A Historical Novel by R. Reed Johnson

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New Mexico, 1778

   Silent and still as the rocks that surrounded them, the two brothers stood on the summit of a high sierra in the northern reaches of the Spanish province of New Mexico. The hot midday sun blazed down upon them as they carefully inspected the surrounding hills and valleys for any sign of movement. Except for the silent flight of two majestic eagles soaring in the thermals high above their heads and the occasional flick of their horses’ tails as they whisked away an annoying fly, everything was quiet. Far below and miles to the south of them, a yellow haze of dust hovered above the valley floor, marking the advance of a ragtag army led by Lieutenant Colonel Don Juan Bautista de Anza, the current governor and commandant of the Province of New Mexico. The vast region was so named in the 1500s after the Spanish had captured the territory and declared it to be a possession of Spain.

   Juan and Pedro Vasquez were scouts for the army. Juan, the older of the two, was a man in his late twenties, of medium height, stocky, and powerfully built. His jet-black hair with matching eyes accented his swarthy, sunburned countenance. He appeared to be a man of great strength and dependability, an impression enhanced by his firm, squared jaw, now covered by a week's growth of beard. Pedro presented a sharp contrast. Indeed, upon seeing them side by side, no one would have suspected that they were related, let alone brothers. Although two years younger than Juan, Pedro was fully six inches taller and as slender as a sapling. His skin was fair, reflecting the Castilian ancestry of their mother. He was deeply tanned, his eyes blue, and his hair the color of gold. He moved with the grace of a dancer that concealed the surprising strength of his lean muscles.
Scouting was what Juan and Pedro liked to do best, and they were good at it. They both could read animal and Indian sign better than most folks could read books. Rarely did anything escape their attention. Five days ago on Sunday, August the fifteenth, Juan and Pedro had accompanied Governor Anza and eighty-five Spanish soldiers as they marched twelve leagues northward along the Camino Real from Santa Fe to an encampment in the Wood of San Juan de los Caballeros. There, the colonel ordered a halt in order to assemble the balance of his troops before proceeding on his campaign. Immediately upon their arrival, he dispatched Juan and Pedro with orders to scout along his intended route for any sign of the Comanche renagades that had been wreaking havoc in the northern reaches of the Province of New Mexico. They were to rejoin the army four days hence — sooner if they had something to report. 

Several attempts to quell the Comanche attacks had been made by Don Pedro Fermin de Mendinueta, the prior governor of New Mexico, and by his predecessors, but all had met with failure. In the fall of 1778, Anza was appointed governor, replacing de Mendinueta and now, almost a year later, he was setting forth on a determined effort to rid the country of the Comanche scourge.

   For many years, the warlike Comanche had ravaged the Spanish settlements and farms throughout the vast Province of New Mexico. Most recently, however, their attacks had concentrated on the valley of the Rio Grande del Norte. Leaving their well-guarded families in rancherias hidden in the coulees and draws of the grass-covered plains east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the fierce Comanche warriors ranged far and wide, pillaging and killing with a barbarity that cast terror into the hearts of the settlers. Nor were members of other Indian tribes spared their savagery. The Ute, Apache, and Navajo were avowed enemies of the Comanche, as their many bloody battles attested.

   One Comanche leader stood out above all the others in daring and bravery as well as ferocity. His name was Cuerno Verde (Greenhorn), the celebrated warchief of the Comanche. He was so named by the old men of the Comanche council because he was bold, daring, and fearless, like a young buck deer whose antlers were still green with velvet. Cuerno Verde’s consuming hatred of the Spaniards was born the moment they had killed his father in battle. Seeking revenge, he had destroyed many pueblos and farms, massacring hundreds with a cold fury.

   Governor Mendinueta had made a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to curb this cunning enemy, and the lot now fell to his successor. Don Juan de Anza willingly picked up the gauntlet. Both his father and grandfather had campaigned against the Indians in years past, and some of the governor’s own family had been brutally killed in a Comanche raid. So not surprisingly, hatred of the Comanche burned as deeply in his heart as did hatred of the Spanish in Cuerno Verde’s, and for much the same reason.

   Early in the morning on the twentieth day of August, Colonel Anza, along with 573 variously equipped soldiers, settlers, and Indians left the encampment and crossed over to the west side of the Rio Grande del Norte. From there they intended to proceed in a north-northwesterly direction, staying well to the west of the Rio Grande del Norte and taking precautions to avoid being discovered. All previous campaigns had gone north up the Rio Grande del Norte valley and then eastward over a pass in the Taos Mountains into the Great Plains — the home of the Comanche. Without exception, their quarry, having been forewarned, escaped.

   This was the day Juan and Pedro were to report to Colonel Anza, and they had little to relate, for they had found no evidence of Indian activity, either friendly or hostile. But that would soon change. It was midafternoon when Pedro called Juan's attention to a cloud of dust rising from the valley of the Rio de los Conejos valley several leagues to the north. But what was causing it? From where they were standing they couldn’t be sure. It might only be a herd of buffalo milling about in the valley, but, what was just as likely and far more worrisome, it might be a Comanche war party on their way to attack Colonel Anza’s army. Fearing the latter, the brothers mounted their horses and rode northward as rapidly as they dared without stirring up a telltale dust cloud of their own.

