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“The Telling of Tales” # 08


yankee.camels 

Yankee Camels

By Andre Norton (1940s)

 

 

Renny Peyton spit out grit from between his teeth. When Texas produced dust, it was sure man-sized. And the summer winds of 1862 were whipping out a prize lot of it. He made the futile gesture of trying to brush it off his short cavalry jacket. If he’d had all the sense he’d been born with, he’d be back east right now, helping General Lee chase the Yanks home to their burrows. Instead he was detailed on a very different duty. He glanced at the paper between his grimy fingers, fortified himself with an inspection of those sergeant’s stripes which did after all now bar his sleeve, and advanced close enough to his chosen victims to hear their present conversation.

“Mangy 1ookin’ critters, ain’t they? Got tempers worsen mules, too. Fact is self-respectin’ mules won’t come within a mile o’ ‘em. Jeff Davis sends us ‘way out here to git him a Yankee fort an’ wota we got? A bunch o’ stinkin’ camels!”

The speaker aimed a stream of tobacco juice at a passing lizard and hitched up his sagging Confederate gray trousers.

“Now, Jas, yuh shouldn’t talk that way,” chided a tall, rawboned young man who rested his shoulders against the pole wall of the corral. "It was ol’ Jeff hisself brought these here camels to America. He was fixin’ to use ‘em for a Camel Corps to scout with in the desert—”

“Camel Corps!” exploded Jas Wilkins. “Soljers ride them things? Jeff Davis ain’t crazy~-or is he?”

“Hardly,” Renny cut in. “Those camels can carry six hundred pounds and go seventy miles in twelve hours. And they find grazing where horses and mules would starve. Beale took them clear to California and had an excellent trip —“

Jas snorted. “Beale is a Yankee, ain’t he? Takes a Yankee to order ‘em around. We ain’t gonna—“

“Oh, but we are.”

“Wot?” Both Jas and his young companion rounded upon Renny. He waved the folded paper under Jas’s hooked promontory of a nose.

“Colonel’s orders. We’re to march three camels to Fort Bowie. Guess they want to see us earn our rations the hard way—“

“An! jes’ who’s we?” demanded Jas with justified suspicion.

“You, and me, and Buck, here. The Colonel said that three of us could manage.”

“I ain’t ridin’ no danged camel—” Jas’ ragged mustache bristled up on his short lip like the whiskers of an angry cat.

“Thar was lnjun sign no’th o’ here yesterday.” Buck flicked the red dust from the toe of his boot with the braided lash of a quirt. “Th’ Colonel reckon that we’re jes’ gain’ t’ be invisible when we ride outa th’ fort?”

Renny’s chin set aggressively. The sergeant’s stripes were only a month old, but they were his. “We have our orders. Besides that sign wasn’t too fresh. Probably the war party that left it is miles away now. We’re pulling out at six.”

Since Jas Wilkins flatly refused to trust his middle-aged bones to the dubious safety of a camel saddle and neither Buck Gamblin, the scout, nor Renny secretly felt any more confident, they rode out of the gate of Fort Houston early the next morning on the backs of the three plunging, snorting horses that had objected the least to escorting the snarling, evil-smelling ships of the desert. Camels and horses, camels and mules, as Jas had observed, simply didn’t mix. Jas’s comments upon the subject were especially pointed when his own mount deposited him in the roadway, having been urged to near one of the snake-necked beasts.

The camels were certainly not the most pleasant traveling companions. They gurgled and groaned, and were apt to snap a piece out of man or beast who came within reach of their crooked yellow teeth. Since they smelt like nothing on earth, but something which should have been under it long ago as Buck declared loudly and a little too often — riding to the windward of them was added punishment. And the horses continued to fight bitterly against any close contact.

When to the stubborn antics of the animals you added the ever present dust which clogged nostrils and throat and sifted down between clothing and skin, and a blazing sun, you had all the ingredients for a splendid trip thought Renny as he drew rein to mop his flushed face, with the result that he streaked his dust mask until he looked like e warrior in full paint. Buck scouted ahead while Jas plodded unhappily along, it being his turn to have the camel lead looped on his saddle horn.

