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The Apaches wanted John Cremony's horse, and they were determined to get it.
The Jornada de Muerto is a stretch of desert in south central New Mexico that has retained the name "Journey of Death" since Spanish times. In 1851, John Cremony would have been just another victim of the Jornada had it not been for a remarkable horse.
At the time, Cremony was an interpreter for the U.S. Boundary Commission, which was working to survey and establish a boundary between the U.S. and Mexico after the War of 1848. The commission was poorly equipped and supplies were often uncertain.
This is probably why Cremony planned a trip between Dona Ana, a small village where the commission was temporarily based, and Socorro. His purpose was to buy some sheep. Cremony knew his route would take him through the Jornada de Muerto, but maybe he felt a little more confident than most travelers because of his horse.
Cremony later wrote a book about his adventures and in it he has nothing but praise for the animal.
"It was my most excellent fortune," Cremony wrote, "to possess a horse whose equal I have never seen. With high carriage and almost fabulous powers of endurance, he was strong, swift, and handsome. I had made him a special pet, and nobly did he answer my appeal when occasion demanded."
Cremony bought the horse from Captain A. Burford of the First Dragoons. Once an Apache offered Burford 100 horses in exchange for his mount, but he refused. Burford assured Cremony the territory did not hold an equal to this remarkable animal - something Cremony soon found to be true.
Today there are towns along the path Cremony followed, but in 1851 there was nothing but 125 miles of desert rimmed by mountains where Apaches lived. They were the Sierra Blanca Apaches and from their mountain home they could see everyone passing below on the Jornada de Muerto. Their penchant for swooping down on victims to obtain guns and horses was well known.
Cremony began his trip at about 3:00 a.m. He traveled in a leisurely fashion until about 4:00 in the afternoon. Staking his horse out in a patch of grass, he rested in a small bit of shade until after dark. About midnight, the pair moved on. Able to cover ground more quickly in the cool night, man and horse reached Socorro by 11:00 the next morning without having seen the Apaches or any sign of them.
Cremony stayed in Socorro two days, passing the time with a friend, Lieutenant Ruben Campbell. They had served in the Mexican war together.
Leaving at 3:00 in the morning again, Cremony hoped his journey down would be "equally tame and spiritless, but this was not to be."
He perhaps had a premonition, for he maintained an easy pace, dismounting often and leading the horse to save him. By 3:00 in the afternoon, they had covered about 50 miles in this manner and had about 75 to go. Cremony contemplated stopping for a rest until he saw a column of dust coming his way from the direction of the Sierra Blanca Mountains.
"Instinctively, I felt that it was caused by Apaches; and I took the precaution to tighten my horse's girths, see that the saddle was properly placed and re-cap my four six-shooters, two of which were in my belt, and two in my holsters. I also untied a Mexican serape, or blanket, which was lashed to the after part of my saddle, and doubling it, I passed it over my shoulders and tied it under my chin by a stout buckskin thong. By this time the character of the coming party was unmistakable, and they were evidently bent on cutting me off the road. My gallant horse seemed to appreciate the condition of affairs almost as well as I, and bounded on like a bird."
This first attempt to catch Cremony failed, but the Apaches stayed on his trail about 300 yards behind. Noting his horse was obviously superior to the Apaches' mounts, Cremony drew up and let them come to within 50 yards of him.
Fortunately for Cremony, none of his pursuers had firearms, but half a dozen of the 40 or so men did have bows and arrows. Soon, arrows were whizzing, but the heavy serape rendered them harmless. (Luckily for Cremony and his mount, none of the arrows hit the horse.) Cremony turned in the saddle and leveled one of his pistols at the Apaches, who quickly fell back. Taking advantage of this, he urged his horse on over the next mile and when he slowed, 600 yards separated him from his pursuers.
"It required a long time for them to again recover shooting distance, but their yells and cries were perpetual. In this manner, alternately checking and speeding my horse, and presenting my pistol at the savages, we scrambled over many miles of that infernal jornada. Several arrows were sticking in my blanket; one grazed my right arm, just bringing blood, and the other had touched my left thigh. I then became convinced that my horse was the main object of their pursuit. his value and unequaled qualities were well known to the apaches, and they resolved to have him if possible. Of course, my life would have to be sacrificed, if they could only manage that little affair."
About 8:00 p.m. Cremony entered a series of small hills and rugged ravines. In the bright moonlight, he was surprised to notice the Apaches had apparently given up. He could neither see nor hear them, although he had been about 400 yards ahead at the time. Suddenly it occurred to him that they had a shortcut and were trying to head him off.
"For the first time I struck my rowels into the reeking flanks of my poor steed, and most gallantly did he respond to this last call. He fairly flew over the road. Hill after hill was passed with wonderful rapidity until nearly a quarter of an hour had elapsed, when I again heard my Apache friends, about 80 yards in my rear. No sooner did they perceive that their design had been penetrated and frustrated, than they commenced their yells with additional vigor. But their horses were blown, as well as mine. They had come at their best pace the whole way, while mine had been saved from time to time."
Cremony galloped on until 11:00 p.m. He was then five miles from Dona Ana, and with the village ahead, he began to feel fairly safe and started emptying his pistols at his pursuers. Despite their yelling, he didn't stop until they had dropped out of sight. The remainder of the trip was made in solitary fashion and Cremony arrived in Dona Ana about midnight. He had covered 125 miles in 24 hours, the last 70 miles at a gallop.
On arrival, Cremony threw off his arrow-encrusted serape and had a Mexican boy, Jose, help him cool off the horse. Like all good horsemen, Cremony saw to his mount before he attended to himself.
First the man and boy rubbed the horse with soft straw until he was dry, a process that took two hours. Next they washed the horse with a mixture of whiskey and water and again rubbed him dry. More whiskey and water was offered as a drink and the horse's shoes were removed.
After wrapping the animal in blankets, Cremony sprinkled hay with water and mixed in some raw, chopped steak. At 5:00 a.m., after providing a deep bed of straw for the horse, Cremony drank a whiskey toddy and dropped into his own bed.
He slept that day and night and woke the second day after his adventure. He went to see the horse and found him sound in every way.
The Apaches later made several attempts to capture the horse, but never succeeded. Cremony kept the horse, which served him faithfully on many other occasions, but none were as exciting as the ride for his life on the Journey of Death.
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