Eleven soldiers attempt to hold a river crossing in the middle of the desert.
The Colorado River’s most vital point for American settlement is the ferryboat at Yuma Crossing. When the gold rush begins, a gang of white outlaws seizes the ferry from the local Yuma tribesmen, who have operated the crossing for decades. The US Army rousts the outlaws, but the high command decides to keep the crossing rather than return it to the Yuma. No one considers how badly the Yumas want the ferry back.
Left in command of the ferry is Lieutenant Thomas Sweeny, a one-armed Irishman who wins the dangerous assignment by bringing charges against an alcoholic major. Hundreds of miles from reinforcements, he occupies the position with a 10-man force, limited supplies, and no way to call for help. In the distance, 400 Yuma prepare for battle, intent on reclaiming what once was theirs.
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By Brian Garfield
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1971 Brian Garfield
All rights reserved.
In a poor mood I went down the slope, looking for Sweeny, loathing the heat and the Dutchman. Along the wide river a layer of sunset heat stirred close to the banks; it clouded the dust around my boots and swirled a mist on the brown surface of the Colorado. In the bottoms the brush slowed my pace, where the spring overflow had dried and left behind a treacherous footing of clay mud, cracked into cakes by the sun.
I followed the bend around toward the west, tipping the shako visor far down over my eyes against the red glare, and came to a tiny field that sprouted sickly tufts of new young corn, beans, pumpkins. I would have trampled across if I hadn't been under surveillance: Pascual's Yuma warriors kept sharp eyes on the vital seedlings. One of them, tall and naked, stood by the bank to my left with a toketa club balanced across his shoulder; and, accordingly, I made a point of walking carefully around the random-shaped edge of the field. The Indian returned his simmering attention to the ferryboat, creaking its way across the quarter-mile width of the Colorado on its guy ropes, poled by four of Lou Yaeger's hairy boatmen.
I pushed through the scrub willows and felt the heat: it pasted the shirt to my back, ran sweat into my eyes. It was worse down here; the bottoms stored it up like a furnace.
A woman came by with a bucket of woven grass, barefoot, moving with high-hipped grace. According to prevailing fashion she wore a rabbit-skin breechclout and a string of trader's beads, nothing more. She presented a proud brace of jutting brown breasts tipped with dark rosettes, drew my hungry attention, gave me a shy flirting laugh, and went by toward the village.
Close by the edge of the village I found Sweeny in the flood-bottom rushes, down on one knee, talking earnestly with old Pascual, discoursing in bad Spanish with wide sweeps of his arm. Pascual was intent, suspicious. I caught Sweeny's eye but he frowned a warning at me without interrupting his talk.
Antoine Leroux squatted in the background like a slumbering gray wolf. I joined him and watched Sweeny teach the old chief to make water look as if it was boiling by dropping seltzer salts in it. Antoine Leroux said to me, "A frinly gesture, dimonstratin' white man's medicine. H'are yew, Lieutenant?"
"Hot and rancid," I replied. "He just about done?"
"Jest about." Antoine's hair was pewter-gray, a wild, thick crop that stood out as if struck by lightning. He was fifty years old, half-French and half Mexican-Indian, and he looked all of it. His habitual expression was that of a man who had just smelled something distasteful; the long face was weathered, dour and wry, expressive of indescribable anguish. He said, "Ever little thang heps if it keeps 'em frinly."
"The Dutchman wants us," I said. "Let's bust this up."
"Gentle down, Lieutenant. Been mah sperience when you fand a frinly Innun you smart to keep him that way. Maybe Tom's medicine will hep old Pascual stay chief. Otherwise some of them hotbloods bump the old gent aside, we get trouble up to the asshole."
I scowled at him and turned to look at the others. Pascual was a crickety old man with a coppery parchment face that looked as if it belonged on an old Roman coin. His abrupt outbursts of idiot giggling were part of a calculated pose—somebody must have told him the white men liked it best if he acted like a fragile antique made childish by senility. I suppose it might have fooled the Dutchman. But I did not trust Pascual.
