The Red Ghost

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One of the Army muleteers was practicing loading a camel and piled on too much to suit the beast. It groaned and complained in the usual camel fashion and refused to rise. The muleteer kicked it in the belly. The camel turned its head and spat full in his face a huge and foul-smelling wad of cud. Wild with rage, the muleteer grabbed a club and swung at the animal’s head. The camel dodged easily, emitted a shrill, hair-raising scream, and raked the man’s arm to the bone with its great, tusklike incisors.

That encounter was the beginning of an unremitting war on the camels by the Army’s mule skinners. Nothing could have been better designed to enrage such men than the camels’ habit of spitting copiously and accurately on anyone rousing their resentment. This means of reprisal, together with the animals’ ways of moaning and groaning at being loaded and their seemingly haughty, disdainful expression, made many of those employed to handle them hate them to the point of obsession.

Besides hating the camels for their looks and lack of proper docility under harsh treatment, the cavalrymen despised them as foreign. This is ironic, because camels were American for millions of years before any member of the human family showed up in this hemisphere. The whole camel family, like the horse family, evolved here and spread to the eastern hemisphere via the then well-traveled land bridge from Alaska to Siberia a mere million years ago. One species of true camel persisted in California until fifteen thousand years ago, and the South American branch, which includes the llamas and vicunas, still flourishes. Some of the latter are the only members of the family still persisting in the wild state, all the Old World camels having long since submitted to the domestication process that began before the dawn of history.

By the time of his transfer to the East, Lieutenant Beale had come to realize that the men’s attitude toward the camels was the chief obstacle to his plans. Because he had become fond of the animals and had learned how to handle them, he knew that they could be, as he phrased it, “so quiet and docile that frequently we forget they are with us.” But he found it impossible to leave them with the men without his personal supervision. Even harsh punishment of teamsters caught mistreating the camels had little effect.

“The Americans of the class who seek such employment,” Beale wrote in a letter to Floyd, “are totally unfit for it, being for the most part harsh, cruel and impatient with the animals entrusted to their care.” He advised hiring Mexicans to manage the beasts.

But Beale soon was transferred, and his suggestion was ignored. His departure actually ended the experiment, although the Army took a while to make abandonment of it official. When he left, the camels were scattered among military posts from Texas to California, and the men unwillingly in charge of them had little trouble arranging for their “escape” a few at a time into the desert. When the project was formally abandoned in 1863, those left to be auctioned off in California numbered only thirty-odd.

Meantime, several San Francisco mining magnates had organized a company for the purpose of importing camels for use in Nevada. These men had heard something of the Army’s troubles with its camels and thought they had an explanation for it—namely, that the one-humped dromedary of the Near East that the Army had picked was the wrong kind of camel. The proper camel for the American West, they thought, was the two-humped Bactrian from the Mongolian deserts of the Far East. The records do not name the man who sold the mine owners this bill of goods. San Francisco abounded in confidence games in those days, and this was a minor operation. Its result was the importation from China of twenty Bactrians which were driven across the mountains to be put to work hauling salt from the southern Nevada marshes to the Virginia City refineries.

The profit motive quickly proved as ineffective as army discipline in restraining the reaction to the camels of the men hired to handle them. Although the Bactrians were a little stronger and heavier than Beale’s dromedaries and thus capable of bearing still bigger burdens, they were no less resentful of mistreatment. Once a teamster became enraged at one of the animals when it succeeded in ridding itself of most of what it considered an overload. The man grabbed the beast’s halter and attempted to beat it into submission as he would have beaten a mule. Instead of submitting, the camel went berserk and trampled him to death before his friends could shoot it.

This camel was the most fortunate of the imported Bactrians. Many of the others had to endure months of mistreatment before succumbing. Some of the mistreatment, however, was the result more of ignorance than of malice. To the camel handlers the legend that the animals store great quantities of water in their humps was a matter of unquestioned fact, and it meant that so long as the humps seemed intact the camels needed no watering. In all likelihood many of the Bactrians died of thirst.