Renny put his hand on his canteen and then took it away again. If it was full of Virginia spring water now, cool and tasty, but the musty stuff sloshing in it wasn’t worth mouthing.

After all, this trip couldn’t last forever. He straightened in his saddle and, whistling “Dixie”, cantered up to join Jas in his martyrdom.

They camped that night on the crumbling bank of a dry river bed. Buck rode in just as Renny knelt to light the camp fire. With a vigorous kick the scout sent the fuel, painfully grubbed from the stunted grease and cotton-wood, flying. Renny got stiffly to his feet, tight mouthed.

“What’s the idea?”

“Want to lose yer hair?” Buck returned. “We’re in Injun country an’ thar’s plenty sign. We ain’t in no way fitted to fight off half th’ Comanche Nation. We eat cold ‘til we git t’ Bowie an’ hope that we don’t meet up with no young bucks wot want to count some coups.”

Hardtack and dried meet were poor fare at the best, but the way they stuck in a dust salted throat added to the disgruntlement of the eaters. Jas abandoned his cud of tobacco, swearing that it made him twice as thirsty to chew. But that did not hinder him any from listing in a monotonous voice all the items he was going to eat and drink once the adobe walls of Bowie closed about them.

They kept guard watch by watch. And Renny wondered, as he crouched carbine in hand, whether he could see Indians if they crept up the sanded bottom of the river bed. He had hated the barrenness of the Texas frontier when first he had come to ride its plains. But something about the country seemed to get right under a man’s skin—

The rumbling protest of one of the hobbled camels brought him out of musing. Two days more and they should be safe in Bowie. He stretched to move cramped legs. And just one more hour and it would be dawn for sure.

One of the blanketed sleepers beyond stirred, coughed, and wriggled out of his coverings.

“How goes it?” Buck was pulling on his boots.

“Haven’t seen a thing—”

“Jes’ th’ same, we’d better hit trail —”

“This early?”

“Unhuh.”

The camels complained, puffed out foul breath, and gurgled with promising menace as they were urged to their feet. But Jas out-grumbled them victoriously as he and Renny made fast their loads.

They headed on, following the two deep ruts across the plain which marked the road of the supply wagons. It was still crisply cool and as yet the dust wasn’t rising.

“we’ll make th’ Needles by noon sure,” prophesied Buck. “I’ll be reel glad to see that thar bunch o’ rocks. Means thar’s only thurty miles more t’ Bowie.”

But they had not yet sighted that strange cluster of tall pointed rocks when they ran heed first into trouble, Buck who was leading, breasted a small ridge, gave a single wild glance to what lay beyond, and came pounding back, his quirt stinging air and horsehide.

“Injuns!”

“Back—“

“Can’t!” Buck jerked a warning thumb. Against the sky behind them a black thread of smoke arose. “Signals. we’re cotched right!”

“We can ride west,” Jas pointed with his chin.

“Not with them camels, we can’t. They’re too slow in th’ move!”

Jas’s answer was to throw the lead line away. “Let ‘em stay here then—“

But when the three spurred their mounts into a run, the camels quickened their rocking pace to a sort of ungainly trot and kept up. There was a wild shout behind, they had been sighted.

They might be able to reach the scant shelter promised by the Needles, which were not more than a mile or two away. But they had no hope of getting to Bowie. Their horses were not blessed with either the speed or the staying power possessed by the wiry Indian ponies.

“Ahhhhh!”

The cry snapped Renny’s head around. Jas’ scrawny gray was down, kicking wildly as it lay, its rider rolling to get out of the range of the flying hooves. With all his strength the sergeant dragged on his reins, bringing his frantic horse to a trot and then turned back to the crawling man.

But there was another aiming for him too, a warrior on a black and white pony, thundering down, lance ready to spit Jas between his bony shoulders.

