Cowboy Pink Ayers was not particularly proficient in the saddle, so he rode a roan mule named Baalam into battle—and his fellow frontiersmen were glad he did.
Baalam, a robust roan mule, heat of the corral on cattleman Jack Martin’s ranch in southern Llano County, Texas. Musing mulelike on his habitual concerns of water, forage and shade from the stood dozing in the searing summer sun, the patient animal would have cared little even had he known that he was about to become a celebrated character in the folklore of the Texas frontier. It was August 5, 1873, and Baalam the mule was to play a major role that very day in defeating the last Indian raid ever launched into Llano County.
The stoic Baalam barely twitched an ear when a pair of riders thundered into the yard of the ranch house and reined to a halt, their horses’ mouths foaming thickly at the bit. The men were part of a posse formed by rancher James R. Moss, who had left his holdings between Sandy and Legion creeks at first light that morning in company with his two younger brothers, Stephen and William. Along with them rode drovers Elijah Deaver Harrington, Robert Brown, Eli Lloyd and George Lewis in pursuit of a band of 21 Mescalero Apache raiders (some accounts say Comanches) who had appeared two days earlier in the Llano area, bent on claiming livestock and plunder from the isolated local homesteads.
On the day before, the Mescaleros had left an arrow jutting from the flank of a milch cow and then briefly pursued Harrington and William Moss as they drove a herd of horses to safety in the ranch’s corral. The bullets had flown fast and thick past the Texans’ ears on that desperate ride, for it seemed that every one of the raiders carried a Henry or Winchester repeating rifle, making them an unusually well-armed band of hostiles.
James Moss had lived in the Llano Valley for 16 years, not counting three years spent with the 17th Texas Infantry as it chastised the Yankee invaders in Arkansas and Louisiana. Four years after the war’s end, he had led a trail drive that took 1,400 steers to California through the heart of Apacheria. Never easily intimidated, he was now bent on catching and punishing the raiders before they could work further mischief against his friends and neighbors in the isolated Texas Hill Country north of San Antonio and west of Austin.
E.D. Harrington picked up the hostiles’ trail on the morning of the 5th, and the Texans ranged eastward toward the hulking glacis of Cedar Mountain before following the tracks on a southeast bearing to reach the rocky maw of Cut-Off Gap on the Llano-Gillespie county line. There, the trail led them into a narrow channel hewn by nature through the converging flanks of Cedar, Solomon and Bee Rock mountains. All the men were armed with Spencer repeating carbines, and they entered the defile with cartridges chambered and their hammers at full cock, for if the Apaches sensed any pursuit, this would be an ideal location for them to have laid an ambush. Clearing the gap without incident, the Texans quirted their mounts onward to reach the summit of Bee Rock Mountain. A spring gushed from that peak, and next to it they found where the raiders had encamped the previous night, feasting from the butchered carcasses of stolen cattle.
“From Bee Rock Mountain we followed the trail north off the mountain into Cut-Off Gap,” recalled Harrington, “and then a little east through Jack Martin’s ranch.” James Moss sent brother William and Eli Lloyd to the ranch house in search of reinforcements, for their mounts were played out and faltering in the chase. Arch Martin immediately saddled a horse and mounted with his Spencer in hand. Cowboy Pinckney “Pink” Ayers, a recent emigrant from North Carolina by way of Tennessee, joined him astride the roan mule, Baalam. Ayers, who had a brass-framed Winchester tucked in his saddle scabbard, apparently had experienced difficulty staying aboard the ranch’s high-strung horses. The placid-tempered mule had thus become his preferred mount. It proved to be a fateful choice for Baalam, Pink Ayers and the entire little company of frontiersmen.
Martin and Ayers joined the posse on the move, and the trail led eastward onto “Uncle Jim” Wilson’s property, where the Apaches had paused on a whim to crush every one of his crop of pumpkins before proceeding northeastward to the ford on Sandy Creek. They found the water still muddied by the Indians’ passage. The ford was a particular danger point, for the brush lining the northern bank offered good cover for a waiting ambush party, while the deeply drifted sands of the creek bed impeded their horses’ movements, making the Texans ideal targets as they crossed the sparse flow of the creek. Happily, no muzzle flashes bloomed within the post oak and mesquite of the far bank as the group cleared the ford and pressed on to the northeast toward the landmark eminence of Spy Knob.
Moss’ company spurred on through the oppressively gathering heat of the day, eager to close the distance and start raising dust from their quarry’s blankets with the stubby .50- caliber rimfire rounds chambered in their Spencers. From Sandy Creek, the braves’ trail led arrow-straight to the soaring batholith of Packsaddle Mountain, 14 miles southeast of the town of Llano. This massive sandstone rampart stood at an elevation of 1,628 feet, and the tallest of its multiple peaks crested at 650 feet above the surrounding countryside. Resembling some mythical giant’s castle or the saddle once strapped to the back of God’s pack mule, Packsaddle Mountain dominated the countryside for miles in every direction. As the Texans approached the landmark’s base, they followed the raiders’ trail to the foot of its easternmost summit. There, a narrow, winding, rock-strewn trail climbed upward to reach the high meadow at the top.
