CAPTAIN WALLACE, Fifth Cavalry, in command of the two troops stationed at Fort Bowie, mopped the sweat from his face and throat, spread the camp handkerchief over the back of his chair to dry and turned again to his mail. The drone of flies and the scratch of the pen of his troop clerk were the only sounds in the little adobe room that was the headquarters of the frontier post.
Outside, where a few scrubby trees attempted to break the direct rays of the Arizona sun, there was little movement near the headquarters. An orderly and a trumpeter sat on a bench near the door watching the sentry on No. 1 Post as he paced back and forth. Fort Bowie at midday in July was not a place where any one would hurry. The garrison lounged in the shade of the log and dirt-roofed buildings and cursed the heat.
Captain Wallace casually checked through the list of official envelopes, sorting out the routine changes of orders, and picked one addressed in a scrawling longhand to the commanding officer. With a sliding rip of his pen-holder he tore it open and leaned back in his chair to read.
A tall young officer wearing the shoulder-straps of a first lieutenant stepped into the doorway of the headquarters and stood silent until the captain finished the letter.
Then as the commander looked up and asked, "Well, Rucker?" he said, "I'd like the captain's permission for a week's leave. I want to go down to Tucson."
Captain Wallace grunted, then asked, "What in blazes do you want in Tucson?"
"Well, to tell you the truth, Captain, I'd like to get a good cold drink as much as anything else. I'm so darned dry tha t---"
"Yeh," said Captain Wallace. "Well, read this and burn up."
He shoved the letter he had just read over to his junior officer and watched his tanned face redden as he scanned it. It told an oft-repeated story. A swift raid by a party of Apaches southwest of Tombstone had swept away about forty head of good horses. The angry rancher who had written the letter told in one paragraph about the theft and in the five following paragraphs expressed his contempt for the efforts the cavalry made to protect the civilian population.
Rucker's tanned face flushed as he read some of the phrases directed at the troops. Then, returning the letter, he said, "Give me ten men, sir, besides the San Carlos scouts. I'll do the best I can." In a less official tone he added, "It's so damned nice to have folks appreciate your work."
He saluted the grinning commander and turned to the door. As he left the captain followed him and called from the doorway, "I'll buy you a drink in Tucson for every horse, Rucker. Good luck."
The junior officer waved a hand and was gone. A short half-hour later he rode out of Bowie at the head of his ten cavalry men and a group of San Carlos scouts.
At the scene of the raid the trail was clear. The San Carlos Indians, experts at reading signs, checked it quickly. Then their leader reported to Rucker through the interpreter. "Chiricahua Apaches," he said. "Maybe thirty. They ride east toward Dragoon."
Rucker nodded and soon the command was strung out along the trail, the San Carlos scouts ahead and at the flanks guarding against surprise. The cavalrymen making up the main body were ready to support the scouts wherever needed. It was hot dusty work.
Despite the herd of loose horses they were driving the Apaches made good time. They hazed the herd ahead rapidly, their little wiry mountain ponies unhampered by packs. When food was wanted they killed a horse and ate it. The troops did not fare so well.
Across the Dragoons through the most rugged trails turning southeast from Bowie toward the New Mexico line the Apache raiders made their way. Doggedly but with tiring men and horses the young officer hung on. Whenever the trail became more than usually difficult he thought of the burning epithets in the letter and drove his men forward. His horses, gaunt from fatigue and lack of water, were having tough going. The packs of the soldiers were stripped down to the last notch and every surplus piece of equipment discarded but the pitiless July sun took toll of men and animals.
The chase led on through the mountain passes with the troops forced to follow each twist and turn. To change course for a single mile might mean losing their quarry and possibly their lives. For there was the chance of not being able to find the water which they must have. Finally breaking out of the mountains, the trail led on to the San Simon, a broad dry lake bed, with its twisting wind-devils and blowing dust. Provisions were gone and the men drooped in their saddles. Even the San Carlos Indians, desert- and mountain-wise, were limp with fatigue.
Rucker called a halt, checked with his scouts and ordered the command to return to Fort Bowie. Apparently it was futile to go farther. So the men thought as they followed the silent officer back to the little desert station. Another failure-but hell! who could help but fail chasing shadows.
It was a tired and dust-begrimed outfit that rode into the little fort and swung toward the picket lines.
"Sergeant!" called Rucker as the men dismounted.
A cavalryman built like a lath strode forward and saluted.
"Sergeant," said Rucker, "you have half an hour to get these men remounted and have each of them draw five days' rations. Tell them to snap into it and see that they all take a dip in that watering trough. As soon as you’re ready we're pulling out again."
"Yes, sir," replied the soldier and went to pass on the word to the tired and dusty men.
With the usual grousing and grumbling of soldiers carrying out a command the patrol soon was ready for the field and once more Rucker led his men back to the trail. The letter still rankled and he intended to refute its charges.
Picking up the trail on the San Simon, the little command went on. One day was like the next, ride, ride, ride, with no assurance of results at the end. But Rucker was not quitting until that end was reached.
After several days a San Carlos scout rode back to the officer and the interpreter. The raiders had been found! The scout reported that in the basin ahead there were about fifty Apaches, some of whom had been on the raid, others who had camped at the water awaiting their comrades' return. They had many horses and most of their warriors were armed with rifles.
Rucker decided to surround the basin and attack at once, sweeping in from all sides. Even with a smaller force he could have counted on the surprise to help him. But he was balked by the San Carlos Indians who refused to attack in daylight. They would attack at dawn the following morning or not at all.
Chafing at the delay he disposed his men and waited through the long night with everything in readiness.
At daybreak the attack began. As the first streaks of dawn lighted the scene in the basin the San Carlos Indians opened fire. The Apache raiders, caught by surprise, left everything behind them and fled to the hills. The ten white soldiers led by Rucker held the gap into the basin. The San Carlos scouts were supposed to hold the other three sides.
But the fame of the Chiricahua warriors was too widely spread. When the fleeing raiders, many of them unarmed, took to the rugged hillside behind their camp, the San Carlos scouts withdrew and most of the Apaches escaped. Even in flight the Chiricahua Apache was feared.
Cursing his luck Rucker pressed on into the basin with his cavalrymen, sniping at every Indian raider they saw. Some fell and were carried away by their comrades. The soldiers did not lose a man and the rout was complete. But there were no prisoners.
Swiftly Rucker estimated the results of the attack. He had more than forty head of horses in the basin. He also had a pile of small buckskin bags that looked like heavy sausages. They were filled with Mexican silver money, probably the loot of some smuggler train. There was upwards of $2000 in the bags.
Under their agreement with the government the San Carlos Indians received the loot from such raids. They scampered about gathering up the scattered effects left by the fleeing raiders. With his men Rucker rounded up the horses and soon the command was on its way back to Fort Bowie.
Herding the horses ahead of them as they rode into the fort, the cavalrymen, their fatigue forgotten, laughed and chatted. Their loot distributed among them, the Indians were content. Rucker, riding in the lead, pulled to one side as Captain Wallace walked out to meet him.
"Hi yuh, Rucker," called the officer. "What luck did you have?"
For the first time in many hours the tired officer permitted himself to relax. As he slid from his dust-covered horse he replied with a grin:
"Not bad, Captain, not bad. When do we start for Tucson! I've worked up a tolerable thirst. As I figure it you owe me about forty drinks."