Renny’s roan was within inches of Jas when its rider brought it to a stop and leaned down to grab at the trooper’s shirt collar. The cloth tore, but Jas caught at the stirrup and pulled himself up, scrambling up behind Renny. The lance tip swished through the air a fraction away from the sergeant’s chin. Then, as the loud crack of a carbine tore the air, the lance wavered and was gone as its wielder slid limply down into the drifts of dry grass.

They rode double back to where Buck had pulled up, his carbine still smoking. Beyond the scout were three brown dots fast vanishing into the distance, the camels were still westward bound.

The disaster which had dismounted Jas had shortened their chances, thought Renny bitterly, to the vanishing point. They might reach the doubtful protection offered by the Needles. But to try to fight it out on the open prairie was certain death.

“North!” shouted Buck.

Obediently Renny headed his floundering horse in the new direction. Buck covered him, shooting from the saddle a second time. And the snap of the carbine was answered by a wavering scream.

“Th’ Needles!”,Shrilled Jas in his ear. Yes, that was the gray of the freak rock formation outlined blockily against the brown of the plain.

Then the roan stumbled. By main force of will and hand Renny brought its head up, the pounding of unshode hooves heavy in his ears. Add he flinched as the animal under him screamed. A bloody nick had been chopped in its right ear.

Buck had already reached the foot of the towering rocks and now he was firing with deliberate skill, making each shot count, as he covered the desperate flight of the other two. Renny caught a glimpse of a brown arm almost at his shoulder. He felt Jas swing away. Then that arm was gone. Stone walls loomed up before them and he threw himself from the saddle, carbine in hand, to join Buck.

Jes limped into the shelter of the nearest rock, still carrying the clubbed six-shooter he had used to dispose of their last reckless attacker.

Slowly the three white men retreated into a narrow cleft between two groups of the rocks. Jas grimaced when he glanced around their pocket of safety.

“Well, seein’ as how we ain’t got no water ner extra shells, this is a right smart hole to git cotched in. All them red devils has got t’ do is sit an’ weit ‘til we come trottin’ out—“

“Wonder if these can be climbed?” Renny patted the pillar of rock beside him. “No harm in trying it.”

Before either of his companions could stop him he had pulled himself up on a rough projection and was feeling overhead for another hold.

“Come down, yuh fool!” hissed the scout. “They’ll pick yuh off, sure as shootin’!”

“They can*t see me, rock between us,” Renny called down as he found his hold and went up. Inch by inch he made it, breaking nails and scraping flesh raw, but at last he came out upon the slightly rounded summit of the rock. Rising to his knees he pulled out of their case his most prized possession, a pair of military glasses.

Slowly he swept the horizon. The Indians, now sullenly retreating out of the range of Buck’s accurate fire, were the only moving things to be seen until — the glasses stopped and focused upon a patch of light brown, half in the shelter of the dry river bed.

The patch broke into separate shapes and Renny found himself counting the camels. Their panic stricken flight had brought them into a pocket between two high banks. And there they were plainly content to stay, feeding quietly on some stunted bushes which cloaked the banks of the vanished river.

Save for the camels and the patrolling Indians the prairie was empty. Renny returned the glasses to their case. How-long would it be before their non-arrival at Bowie would be known. Maybe a week, maybe more. And no one could last more than a day or so here without water. Right now the stone under his hands was almost burning hot! One of those distant camels still carried their supplies and spare ammunition.

“If only the camels had come here!” he muttered before he turned to descend again, sliding the last few feet to land on some particularly sharp rocks.

“How does it look?” inquired Jas.

“Nothing but the Indians in sight. The camels have gone to ground in that river bed to the southwest. Wish they’d had sense enough to follow us—”

“Them camels has got more sense than yuh give ‘em credit fer,” commented Jas grimly. “They didn’t follow us – that’s right sensible. ”

“We could do with the supplies—”

“We could do wi’ a lotta things we ain’t gonna see agin. Water an’ such. Better spare th’ gab, talkin’ makes a man thursty!” Buck squinted along the barrel of his carbine tugging open the collar of his sweat soaked shirt with one hand.

