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Riders of Picacho

E. W. Farnsworth

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Dr. Wilson F.  Engel, III, writing as E. W. Farnsworth, is a frequent contributor to anthologies, lives and writes in Arizona.  Over eighty of his short stories were published at a variety of venues in 2015.  Also published in 2015 were his collected Arizona westerns (Desert Sun, Red Blood), his global mystery/thriller (Bitcoin Fandango), his John Fulghum Mysteries about a hard-boiled Boston detective and Engaging Rachel, an Anderson romance/thriller.    

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     The Confederate irregular scout Captain Max Foster could distinguish the twin stacks of Picacho Peak for two days before he and his five scouts, including me, arrived there.  The ancient volcanic formation was distinctive.  It had been a landmark for Indians for millennia.  Set in the middle of the great bowl of the Sonora Desert, it stuck out like the raised part of a sundial.  The Arizona sun streamed down to make the daytime going slow and sweaty though the nights’ winter chill made our teeth chatter.  Without plenty of water, we would have died of thirst even in this season. 

      Horses were also in danger in this region, except for mustangs.  Those wild creatures managed to survive since the Spanish conquest by keeping close to watery places along the Gila River and up by Tonto.  The Apaches also survived.  They made the desert a living hell for Max Foster’s elite scouting party.  We had all run with the Swamp Fox unscathed.  By contrast in the southwest we had been decimated by hails of Indian arrows.  We Johnny Rebs were hardy, but no white man could compare with the stamina, drive and cussedness of the Apaches.

The ultimate purpose of Foster’s secret mission was not known to the rest of us.  It was not even known to our Confederate General whose forces had decamped in Texas near the Rio Grande.  Orders had come down from President Jefferson Davis and from “The Thirteen” directly by word of mouth: Foster’s raiders would scout Picacho as the symbolic bridge between the Southern states and California.  If Picacho could be taken by the South, the gray men’s rationale went, the leader of the Union military forces in California might force secession there.  Then the Confederate Empire would stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific all along the southern border with Mexico.  Picacho was therefore a small piece of real estate with a big meaning.  Later Foster told me our President’s courier said that raising the Stars and Bars over that lone peak would resound in Richmond as a triumph and strike mortal fear among the Union leadership in Washington, DC.

     Foster’s personal instructions were to proceed to Picacho with us scouts and prepare for the arrival of a second force of Rebel soldiers.  Together our forces would seize the mountain, raise the flag and declare the Arizona Territory for the Confederacy.  The idea seemed so audacious that it was bound to raise suspicions among the intelligence apparatus of the Union.  That is why the secrecy of our scouting mission was crucial.  It was so crucial that even today its details are not recorded in history books.  There is, of course, a darker reason for its omission from the records.  Brevet Captain Foster told me about it just before he died.  I do not know whether it was his ghastly wounds or the terror in his memory that killed him.

      As our scouting party pushed westwards towards our objective, we learned from renegade Apaches that fearsome thunder gods lived on Picacho Peak.  Those Indians told weird tales that clouds remained impaled on the peak for days while the surrounding desert was hammered by lightning for weeks.  Thunder made the ground shake with the force of an earthquake from Tucson to Phoenix.  The Indians did not dare go near Picacho though they preyed on others who came near there to build our white man’s highway to the California gold.  In the Indians’ fears Captain Foster saw an opportunity.  Caught up in his vision, he did not consider deeply the implications of it for him and for us who followed him.

      The Foster scouting party camped at the foot of Picacho Peak in January, 1862.  The next morning Foster and one of I climbed to the peak while the others guarded our horses and possessions below.  The climb was difficult given the sheer escarpment.  Handholds and footholds were scant.  Nonetheless, we climbed the fifteen hundred feet straight up to the summit successfully.  From there we looked out over the Sonora Desert stretching in every direction.  Our vantage allowed us to see details at fifty miles on that clear day.  Foster remarked how little evidence of the vaunted thunder gods remained, if it ever existed.  He discounted the Indian legends as savage superstitions.          We planted the Stars and Bars and tied its flagpole down with sustaining ropes.  On their way down the peak, we extended ropes so later climbers would have less difficulty than we. 