Sweeny sprinkled powder into the pot. The water sizzled and the old man cackled with delight. Sweeny, not fooled, stroked his beard and watched. He had a pipe clenched in his teeth and a merry glint in his dark eyes. Thin, tiny, black-bearded, he was my age, but his laugh made him younger. Four years ago at Cerro Gordo I had thought they'd knocked all the laughter out of him, but I was wrong; nothing could repress him. I had been scalded by that first meeting with him, the memory of it burned in as if by hot steel, and it still came back often: Sweeny on a pallet in a big tent full of carnage, his face bloodless white, his eyes hardly tracking, his right arm truncated below the shoulder by the surgeon's bloody saw. I had come to him bearing a macabre gift: Kearny had lost his left arm, had heard about Sweeny, and had sent me to that dismal field hospital in Mexico with all his left-hand dress gloves and a. note full of gallows humor. Sweeny hadn't laughed then. But later he had.
That had been a thousand miles ago. Now Sweeny wore the empty right sleeve pinned up at his shoulder like a flag of defiance. He was laughing with Pascual as if he had never known pain.
The old Indian got up from his haunches, talking toothlessly. Sweeny pressed the bag of seltzer powders into his hand and Pascual came away clutching it, grinning. He favored Leroux and me with the grin and hurried into the village.
Before he spoke to me, Sweeny bit off a piece of plug tobacco and thumbed it down into his pipe, put a match to it and chugged out a disgusting cloud of smoke. "Well? Cat got your tongue? What disaster have we got this time?"
"Did I say a word?"
"The minute I saw your face," he said, "I knew the world had fallen down around your ankles."
Antoine Leroux was easy prey to Sweeny's erratic wit; he nearly collapsed. All I said was, "The Dutchman's holding court. You and I have been summoned."
"To come before the august presence," Sweeny said. "Has he found us out?"
"God knows. Hardcastle thinks he's decided to pull out."
Antoine exploded in a few choice phrases. Sweeny rubbed the back of his neck and squinted. "Balls. Pull out of here now?"
Antoine said, "What about the fuckin' ferryboat?"
"Come on," I said, and stepped off.
Sweeny batted through the brush beside me, sucking his pipe, his eyes agleam with suspicion. "What kind of shape is the darlin' Major in? Treating his wounds with alcohol again?"
"I don't know. I didn't see him. Hardcastle said he was puffed up full of resolve."
Sweeny said, "I will bet he looks like a seasick passenger who can't get the porthole open. Wouldn't it be a parfit time to paint the wagon mules pink and chartreuse, and herd them through his tent?" His leer was obscene.
Leroux began to shake with silent laughter that developed into an agony of mirth: he hopped around in a circle behind us with his long homely face twisted by the pain of a thousand tortures. His big feet flapped like paddles. Finally he caught up with us, short of breath. "Where the hell you fixin' to fand pink paint out cheer?"
"Pascual ought to know how to make it." Sweeny made an impudent gesture toward the top of the bluff with a distended finger. He began to turn back toward the village but I grabbed his arm. He glared at me. "What's the matter with you?"
"You heard what I said. He's holding an audience—he wants us there."
"Balls. By now he doesn't even remember why he wanted us."
Antoine said, "Naw. Heintzelman gives awders, drunk or otherwise, you soldier boys bound to obey them."
Sweeny came along reluctantly. We started up the slope of the bluff and Antoine said, "Sweet Christ, he pulls out rat nah, you gonna have yoseff one bitch of a little old uprising."
"Never let it be said," Sweeny remarked loftily, "that the mind of Major Samuel P. Heintzelman could be swayed by such a minuscule item as an Indian uprising."
"Shee-yit," said Antoine.
