Jack Van Ryder drawing of a broken down wagon
Jack Van Ryder drawing of a broken down wagon

THE tall, sandy-haired man pulled up his horse and gazed at the wreckage beside the trail. What had been a buckboard was now a smoking ruin. At the foot of a catclaw bush lay the body of a man. Horrible mutilations told all too clearly how he had died.

Tears marked unheeded traces down the cheeks of the rider as he noted the sign about the scene of the tragedy. Apaches had added another victim to the list of those who had died while attempting to carry the mails.

Captain John Jeffords, holder of the contract to deliver the mail through this wild strip of Arizona Territory, gazed at the body of the man who had been his employee and muttered to himself as he swung from the saddle.

"This has got to stop," he said. "Four in a month! Hell, I pay these poor devils one hundred twenty-five dollars a month to make this trip and most of them never live to draw their first pay. I'll just have to make a dicker with this Indian, Cochise. He can stop this if he will."

With rocks gleaned from the side of the trail Jeffords covered the body of the slain driver and then returned to his horse. He rode off toward Fort Apache warily scanning each rise and fall of the trail, each turn or twist of which might spell hidden danger. Apache Pass, named for its deadly inhabitants, was in the heart of the range of the Chiricahua Apaches, and under the leadership of Cochise the Apaches were at war.

John Jeffords was not new to trouble. A Mississippi steamboat captain prior to his arrival in the West, he had fought his way up and down the river through the toughest gangs that haunted that stream from above Natchez to New Orleans. Teamster, helper and wagonmaster, he had worked his way westward to arrive in Arizona Territory as the Butterfield stageline was making an effort to push a reliable mail service through the Apache country.

Jeffords took the contract and for a time the mail went through. Then Cochise, angered beyond endurance by a broken truce, took to the war­path while the women of his family still mourned for those who had died by treachery. From his rocky stronghold in the sullen Dragoons, Cochise sent his warriors across the broad San Pedro Valley and up and down its length. Wherever they passed, death and desolation lay behind. Lonely ranchers, miners and teamsters slept on their guns.

The mail route through Apache Pass became their especial prey and it was only sheer good fortune that carried a driver through the pass unmolested. It was long odds that there would be a battle and the chances of survival were not much better. Apache Pass became literally "El Paso del Muerte" for the stage-line men. It was this that Jeffords planned to stop if he could.

Jeffords rode into Fort Apache and reported the death of the driver. Then calling his assistant to the corral as he was changing horses, he said,

"Joe, I'm headed out to see Cochise. He's got to listen to reason or we're through. There's no use trying to pack the mail through that pass until we dicker with that Indian. He holds all the cards. You take care of things till I get back."

"Hell, Captain," said Joe, "if you go to Cochise you ain't coming back. Don't pull no fool trick like that. Ask the Major here at the fort to send some soldiers along. You can't make it alone. They'll kill you before you ever get within shout­ing distance of Cochise. Don't be a darned fool. No white man has ever dared ride into that pass."

"That's where you're wrong," said Jeffords, heaving up hard on the látigo as he tightened his cinch. "I figure Cochise will see me. I figure that he'll keep any dicker I make with him just as long as I keep my share of it. It wasn't the Indian that broke the last truce in these parts and you know it."

"Captain, listen !" pleaded Joe. "If you must go let me go with you. Leave some one else in charge here. Anyway, if you don't come back it won't matter whether any one's in charge or not."

"Nope. Thanks just the same but this is a one man job -- my job," said Jeffords as he swung into the saddle. "Hasta la vista, Joe."

"Hasta la vista your neck," said Joe. "You mean good-by, you darned fool. You're just committing suicide. But by golly, Captain, I wish you luck."

Alone Jeffords rode off toward the Dragoon Mountains where, like an eagle, Cochise main­tained his aërie.

Sweat marked the flanks of the tired horse as, head down, it plodded into the foothills. Dust grayed the sandy-red beard of the broad-shoul­dered Jeffords and powdered his clothing, but he sat erect in his saddle and looked ahead as he rode on toward Cochise's stronghold.

He knew that by now every move he made was seen by the hawk-like sentinels of the Apache chief. No man rode unobserved into the rocky mountain lair of Cochise, and Jeffords understood that each step forward taken by his horse was by sufferance of that wild warrior. It was too late now to turn back, even had he so wished, but Jeffords was not the man to turn back. He had started to see Cochise and see him he would, unless he died on the way.