That evening, having descended safely from the peak, we shared what we had discovered about the peak with the others.  We all felt confident that our mission could proceed as planned to the next phase.  Foster ordered two scouts to ride to the east the next morning to rendezvous with the main force that we thought was riding to join us.  All that night the temperature dropped until by morning it was freezing.  A great wind swept through the valley.  Dense, black clouds appeared in the south and soon blanketed the sky.  Rain did not come at once, but thunderclaps announced the gathering storm.  Our horses became restive, rearing and pawing the ground. 

      The two scouts departed for the east while Foster, another scout and I prepared to withstand the elements.  Lightning strikes were ripping apart the clouds.  They darted from sky to earth and earth to sky in jagged gold and silver paths.  There was almost no delay between the lightning flashes and the booms of rolling thunder that followed.  Foster told me the thunder sounded like the thousands of cannon that fired during our early pitched battles of the War of Secession. 

      While it was still visible, the peak stood like a lightning rod attracting lightning. Sometimes multiple simultaneous strikes presaged thunder that shook the ground.  The clouds loomed downward in black ragged sheets so they occluded the peak. 

      As if the peak itself had rent the clouds asunder, rain poured down, drenching everything and quickly filling the normally arid desert with huge pools of water.  We had put out collectors for the water, but the horses were too frightened to drink.  Each time the ground shook from the thunder, the horses reared and whinnied.  We were frantic to keep the horses from loosening or breaking their lines and galloping into the open desert.  The captain conjectured that the horses of Conquistadores might have broken free to become in time the mustangs that we know today.

      The storm came on inexorable.  Terror was its signature.  Suddenly the desert turned to torrents and flash floods, rivers cutting through soft earth and pulling everything in their paths, including rats and rattle snakes.  That night I remember as one of the trials of my active life.  It must have been late afternoon when the horse of one of the scouts we had sent east came back to our camp with its owner tied to its back.  Poor Ken Alston had been shot with arrows and scalped.  He was still alive and screaming when I grabbed his horse’s reins and cut the man free.  Fortunately he fell on an arrow that was forced into his heart by the fall.  The Apaches had captured and tortured this scout.  We had no idea whether they had captured the others as well.

      In the rain we dug a grave and buried Alston.  We piled the sandy grave with rocks in case the water raised the body up.  The captain and I discussed sending Alan McAlpine east to replace the casualty.  We decided we would take our chances about the others getting through.  McAlpine was so distraught about losing his friend Alston that he wanted to seek revenge against all Apaches.  He shouted imprecations at the wall of rain as if the Apaches waiting out there could hear him.  The captain consoled him with the thought we would all have the chance to kill Apaches soon.  We did the best to keep our weapons dry in case the Indians attacked during the downpour.  Only when darkness of night fell did we feel safe.  Apaches don’t attack at night. 

      When the rain subsided around midnight the captain had a capital idea.  He ordered us to grab our weapons and ammunition and take elevated positions with clear fields of fire covering our camp.  At sunrise we were ready for the Apaches in hides above the plain.  As the captain predicted, the enemy charged the camp in large numbers.  Firing from high cover, we killed all we aimed at.  The Indians could only suffer death or injury until they decided to retreat.  They took our horses, but we lived to fight another day. 

     We could see the desert was drying fast in the sunshine.  Flies and bees swarmed on the corpses of the Indians we had killed.  An Apache chief came riding slowly forward waving a white cloth tied to his spear.  He pointed to the fresh grave that contained Alston.  He then pointed to one of his fallen braves.  The captain signaled for the chief to collect his dead in safety.  The chief called his people forward.  Braves rode in with spare horses and carried their dead away.  The chief’s braves then restored our horses to our tying line as a sign of thanks.  The captain feared this was a temporary truce.  He signaled us to be ready for another attack.  We waited until evening, but the Apaches did not attack.

