For All Nails #173: The Rocky Mountain Horror Show

By Johnny Pez

"Still, the S.C. militia made a valiant effort to arrive in time to prevent the anticipated slaughter, and in one of the most dramatic events of the war, the army pushed on, always moving, until it reached the Arizona town of Bald Eagle, which guarded the Williams Pass. Smithers leveled the city in two days, and then continued on to the eastern end of the pass . . . "
-- Robert Sobel, For Want of a Nail . . ., p. 130.

Bald Eagle, California, USM FN1
2 November 1850

A week before, there had been a small but prosperous frontier town here, nestled in the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Now the town was gone: its buildings razed, its men slaughtered, its women ravished, and its children forced to endure whatever horrifying atrocities their new masters chose to inflict upon them.

From his tent, two miles away from the smoking ruins of the town, General FitzJohn Smithers could hear the hoarse bellows of unholy joy from the men and the cries of pain and fear from the surviving townspeople.

Three months before, they had been a collection of bright, eager young men, the cream of the Southern Confederation's various provincial militias. Now, they were no better than beasts, a modern Hun horde that could outdo the original in the sheer ferocity of its mindless savagery. Smithers had watched it happen -- watched as the relentless drive west across the mountains and deserts of Mexico del Norte ground the men down and eroded away the veneer of civilization, leaving nothing but animal brutality.

The tent flap twitched open, and two men strode inside. They were dressed in tattered green rags that had once been the field uniforms of the North Carolina Provincial Militia. Their names were Carter and Pyle, and they were the closest thing to leaders that the howling mob outside possessed.

A feral look gleamed in Serjeant Carter's eyes as he said, "Gen'ral, ya gotta find us another town, we done jus' about used 'is one up." The once garrulous Lance Corporal Pyle simply stood beside Carter and stared at Smithers the way a hungry wolf stared at a wounded deer.

Smithers had long since given up trying to remind the men of their original mission -- to rescue General David Homer's men from the two Mexican armies that had trapped them in Williams Pass. FN2 The only thing that interested Smithers' men now was the prospect of more rapine and pillage.

Smithers made a great show of unlocking the wooden chest at the foot of his cot and withdrawing from it a weathered square of folded rag paper. The two savages in their once-proud uniforms gazed at it with nearly superstitious awe. With an air of ritual, Smithers unfolded the heavy paper atop the lid of his chest while Carter and Pyle stood on either side of him.

"Guhhh-leee," Pyle moaned as Smithers spread the precious document open. It was a map of the Mexican states of El Norte and California -- the map that had guided them through their long nightmare trek from Fort Webster. FN3 To Carter and Pyle it was literally a treasure map, for each dot upon its surface represented a source of new booty and captives. For Smithers it represented life itself -- he alone possessed the arcane knowledge that could translate the map's lines and dots into real places such as the unlucky Bald Eagle. It was this, and this alone, that had kept Smithers from falling victim to the savage fury -- or hunger -- of the brutes he led, the way the rest of his officers had.

And what made the situation so terribly ironic was that the map was utterly worthless. The men who had drawn it had had no access to firsthand information on the Mexican states, and very likely had never been within a thousand miles of the Mexican border. The result was a map that was more a product of fancy and wishful thinking than of reliable knowledge. The Sierra Nevadas had been mislabeled the Sierra Madres, Arizona had been displaced from its position south of the Rio Grande to someplace west of El Norte, and the course of the Colorado River bore no relation to the reality. Smithers had actually been making for a settlement on the Colorado called Mathers Springs FN4 when he happened upon Bald Eagle -- a town hundreds of miles to the northwest.

At any rate, they were in Bald Eagle now, and Smithers felt something like hope for the first time in what seemed like ages. General Homer's men were in Williams Pass, and here he was in Bald Eagle, a scant fifty miles away -- practically next door by the standards of the Transmontane West. All he had to do now was persuade the barbarian horde at his back to go there.

Slowly reaching out a forefinger, he let the tip rest on the spot marked Bald Eagle. "We are here," he pronounced. "The nearest large town," he moved the finger an inch to the left, "is here. San Fernando." FN5

"Yehhhh," breathed Carter, "thass it. Thassa place. How we get there, Gen'ral?"

Smithers turned away from the map and pointed at one of the walls of his tent, the one he knew faced west. "That way," he said. "Up into the mountains, through the pass, and out the other side. That'll bring us direct to San Fernando."

Carter turned suspicious eyes on Smithers. "You sherr 'bout that, Gen'ral?" One hand rested near the knife on his belt, the filigreed surface of its hilt encrusted with the dried blood of scores of helpless victims.

Speaking with a confidence he didn't feel, Smithers gestured back towards the chest. "It's right there on the map, Serjeant."

Carter and Pyle looked at the map for a long time before Carter nodded and grunted, "Awright. C'mon, Pyle, less go." With that, the two men shambled out of the tent.

When he was certain they were gone, Smithers allowed himself to sag down onto his cot. His long nightmare would soon be at an end. As soon as the men had exhausted their supply of captives, Carter and Pyle would chivvy them into setting out over the pass. With any luck, their arrival would provide Homer with the opportunity to escape from his trap.

And if he was really lucky, the Mexicans would spare Smithers the need to bring his savage host back into civilized lands by slaughtering them to the last man.

Proceed to FAN #174: When the Going Gets Weird.

Proceed to 26 February 1851 (Rocky Mountain War): The Law of Nations.

Return to For All Nails.

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