   Shortly before sundown, Juan and Pedro approached a ridge overlooking the Rio de los Conejos. Dismounting, they cautiously led their horses to a vantage point where they looked down upon a startling sight. An Indian war party, numbering in the hundreds, was hurrying to set up camp before they were overtaken by darkness. But who were they? And to what nation did they belong? Were they Ute, Apache, Navaho, or the dreaded Comanche? From this distance they couldn’t be sure.

   Tying their mounts to a nearby tree, the brothers slowly crept closer until the Indians were no more than three hundred feet below them. After studying them carefully for a few moments, Juan heaved a great sigh of relief. 

   “They're Utes,” he whispered. “the tall fellow standing by that big rock is Moara, the war chief of the Mouache. His son, Pinto, is standing on his right, and the powerfully built Indian next to him is the war chief of the Jicarilla Apaches. I’m sure you remember, Pedro, you met all three of them at that meeting in Santa Fe when the Ute and Jicarilla Apache leaders came to ask the governor for his help in putting an end to Querno Verde’s raids. They must be on their way to join the colonel right now.” 

   Remounting their horses, the brothers slowly worked their way down to the valley floor with their muskets held high above their heads in a gesture of peace. As they drew near to the Indian encampment, Juan called out to them in their own language, assuring them that he and Pedro had come in peace and asking that they be taken to Chief Moara. As they approached, the chiefs recognized them and welcomed them by clasping their arms in a gesture of friendship. Chief Moara was a tall, muscular man in the prime of his life. His handsome face and brow were accentuated by an aquiline nose set between two piercing black eyes, framed by jet-black hair that fell to his shoulders in two long braids. Pinto was the same age as Juan, and, while he wasn’t as striking in appearance as his father, he was nonetheless handsome. His hair was black like Moara's, but his skin was much lighter and, surprisingly, his eyes were blue. 

   After their initial greetings, Juan explained to the chiefs that their war party need go no farther for Colonel Anza and his army would be joining them on the following day. That evening the brothers enjoyed the food and hospitality of their Indian hosts, and the following morning at daybreak they left to inform Colonel Anza that his Ute and Apache allies were awaiting his arrival in the Rio de los Conejos valley. 

   It was midafternoon on the following day when Anza’s army arrived at the Indian encampment and, within minutes of their arrival, the colonel, Chief Moara, and the Apache war chiefs met to discuss and decide how best to proceed from there in order to catch Querno Verde by surprise. With Juan acting as interpreter, the colonel outlined the route he proposed they take on the campaign. After listening carefully to his suggestions and adding some of their own, the chiefs agreed. Following that, the colonel explained to the Indians that they and their warriors were to be subject to his orders — a stipulation to which they also readily agreed. 

   Early the next morning, the army resumed its advance, marching north-northeast over very rough terrain until they reached the Rio de las Jaras. Following Chief Moara’s advice, for the next four days they marched only at night to avoid being seen by an enemy scout from atop an overlooking mountain. Two nights later they entered a wide valley bordered by lofty mountains on either side, and on the morning of the twenty-fifth of August, eleven days out of Santa Fe, they arrived at an arroyo the colonel named Santa Xines. Immediately upon their arrival, Colonel Anza, Chief Moara, and the Apache chiefs met to discuss and decide how best to proceed from there. Chief Moara advised that they continue going north past the Rio de Napestle and over a small mountain range into a vast, open valley called “The Valle Salado” — so named by the early Spanish explorers because of a large salt deposit near its west side. Upon reaching the park, the army should then head eastward to the foot of the Sierra Almagre and, from there, proceed in a southeasterly direction, skirting the south side of a lofty, snow-capped mountain and entering into the great plains — the homeland of the Comanche. 

   Considering it good advice, Colonel Anza ordered Juan and Pedro to scout out a good route for the army to follow. Should they see any sign of the Comanche, they were to return at once and report to the colonel; otherwise they were to rejoin the army while it was en route on the following day.

   Accordingly, after a short rest, the brothers left on their assignment. Riding rapidly to the northern end of the valley, they ascended to the summit of a pass where they sat in their saddles and looked with awe at a range of mighty mountains — one lofty peak after another, stretching into the north, seemingly without end. The Rio de Napestle bordered it on the east. After a brief pause to eat and rest, the brothers descended a narrow ravine into the valley and, after fording the river, continued to ride northward over a low range of mountains and into the southern end of the vast Valle Salado. From there they headed eastward in the direction of the Sierra del Almagre. 

   As they drew near to the mountains, they came upon a small, sheltered valley where there was abundant grass and water. It was a pleasant spot, and because it would soon be dark they set up camp for the night. By leaving early the following morning, they could easily rejoin the army and report to Colonel Anza before he reached the Valle Salado. That evening, as Juan and Pedro were setting up camp, they were startled to hear a deep raspy voice utter a gruff greeting. 

   “Buenos dias, amigos.” 

   Taken completely by surprise, both brothers grabbed for their muskets, searching at the same time for the source of the gravel-throated greeting. There, no more than twenty feet away, stood a small, bearded man dressed in dirty buckskins and wearing a disreputable looking fur hat. Two observant blue eyes peered from beneath the cap and above a craggy nose which was largely engulfed by a magnificent gray beard that covered his entire upper chest — matched by an even longer mane of white hair extending down his back. 

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