     The captain signaled to McAlpine and me to shift our positions.  That seemed like a good idea to us at the time.  He decided to climb back to the summit of the peak to reconnoiter.  He had probably made the summit when the clouds rolled in again with all their thunder and lightning.  From that time until dawn, the storm ruled the valley.  I looked up the peak and saw the captain standing there outlined by lightning.  I thought I saw the Stars and Bars fluttering beside him.  I kept my eyes open for the Apaches to attack.  By the lightning flashes I saw a milk-white, riderless stallion approach our camp.  It pawed the wet sand and careered.  It went nose to nose with each of our horses.  Then it galloped back into the storm.

     In the dawn’s light the captain sighted something.  He shouted and pointed east.  I could not hear what he said.  He picked up our flag and waved it.  Then he replaced it to its moorings.  He climbed back down the escarpment and signaled for a meeting below at our camp.

     “Our troops are approaching from the east.  Let’s get ready to receive them.  Keep your weapons handy, but I saw no sign of Apaches from the summit.  What I did see last night at the summit I hope to relate one day.  For now, though, let’s focus on our mission.”

     Our following force rode in the next morning.  Our two scouts led them to our camp.  The captain reported to the captain leading the troops.  He asked for a fresh, large Stars and Bars and a sturdy pole to take to the peak.  The two captains together climbed the peak with those things.  They planted the flag, which was large enough for us on the ground to see.  We cheered and sang.  Then the captains came down from the peak.  They had a long discussion about the latest intelligence and tactics to use against the Yankees when they came.

     The Union forces from California were coming east towards Phoenix.  Their scouts would certainly come south and southeast.  The captains decided to dig out high positions up on the rise.  They ordered us to carry our ammunition up to our hides and prepare for an attack from the ground.  While we did our preparations, we got into our standard soldierly routine.  As the days passed, we detected Apaches scouting our activities.  The captain sent            McAlpine and me to find where the Apaches were massed.  We managed to trick the Apache scouts to follow our trail.  We ambushed them as they followed the circular path we described.  As it turned out, two other scouts were ready to attack us when we had killed their fellow braves.  We killed them too and took their horses.  We rode back to camp with a warning.  Captain Foster volunteered us to be the floating picket force to protect against Apache attack. 

      Our pattern, richly varied for security, was to ride out and turn orthogonal to our track, ride for an hour and then return to camp.  We did that each day and in the course of a month we made a circuit of Picacho Peak.  The Apaches tried to discover a way to surprise and ambush us.  They never deduced our pattern.  We were not like regular                  Federal forces.  As special forces, we disdained recognizable patterns.  We earned a reputation as the white men who fought like Apaches.  After a second month, our forces felt reasonably secure.  We had posted a rotating lookout on top of the peak with a trumpet and a flag.  McAlpine and I were riding north and northwest as a practice while two of the regulars rode south and southeast.  We were not looking for Apache scouts exclusively.  We were hunting Union scouts.  By then we knew how to blend in to the landscape almost as well as the Indians.

     One day at evening we found a Union scouting party encamped ten miles north of the peak.   I sent McAlpine to alert our forces and stayed to follow this party without making contact.   The next morning I observed the boys in blue turning directly towards the peak.  They were homing on it as if it were a beacon.  I deduced they were not communicating with a larger force behind them.  So I arced wide to the west and circled back to our encampment with my latest report.  Captain Foster showed me the plan of defense.  He ordered me to return with McAlpine and make contact with the Yanks.  We were then to lead the scouting party where we wanted them to go.

     Glad to be going into battle, we rode north to intercept the Union cavalry party.  They had posted a picket ahead, so we killed the man.  The gunshots alerted the main force, which came at a gallop after us.  We led them into the trap at Picacho.  From our elevated positions, we cut down their leadership with the first salvo of fire.  Their remaining forces dismounted in chaos without leadership.  Several fled.  We held our fire while the remainder retreated, taking their dead and wounded with them.  Later this minor skirmish was called the Battle of Picacho.  For one glorious day the Confederacy held sway in the Arizona Territory.  For a moment in history the dream of the Confederate Empire stretching from Virginia to the Pacific was a reality.