No shot broke the stillness of the midday as his horse entered the mouth of the gorge which led to the stronghold, and Jeffords smiled. Cochise evidently was curious. Well, let him be curious. It might help. He watched closely, but did not see a single Indian. Above, along the rocky walls of the canyon, sentinel after sentinel passed the word until it reached the ears of the Apache leader.

"A white man rides into the canyon and he rides alone."

Cochise, wondering perhaps "What man is this?" gave orders that he be allowed to enter. If his purpose was to work ill to the Apaches he would never go back. Simple logic but effective. His eyes half-closed but seeing all about him, Cochise awaited his visitor. Safe in their guarded camp the Apache women moved about busy with their tasks, while children fought and rolled and played under the trees, war ponies grazed in the deep mountain gramma grass, and warriors drowsed or talked together.

Then into the camp rode Jeffords.

"Here, hombre," he said, in the border Spanish that was the lingua franca of the desert, "take me to Cochise. I wish to talk with him."

The warrior looked coldly at the white man who had ridden where no man of his race had ever ridden before, then without a word turned and strode toward the center of the camp.

Jeffords, dismounting, handed his rifle to a squaw, left his horse standing in the shade and followed. Silent, dark faces peered out at him as he walked along. The bright eyes of suddenly quiet children followed his every movement, while from behind bushes and trees Apache women who had stepped aside at his approach watched his every step.

The warrior guide walked to the entrance of a wickiup near the center of the camp. It was more pretentious and better built than those about it. Aspen poles formed the frame; the skins of deer and pieces of old canvas wagon-covers combined to form its covering. In the hut's open doorway stood the man that Jeffords had risked his life to see -- Cochise, war-chief of the Chiricahua Apaches.

With hand upraised in the sign of peace Jeffords halted. He greeted the Indian in Spanish. Cochise answered with a nod.

"I have come because I wish to talk to Cochise," said Jeffords. "Will Cochise listen while I speak?"

"You are a brave man," replied the Indian. "Cochise will listen to a brave man."

At a signal Jeffords took a seat by the smolder­ing fire in front of the lodge. Cochise seated himself opposite and sent word for the sub-chiefs to join him. Soon the circle was complete. Jeffords, the former steamboat captain, sat in a ring of Apache war-chiefs high in that stronghold where white men had never before set foot.

"Speak, white man," said Cochise.

"I have come in peace to talk of peace," Jeffords began. "I speak for myself alone and for my men and I speak to you and your men.

"It is bad for both of us to be at war. Each time my men drive through the pass there is fighting. Each time either they or some of the Apaches die. We both lose. I want you and me to make a truce. Your men will leave my stages alone and no man of mine will injure any of Cochise's warriors. That is all I have to say."

A deep murmur swept around the circle as those who understood Jeffords's Spanish translated it to the other Apaches. Looks of doubt filled the faces of some, while others stared their hatred of this white man who talked of peace. Finally, assured that all understood, Cochise looked at Jeffords and spoke, saying:

"Cochise has talked peace before. The talk was made under the white flag and Cochise saw his people hanged. Why should Cochise talk peace again?

"Your people have two faces; one with a smile greets the Apache in a truce; the other bearing the frown of death gazes upon the Indian when he is unarmed and helpless. Why should Cochise believe you, white man? Why should you not die as my people have died?"

"I came here because I had heard you are a brave man," said Jeffords. "A brave man need not lie. I am unarmed and alone. A strong man is not needed to bring me death. But if I give my word I will keep it, as I expect you to keep yours. What is your answer?"

"In the morning I will tell you," said Cochise.

Jeffords nodded. The circle broke up, the sub-chiefs walking away, and Jeffords and Cochise were left by themselves beside the smoldering fire.

The first streaks of sunlight flickered above the canyon walls as Jeffords and Cochise met again in front of the chief's rude hut.

"Here is your rifle," was the Indian's greeting as he handed the weapon to Jeffords. "You are a brave man and the brave do not lie. It will be as you say. The drivers of the red-haired one shall go through the pass untouched. Neither will they bother the warriors of Cochise."

"It will be that way," said Jeffords, and the two men clasped hands.

Jeffords's horse was brought to him and he mounted and rode through the camp toward the valley below. Down the rugged trail he made his way unhindered. Many hours later he rode into Fort Apache. He was content. The mail would now go through.

Jack Van Ryder drawing showing of a ranchhouse
Jack Van Ryder drawing showing of a ranchhouse


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