We climbed toward the stockade, up the backside of the bluff, which was the only practical approach. Up in the corner blockhouse two sleepy soldiers stood guard over our single artillery piece, the diminutive brass twelve-pounder. We had floated the logs downriver all the way from the Black Canyon, and on this brushy, arid hill the pole stockade made an incongruous shape against the sky. The Indians had got used to it faster than I had; it still looked out of place to me, so that I had no trouble visualizing it crumbling into powder dust like everything else on this desert: it was like an unnatural growth, risking Nature's wrath by displeasing her.
I felt uneasy. I said to Sweeny, "Suppose the Dutchman's found out about the charges we filed?"
Sweeny said, "Careful you don't worry yourself into an untimely grave, Edward."
"Take it seriously, for once," I insisted. "Or didn't you read what you were signing when we drew them up?"
Sweeny was astonished. "Read them?"
"Then you'd withdraw them if he put pressure on?"
It brought him around; his face changed and he said in a different voice, "No—no."
"That's what I thought."
He didn't say anything more before we reached the post. The bored sentry at the gate was matching knife-throws with a Yuma warrior who whooped every time he scored a point. We took the sentry's salute and went inside, in twilight, and Antoine said immediately, "Sweet Christ."
The garrison, bedouin-style tents covered by thatched sun-sheds, was full of busy, active motion—troopers scurrying back and forth with burdens, stripped down to their gray flannel pullovers and galluses, sleeves rolled up, streaming sweat, converging in confused knots around the wagon corrals. Loud oaths carried across the flat of the parade ground, sergeants bellowing orders. I had never seen anything like it. "What the hell?"
Antoine said, "Begins to look lak Hardcastle was rat."
Sweeny said, "Bite your tongue, Antoine."
That was when Magruder and Bean erupted from a tent in our path, locked together in combat. Grunting, cursing, wrestling, they rolled across the hardpan. It brought me up short. Antoine said, "Jesus Christ." I took a step forward to put a stop to it—but Sweeny put out a detaining hand:
"Let them be having their fun."
They were Sweeny's men, not mine. I scowled at him. The privates pummeled each other, oblivious, and I said to Sweeny, "Why don't you discipline them once in a while? They could use a few inhibitions."
"Fuck discipline. You silly West Pointer. They came out here for a fight, didn't they?"
Magruder and Bean heaved to their feet and went at each other with fists. Antoine, yawning, picked a wide path around them and strolled toward the Major's tent at the end of the compound. Sweeny said, "Get your left up, Magruder. No, Jesus, your other left!"
I said, "You ridiculous mick," and went after Antoine, refusing to look back. I heard someone strike a loud blow, like the smack of the flat of a cleaver against beefsteak. Sweeny's loud laugh rang across the post; I heard a howl and Bean's hoarse voice: "Lord Christ, all right. All right—enough!"
Sweeny came along and remarked to me, "If you don't let them blow off steam now and then they tend to boil over."
Hardcastle was lying in wait near the Dutchman's tent, worry on his big red face. Sweeny greeted him with good cheer: "My good Captain."
Hardcastle cleared his throat and said, in a voice meant to carry no farther than our ears, "You're late, I'm nervous, and he's fit to be tied."
Foolishly I said, "What's all the activity?"
"Can't you see for yourself?"
"I was hoping it was a mirage."
Sweeny said, "And so we're packing it up, are we?"
Hardcastle's whisper was conspiratorial. "He's about to run out of whisky and he wants to get back to the fleshpots of San Diego."
"Shee-yit," said Antoine.
Hardcastle said, "Pulling out at first light. You'd better get in there—he wants all three of you in the very worst way."
I said, "What's his condition?"
I exchanged glances with Sweeny and Antoine. Hardcastle rolled his eyes and walked away, with Sweeny hissing at him, "Craven coward!" He made a face and walked to the tent, stamped his feet and said in a loud voice, "Sir, Lieutenants Sweeny and Murray. And Scout Leroux."
"Get your asses in here," the Dutchman roared from within. His voice was alarmingly clear and firm.
I followed Sweeny inside under the flap. Antoine trailed in after us and ranged himself by the entrance as if ready to bolt.