     The two captains conferred.  Captain Foster said he had completed his mission.  He said it was time for the regular forces to mass and reinforce its position.  Now resupply was necessary.  His counterpart asked him to return to the Rio Grande with a letter of requisition.   The next morning, Foster’s raiders left Picacho with a sense of pride in accomplishment.  At least I felt that way.  Killing Yankees made my whole day in those years.  We fought our way back to the Confederate army across the Rio Grande and delivered the request for reinforcements and resupply.   The general’s adjutant accepted the letter and said the general would make the determination.  That was not good enough for Captain Foster.  He demanded to see the general forthwith.  He threatened violence if he were denied an audience.  The general affected to be a very busy man to be plagued with irregular requests not in his general plan.          It was clear to me that he did not like black operators.  It was also clear to me that the Confederacy was of a different mind than when we left the Swamp Fox on explicit orders of Jefferson Davis.

Captain Foster told us we would be returning to the real South to find the real war back home.  We rode the long way through the states on the southern border then up through the Atlantic seaboard to Virginia.  The captain felt his mission was to report what we had done to the man who had ordered our mission in the first place.  He found            President Davis near Fredericksburg and gained an audience on the basis of his name and reputation.

     “Mr. President, I’ve come to report a mission accomplished.  We installed the Stars and Bars on Picacho Peak in the Arizona Territory claiming the territory for the Confederacy.  I reported the same to the general at the Rio Grande but I fear he will not send the reinforcements and resupply necessary to hold our position.”

     “Captain, you’ve done commendable work.  I’ll see you and your men will receive medals and letters of commendation.  As for the request for reinforcements and resupply, I’ll take that into consideration with my advisors.  A lot of things have happened since you traveled west.  Our sights are not as high as in those heady days.  We’re now fighting for our very lives.  Thank you for coming personally to tell of your success.  I’ll have Mr. Anthony brief you on our southwest strategy.  When you’ve heard him, you’ll know the correct state of affairs.  Good day, and God bless you and your men.”

     Captain Foster met Mr. Anthony.  We all accompanied him to that meeting.  The contrast between that perfumed fop and our irregulars was graphic.

     “I’m sure Mr. Davis has outlined our position.  We have to pull back from all our positions west of the Rio Grande.  That includes the Arizona Territory.  Our position on our soldiers in that area is they are privileged to disband and go to ground.  They are free to make their livings however they can.  The Confederacy is confined to the thirteen original states of the Stars and Bars.  We can only support those states.  Between us, we may have to make hard choices about some of those as well.  Captain, you’ve fought well.  You and your men are not regular forces.  You therefore have three options.  You can become regular forces.  You can find some irregular force that will accept your service.  You can take off your uniforms and strike out for someplace outside the Thirteen States and make your way in the world.  If you wish to do the latter, I’m charged to give you thirty gold pieces each for your bravery and service.”

      “Mr. Anthony, you’ll give my men and me our thirty gold pieces right now.  We’ll then decide on our futures.”

      The aide brought out a small casket and counted out the gold pieces. 

      When he had given each man his due, he said, “Be glad it’s not Confederate currency.  That may not be very practical where you are going.”

      I had to restrain the captain from shoving his sword straight through this political prig.  Outside the official circle, the captain said he was going back to the Arizona Territory and start a new life.  He told us we were free to do as we chose.  The others decided to go back where they came from.  I chose to stay with the captain.

Together we made our way west again and, inevitably to the area of Picacho.  We bought a parcel of land for a ranch and found it had an aquifer under it.  That allowed us to farm as well as ranch.  Max took the lead.  I was his executive.  We grew our holdings and our herds.  The Foster Ranch was a success.  We hired many former                 Confederate soldiers in our growing concern.  We hired former Union soldiers as well.  We did it all in view of Picacho Peak, which cast its shadow on our ranch one season each year.  I did not know it but the peak was a beacon for Max’s soul.

      One day Max told me, “Ike, I’ve got to climb the peak again to see what’s left of our legacy.”

I thought the idea crazy.  We climbed that peak when we were young.  We were not aged, but time does take a toll.  Yet Max wanted to make the climb.  So we took a week and camped beneath the peak.  We made the climb right to the top.  From there we saw the wall of dust two miles high and heading from the south right towards us.  Lightning and thunder accompanied the sandy mass.  I urged Max to try to make it down from the peak before the sandstorm hit.

