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It took five thousand American troopers a year and a half to run down the great Apache raider and his lethal band. They did it by tough persistence and skill—or was it guile?
June 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 4
Just before sunrise on May 15, 1885, Lieutenant Britton Davis, of the United States Third Cavalry, awoke in his tent at Turkey Creek, Arizona Territory. He stretched, pulled on his clothes and boots, and stepped into the clear cool of the morning.
In the forest glade where usually, at this hour, only the dark trunks of great pines were to be seen, he was instantly aware of the shadowy figures of perhaps forty Indians, huddled silently before his tent. Among them Davis recognized the chiefs and subchiefs of the most dangerous Apache band on the reservation: the Chiricahuas.
That in itself was not alarming, since Davis often met the chiefs for sunrise discussions. But on this morning things looked different. The chiefs seemed sullen. On top of a nearby knoll, keeping watch toward Fort Apache seventeen miles away—the nearest army garrison—Davis could see a pair of Indians; their silhouettes showed rifles. Another ominous circumstance was that Davis’ Apache scouts—Indians who had been enlisted on the theory that the Chiricahuas could be best policed by their own people—were also gathered in the glade in groups of four or five, and they too were armed. Clearly they expected trouble.
Through Mickey Free, a half-Irish, half-Apache interpreter, Davis learned without surprise that the chiefs wanted to make formal complaints. He ushered them into his tent, and the Indians squatted in a semicircle. Loco, an elderly chief, began a long, slow speech, but a younger man, a subchief named Chihuahua, broke in impatiently. The trouble was easily explained, he said. The Apaches were angry because Davis, as the officer in charge of their camp, had jailed some of them for exercising two time-hopored customs: drinking tiswin (a strong beer made from corn) and beating wives. They had surrendered and come to live peacefully on the i-eservation, Chihuahua said, but they had made no agreement to alter their domestic: habits. What they drank, and how they disciplined their wives, was no business of the U.S. Army.
Davis began an explanation of why General George Crook, his commanding officer, had felt it necessary to prohibit these folkways, but he was shortly interrupted by Nana, the oldest of the Chiricahua leaders.
“Tell the Stout Chief [Davis],” Nana said harshly to the interpreter, “that he can’t advise me how to treat my women. He is only a boy. I killed men before he was born.” And with as much dignity as his bent and wrinkled body could command, Nana stalked out.
Davis knew now that the situation was serious. Nana, despite his eighty-odd years, had only recently surrendered his warriors after a frightening series of bloody raids on Mexican and American ranches, and his status among the Chiricahuas was still far from emeritus. The other chiefs were muttering their approval, and Chihuahua was launching into a more defiant speech, the gist of which was that there was no Army guardhouse big enough to hold all five hundred of the Apaches assigned to the Turkey Creek part of the reservation. Almost more disturbing than Chihuahua’s open defiance was the glowering look on the eagle face of Geronimo, whom Davis regarded as “thoroughly vicious, intractable, and treacherous”—the worst of the Apache leaders. If looks could kill, the Lieutenant was about to join the already extensive company of Geronimo’s victims.
Deciding to play for time, Davis told the Indians he would telegraph General Crook, at Prescott, and ask him what to do about the complaints. He knew that the chiefs feared and respected Crook, who had put them on the reservation in the first place. The meeting broke up in a mood of tense and temporary compromise.
Having posted his most trusted Apache scouts as watchmen, Davis rode to Fort Apache and sent his telegram. Necessarily it had to go by way of the army post at San Carlos, sixty miles to the south, and Davis knew it would be at least a day before he heard from Crook—maybe more, since it was already the end of the week. After alerting the officers and men at the fort for possible action, the Lieutenant whiled away some uneasy hours on Saturday in the limited weekend diversions of a far-western garrison. Periodically, scouts came in from Turkey Creek to report a state of restless suspense there: the Chiricahuas were waiting.
By Sunday morning there was still no reply from Crook, but Davis hopefully assumed some sort of military preparations must be under way at the General’s end of the line. (He was to discover later that an officer at San Carlos, acting on the advice of a drunken colleague, had never forwarded the message at all.) Late Sunday afternoon there was a post baseball game at Fort Apache. Davis was umpiring, in what was undoubtedly a distracted state of mind, when Mickey Free and Chato, top sergeant of the Apache scouts, galloped in to report that an undetermined number of the Chiricahuas under Geronimo and Nana had broken from the reservation and were heading for their old haunts across the Mexican border.
Davis immediately told the telegraph operator to wire Crook again. Nothing happened: the line had been cut. While the bugles at Fort Apache blew boots and saddles, Davis hurried back to his camp at Turkey Creek to investigate. He was relieved to find his company of Apache scouts in formation in front of his tent, awaiting orders. He knew, however, that among them were many blood relatives of the renegades who had gone with Geronimo. The next few moments would tell whether or not he had a full-blown mutiny on his hands.