The day dragged on, hour by baking hour. Now and then a young warrior would ride along just out of range, chanting his war song and taunting the prisoners in the circle of the rocks. There was a chance that at nightfall they might slip away, but the marksmanship of one brave spoiled that in the late afternoon when Buck’s horse went down, an arrow in throat. Renny’s mount had never recovered from its dash under a double burden and now stood, with dull eyes and drooping head, alone.

“‘Spite all I said ‘bout them ornery camels,” croaked Jes, “I’d be plumb glad to see ‘em now, ‘specially since they say a man kin ride th’ critters.”

A man can ride—! Renny sat up suddenly. What if they could in some way reach the camels. Horses just naturally hated the brutes — look at the trouble they had had back at camp trying to find some that wouldn’t go hog-wild when they had to march with the beasts. And certainly the Indian ponies were not broken to the sight and smell of them. Men on camel back might have a better chance than men on horses.

“Buck,” he turned eagerly to the scout, “What chance would we have of making that piece of river bed where the camels are?”

The Scout’s grin was dry and tight-lipped. “None. These here Injuns are jes’ waitin’ fer us to try somethin’ like that.”

“Could one of us get through if the other two kept the Indians’ attention?” persisted Renny.

“Buck might,” cut in Jas. “Buck knows Injuns an’ he knows th’ country like he knows his hand—”

“Then listen —” quickly Renny outlined the plan which had come to him. The others made protests and then suggestions and in the end Buck nodded.

“It might work at that. Leastwise it’s better’n sittin’ here cookin t’ death. We’ll wait ‘til dark en’ try it.”

By Jas’s nickel-cased watch it was close to ten o’clock when the first act began. Buck stripped down to improvised breech-clothe and moccasins and rubbed his white skin dark with rock dust. He crept to the far edge of the Needles and crouched there, waiting.

Renny’s horse stood wearily while its master and Jas provided it with a rider. Almost their entire combined wardrobe had gone into the fashioning of the unwieldy figure they now lashed into the saddle. When the last knot was tied, Renny led the apathetic roan ‘round to-face the point they had marked as the center of the Indian line, and brought his quirt down in a stinging blow across its haunches. He flinched as he felt the leather crack on hide, but this was their only chance now.

With a pitiful neigh the horse bounded forward, its rider reeling realistically. They might have been watching a man wounded and suffering, clinging to his saddle by force of will and endurance. And, by some miracle, the roan did not keep to the course set, but turned, running parallel to the Indian line, at last disappearing over the ridge. It was a very lifelike representation of a man making a frenzied attempt to ride for his life.

A shout and then another told the listeners that the roan was being sighted and pursued. Renny glanced behind him. The shadow which had been Buck was gone — out into the night. If only the Indians had been drawn off long enough to let him through!

“Watch out, son,” Jas’ bony fingers bit into the boy’s arm as a second burst of angry shouting came down the slope. “Them red devils has discovered th’ joker. Now they’ve got thar dander up an’ might come peltin’ right fer us. We’ve got t’ make it hot fer ‘em if they go!”

“But it’s too dark now to see what we’re shooting at –”

Jas groaned and said patiently. “Look — over thar. See that open patch, they’ve got t’ cross that t’ git at us, ain’t they? An’ yuh kin see ‘em good’n plain when they tries it. ”

Almost before the last words were out of his mouth he fired. A dark figure on the very edge of the patch he had pointed to twisted convulsively and then was still. Jas gave the hoarse bark which served him for laughter.

“That did fer one. ‘N Injuns don’t take kindly t’ night fightin’. They may pull back now an’ wait t’ rush us at dawn — that’s their trick.”

Renny stared feverishly into the dark. He thought that he could feel those dark eyes spying from the ridge, see the shadows wriggling through the dust toward the Needles. He licked dry lips with a tongue almost as dry.

“D’you — d’you suppose Buck got through?”