The Dutchman was at his camp table with his large purple face propped up in his palm. His eyes were not bloodshot, they appeared to be in focus, and he was clearly in one of his sarcastic moods. "About goddamn time," he snapped. "Mister Sweeny, considering the Mexican War was of relatively brief duration, how is it you managed to get there promptly enough to get your arm blown off?"
"One would suppose the Mexicans thought I was worth waiting for, sir."
Antoine snickered. The Dutchman silenced it with a savage look. The lamp on the camp table threw his face into harsh relief when he sat back. He was half-bald, hair making a bushy line across the top of his head from ear to ear—he always looked more like a bartender than an officer. He said to Sweeny, "I wish it had been your head."
Antoine said, "You making a fucking big mistake. You can't pull out rat nah—you do, and you get ever last one of them ferryboat men killed, just as sure and certain as they's a hole in your ass."
The Major gave him a pained look. Finally he emitted a large sigh, swung his feet to the floor, sat up, scratched his chest, and said, "Horse shit."
"Naw," Antoine said.
The Major's unhappy glance roved from face to face. "For no good reason that I can think of," he said, "I'll tell you what I have already told those officers who were kind enough to report here an hour ago when summoned. The facts are perhaps so simple that even your uncluttered brains can absorb them. One: Our last supply train had to be abandoned in the dunes forty miles west of here because the wagons sank up to their bottoms in sand."
Sweeny said, sotto voce, "How much whisky was aboard?"
If the Major heard it he ignored it. He went on: "Two: The troops are on half-rations and I see no prospect for relief. Three: One reason we were sent here was to place the regiment as far as possible from the goldfields, so we could minimize desertions from the ranks. As of this morning's roll call, fifty-eight men have disappeared from this post in the past five months. Obviously that example of War Department genius was faulty somewhere. Four: The primary reason we were sent here was to protect the ferryboat. After the past five months' experience with that old fool Pascual it seems clear to me a squad of armed men, let alone an entire regiment, could protect the ferry damn well."
Antoine gave a derisive snort. "I always knowed you had your brains up your ass."
The Major reared back on his dignity. "I don't like your tone, Antoine. You keep a civil tongue in your head."
"I'm a civilian."
"I got a right to speak my piece."
"Fine. Speak it somewhere else."
"I got a right here."
"Hah! I can have you put off Army property any time."
"I expeck you could. Only then you got to fand yoseff somebody else to guide you acrosst the dunes." Antoine's face settled into a benign agony which passed for smugness. I saw Sweeny grin behind his hand before he put the pipe back in his mouth.
The Major said, "I don't intend to leave the boat crews unprotected. But I can't keep the regiment supplied here. There's only one thing to do—and we're doing it. I'm leaving a detachment here to defend the crossing, and I'll leave all the supplies I can spare. When we reach San Diego I'll send a supply column back, with Antoine to guide the wagons."
Antoine said, "How big a detaichment you gonna leave?"
"Company size, my judgment. Otherwise they git attackted just once by them Innuns and they git dead."
"Horse shit. These savages haven't got guns. A dozen well-armed men will do—I can't provide supplies for more."
"Shee-yit, you cain't——"
"I can. By God I can. Shut up, Antoine. You're dismissed. Get out of here."
When Antoine glanced at Sweeny I saw Sweeny shake his head slightly. Antoine wheeled with a curse and tramped out.
The Dutchman cocked his head, reassuring himself Antoine had gone beyond earshot. Then he sat back at the camp table and steepled his fingers. "What, no explosion of remarks from you two? You've never approved of a single decision of mine in the past and I'm sure this is no exception. Well?"
Sweeny said, "You're in command here."
"How kind of you to recall. You, Murray?"
"Would anything I say change your mind?"
"Not goddamn likely."
He blinked and put his palms down on the table. "Indeed. Think of that." He screwed his face up in a squint, which he directed at Sweeny. "Peculiar, to say the least, when suddenly you two loudmouthed crows have nothing at all to say."
Excerpted from Sweeny's Honor by Brian Garfield. Copyright © 1971 Brian Garfield. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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