in the walls, eight feet up; the men will stand upon platforms, to shoot through. Our only entrance will be a hole, about the size of a man's body, low down, on the river side; and to use it, everybody will have to crawl in or out on his stomach, and cross the big ditch by means of a plank. There will be no roof; this is what is called a stockade. But the men doubtless will construct shelters of brush."

"You'll be a soldier yet," the doctor laughed, to Stub, overhearing the explanation.

"Entrenched here we need have no fear of one hundred Spanish troops," the lieutenant remarked. "We could easily stand them off for a day or two; then by a sally at night either disperse them, or make our escape in the darkness, before our supplies were exhausted."

"And Indians?"

"They would be less dangerous, unless they sent word to Santa Fe in the south. We would endeavor to treat with them, which is one of the purposes of the expedition."

Jake Carter and Alex Roy were not able to do much, on account of tender feet. The other men worked hard, building the stockade around the American flag that had been planted on a pole, in the center. The lieutenant and Doctor Robinson hunted and explored. Stub frequently went with them, to help bring in the meat.

Once they discovered a group of springs, at the base of the hill south of the fork and opposite the stockade. These were warm springs, and strangely colored, brown and yellow. Their warm water was what kept the fork open, clear to the main river and for some distance down below the mouth of the fork.

They discovered also a well-traveled trail up along an eastern branch of the main river, not far above the western fork. It was a horse trail. Camps beside it showed that soldiers—probably Spanish—had used it. So the Spanish came in here.

The lieutenant and the doctor talked considerably of Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico. It lay somewhere south. The lieutenant was anxious to know more about it, so as to make report upon it to the United States government. He could not leave the stockade, himself, but the doctor arranged to go.

Evidently this had been the plan for some time. A trader by the name of William Morrison, in the United States, had sent goods there, three years ago, in charge of another man named Baptiste Lalande, to be sold. But Lalande had never come back with the money. Doctor Robinson had agreed with William Morrison to visit Santa Fe, if near there, and collect the money. This would be an excuse for spying around.

At the end of the first week, when the stockade was partially finished, the doctor left for Santa Fe. He set out westward, up the south bank of the fork (which was the wrong direction, although none of them knew it), and promised to return with his report in a week or ten days.

The men were not so certain about this. Sergeant Meek wagged his grizzled head dubiously.

"Not to criticize a superior officer, but strikes me it's a risky move. The doctor's pure grit, all right enough, to head alone through a country full o' Injun sign and Spanish sign to boot, and he's like to run his foot into a wolf trap. For if he gets there, them Spanish will be curious to know where he come from; and what's to prevent their back-trailing him? Oh, well; there's something afoot that we don't understand. Our duty's to obey orders, and if the lieutenant says for us all to go to Santy Fee, go we will. But we'll not go there by any orders o' the Spanish."

This evening Corporal Jerry Jackson was started out, to get John Sparks and Tom Dougherty, if he could, and also Hugh Menaugh, on the other side of the mountains. He took with him Freegift Stout, William Gordon, John Brown and John Mountjoy.

That left in the stockade only the lieutenant, Sergeant Meek, Terry Miller, Jake Carter and Alex Roy (whose feet had been badly frozen), and Stub. They missed the doctor, and Corporal Jerry's squad, but could get along for a few days.

This was February 7. No word might be expected from the doctor or Corporal Jerry for at least a week. Nothing especial happened during the week. The men and Stub kept on laboring at the stockade, the lieutenant read in a French book a great deal, or hunted for deer, taking Stub as companion.

By the sixteenth the walls of the stockade were about done, and the inside ditch, for the pickets, was being pecked out—a slow job in the frozen earth. Nine days had passed, and still there was no sign from the doctor or Corporal Jerry. This morning the lieutenant and Stub went out hunting again, down the main river. The lieutenant carried his favorite musket—the one whose grip had been mended. Stub wore a pistol, the mate to Hugh Menaugh's, borrowed from the lieutenant.

They had tramped about six miles, had just wounded a deer and were trailing it, when the lieutenant suddenly exclaimed:

"Halt. Be quiet. Somebody's coming."

Two strangers, horseback, were topping a rise, half a mile before and a little on the right or west.