“If a man could, he did. That thar boy was born in a wagon an’ raised with a rifle in his fist. Bin a scout since he was able t’ fork a saddle. If we see them camels agin, ‘twill be with Buck bringin* ‘em in, But he can’t be too quick ‘bout it fer me. I ain’t longin’ fer any uppity Injun t’ go weerin’ my hair at his belt — wot thar be left o’ it!”

The night wore on. Twice the besieged fired at suspicious shadows – without effect. At least, decided Renny wearily, the Indians would certainly believe now that their attempt for escape had failed and should not be able to guess that only two instead of three faced them. The night wind was chill against their half-naked bodies and the gritty rock and sand rasped their unprotected skin. What if Buck had not won through? What if he had been unable to find the camels? What if —? Jas nudged him.

“Gonna work ‘round t’ th’ back. Buck should he comin’ in that way —”

The whisper trailed off as the trooper crept away.

After what seemed hours he spoke again, “Hi — Sarg —?”

Renny edged around a boulder.

“Jes’ saw somethin’ comin’ cross thar —”

“Buck?”

“Might be. Leastways we kin git ourselves ready —”

Out of the darkness came a nasty bubbling sound, answered by the scream of a startled and protesting horse.

“Buck!” called Renny.

“Comin’,” he was answered. “Git ready t’ ride!”

Three strange shapes trotted purposefully toward the Needles, their bubbling complaint loud and clear, to be heard even above the clamor mounting behind them. Renny darted out and gripped the nose rope of the nearest. At his command it knelt and he half threw, half pulled Jas onto the high backed saddle. Then he left the older man to his own devices as he scrambled aboard the third camel.

Jas swore as his animal got to its feet by a series of jerks.

“How d’ yuh drive these here things?” he demanded.

“Aim ‘em that way,” ordered Buck, “an’ give ‘em thar heads —”

But they weren’t to escape so easily. Already arrows were rattling against the rocks behind them. And the war cries of the horsemen hovering on the ridge were loud and menacing.

“Git!” Buck swung his quirt against dusty brown hide, with a last burble of protest his camel “got”. And behind it pounded the other two.

Renny clutched wildly at any part of the saddle which swung within his reach. There seemed to be no way of settling oneself to fit that lurching gait.

It was like riding a pitching mule, only worse. He glanced back. The Indians weren’t drawing in too quickly, and some of them seemed to be having trouble with their horses.

Then, as if out of the ground itself, four horsemen appeared directly before the racing camels. Buck’s mount, the tallest and heaviest, and most evil tempered of the trio, struck down, its yellow teeth tearing flesh. The horses went stark raving mad and broke, two of them spilling their riders almost under the camels’ feet. But the camels kept calmly on.

After awhile Buck allowed them to modify their trot to their usual plodding shuffle. The east was ribboned by the first red rays of the dawn. Renny glanced dizzily down at the stable ground which now seemed entirely too far away.

But the scout was grinning at his partners in misfortune. “Thar’s Bowie!” He pointed ahead to where a walled box arose abruptly from the plain.

“These here camels are faster’n horses —”

“‘Bout time we saw that.” Jas grunted. Beneath its brown weathering his battered face wore a greenish tinge.

“You hurt?” asked Renny.

Jes groaned hollowly. “Hurt! I’ve 1ost th’ company o’ my stomach. These danged camels weren’t never meant fer riding!”

“They saved us from the Indians –”

Jas grimaced sourly. “Son, in th’ last half hour, I’ve come t’ know that thar’s some things a heap worse’n Injuns.” Suddenly he leaned over and was very busy. “Yankee Camels,” came his weak whisper as they struck into the ruts of the fort road. “Jes’ plain ornery Yankee camels!”

 

 

 

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Digitized and edited by Jay Watts ~ aka: Lotsawatts ~ May, 2015

Never before seen short story by Andre Norton
Released here for the first time
Copyright ~ Estate of Andre Norton
Online Rights - Andre-Norton-Books.com
Donated by – Victor Horadam

Duplication of this story for profit of any kind NOT permitted.