      “We’d never make it,” he said, standing at his full height and looking at the storm with a glint in his eyes.  “I came for this.  I’ve been on this peak before to witness it.  Just hang on and watch.”

       I found some old rope that we had used to tie down the Stars and Bars, but no other sign of our having been on the peak was visible.  I used the rope to tie us back to back as we sat on the ground.  There we watched the storm engulf the peak and sting us with its biting sand.  Then the rain began and the clouds covered the valley.  The winds blew harder than I remembered.  The lightning flashed in all directions, but as we watched the flashes and heard the thunder, they seemed to be concentrating more and more on the peak.  I don’t know when the lightning struck us, but it knifed right through us both into the peak.  Max was delirious with joy and shouted at me.

      “Look, look there!” He pointed through the rain and sand.  An enormous white horse seemed to hover in the air.  It careered and stood with its hooves on the peak.  It may have whinnied.  If it did, I did not hear it.  Lighting flashed around and through it.  The horse seemed to become a bolt of lighting.  The mountain and the giant horse seemed to be engulfed in blue fire.  Then the vision was gone. 

       The rain still fell in torrents.  The thunder and lightning passed north and made its way up the valley.  Max sat there laughing.  I suppose I was laughing too.  We were powerless to do anything else.  The rain subsided.  In the darkness Max nudged me and made motions to untie the ropes that held us together.  We rose unsteadily and, side by side, we watched the lightning as the rain ceased.  The clouds began to open up, and here and there shafts of sunlight sliced right to the ground.

      “We’ll have to wait until it dries before we climb down again,” he said.  “I think we were struck by lightning.  Yet I’m talking.  Are you all right, Ike?”

      “I’m fine.  Once long ago you said you’d tell me about what you saw on this mountain top when you were alone and the lightning storm hit.”

      “You’ve witnessed it yourself.  Need I say anything more?”

      Well, while you were up here on the mountain waiting for a message from the thunder gods, I was down getting drenched in my hide above the camp.  I saw a horse just like the one we just witnessed together.  The difference was, the horse I saw was real and not a vision.  I think it was the same horse, Max.  What do you think of that?”

      “I think we’ve experienced—not once, but twice—the great white horse that the Indians have talked about since time immemorial.”

      “What do the Indians say the white horse means?”

      “Ike, does it have to have a particular meaning?”

      “I guess not.  It’s sure an image you remember.”

      We watched the sky clear and the drying did not take long.  We climbed back down from the peak and collapsed in our sodden tent for the night.  I woke up around midnight to relieve myself.  I looked up into a sky alive with stars.

      “There’s nothing quite like it, is there, Ike.”

      Max had come to relieve himself.  We gazed at the sky and watched the shooting stars.  In the distance I heard a coyote howl.

      “Now we’d best be careful.”

      “Careful of the coyotes?”

      “No of the scorpions.  They’ll be mad about the water and move around looking for new dwellings.”

      “Maybe it’s time to head back to the ranch.”

       “You weren’t so squeamish when we fought the Apaches.”

       “Max, tell me, do you miss the dream of the Confederate Empire?”

       “How can I miss a dream I still cherish?  You and I and the boys were closer to that dream than anyone.  I’ll never forget the look on old Jefferson Davis’s face when he told us the Empire was impossibility.”

      “Were we all foolish?”

      “Not hardly.  That horse we saw on that mountain some would say was a consensual hallucination.  That lightning that hit us both went straight through but did not kill us.  Some say that was a miracle.”

      “The miracle was we did not die of it.”

      “Neither did we die of having the dream of a Confederate Empire.  I’ll bet it will take a hundred, or maybe two hundred years for that dream to die.”

      “When I think we planted all that cotton out here in Arizona.”

      “’Away down south in the land of cotton.’”

      “You make my point, Max.”

      “It seems I’m always making your point, Ike.”

      The two men laughed until their sides were set to split.

      Then without a word about their mutual decision, the two friends and former Confederate heroes broke camp, saddled their horses and rode into the night.  As they rode they sang an old rebel song.  In the distance the coyotes seemed to sing along.

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