The Texans reined to a halt in the shadow of the wind-scoured walls of the mountain’s southeastern flank. They had completed a pursuit of 25 miles only to find that their quarry occupied an ideal defensive position. The Apaches boasted superb observation and an ideal field of fire covering the single avenue of approach into their encampment among the eagles. James Moss realized that an advance up the narrow trail to the summit could well lead them into a fatal killing zone framed in the sights of the Apache Winchesters and Henrys, but he was determined to make the raiders pay in blood for their thievery, even at the risk of his own life and those of his men.
“Boys, you see that smoke up on the mountain?” James Moss asked. “They’re camped up there, and we’re going after them. If there’s any of you that don’t think you can stand to be shot at, here’s the place to turn back.” All the men remained silent, even though some, like Harrington, bore the scars of wounds suffered in earlier encounters with the Apaches and Comanches. Finally Pink Ayers answered, responding that he’d never been in an Indian fight before, and didn’t really know if he wanted to be in one now, but that he’d not turn back. Sitting astride Baalam, he made sure the magazine of his Winchester was full of .44-caliber rimfire cartridges and watched his comrades make similar last-minute checks of their carbines and pistols.
Moss held a brief council of war and outlined a simple plan of attack. Upon reaching the summit, barring any ambush, they would immediately charge the Indian encampment to employ the element of surprise and place themselves between the warriors and their grazing horses. Once that was accomplished, they would dismount, find cover and start making fierce music with their Spencers and Winchesters. With any luck they would kill or wound enough of the enemy in the opening moments of the fight to make it a more even contest.
“I’ll go ahead,” were James Moss’ final words of instruction, and then he turned and started up the rubble-strewn trail, followed by E.D. Harrington, Stephen Moss, William Moss, Bob Brown, Eli Lloyd, George Lewis and Arch Martin, with Ayers and Baalam bringing up the rear. “Our horses were pretty much jaded, and we were leading them up the mountain when we saw the Indians,” James Moss later recorded. The closer they came to the trail’s head, the greater their anticipation of an ambush, but, incredibly, they reached the summit undetected, for reasons that became clear only later.
Swinging up into their saddles, the stockmen charged forward. “[The Indians’] horses were grazing in a little flat directly between them and us,” recalled Moss, “so we mounted our horses and put the spurs to them until we got between them and their horses, some of the boys firing as they came up, but as the mountain was very steep and rough our men strung in one at a time.” One brave was standing by the horse herd as the Texans appeared. Someone fired at him, and he fled toward the camp with “an awful yell.” The Apaches had been taken by surprise, for some of them were roasting and eating meat by their fires while others lay asleep. A few of them awakened only long enough to stop a Spencer slug.
James Moss and his men stormed ahead, positioning themselves between the camp and the horse herd as planned, but the startled Mescaleros rallied quickly. “When they had gotten their arms and opened fire on us, we were not more than 30 steps from them and had them cut off from their horses,” boasted Moss, “so we dismounted and turned our horses loose, and then fight commenced in earnest on both sides.” Powder smoke began to drift across the summit in a gray caul as bullets impacted on rocks and then whined off into the ether, leaving bright splashes of lead behind them on the stone. The firing built in volume as men levered fresh loads into their repeaters. The Texans enjoyed a major stroke of luck when the Indians left behind several sacks filled with rifle cartridges as they fled for cover. With their reserve ammunition supplies thus captured, the raiders had to rely only on what cartridges rested in their rifles’ magazines and in their belt loops. The Apaches nevertheless seemed to be regaining their balance when Fate stepped in with an improbable long-eared messenger.
Pink Ayers was the last man to reach the scene, and his comrades had already dismounted when he rode up on his mule to the firing line. A bullet soon creased Baalam, and the startled animal went berserk, bolting into the Indian lines in what were described as “short, choppy jumps.” Baalam’s terrified rider held on for dear life. The crazed mule careened about among the braves, lashing out with iron-shod hooves and snapping his teeth while braying in outrage and pain. The Mescaleros either scrambled out of the rabid jack’s way or trained their rifles on him and his rider and blazed away in an effort to destroy the noisy threat that had suddenly materialized in their midst.
Nearly paralyzed with fright, Ayers could only clasp his Winchester’s stock in one hand while gripping the bucking Baalam’s mane with the other in a desperate effort to keep his seat. Bullets gouged his saddle and left the leather covering in tatters, but Ayers still lived. “Fortunately he sustained only flesh wounds albeit in a less glorious portion of his anatomy,” read a later account of the fight. “Baalam was also wounded but not seriously.”
Ayers finally regained enough control of his mount to steer him away from the Indians and back among the Texans. But that was not such a good thing for Stephen Moss, who sustained his only injury of the fight when the beast knocked him down and trampled upon him as he sought to seize its bridle and allow its rider to dismount. James Moss finally got the mad mule under control. A relieved Ayers swung down from the saddle and sought cover; Baalam bolted to the rear. Once on solid ground, Ayers began burning powder with his Winchester for the first time.
The confusion wrought by Baalam in the Apache ranks had been a boon to the Texans. Instead of returning fire, many of the Mescaleros had been intent on ducking the mule’s flailing hooves and slashing teeth. The diversion bought the Texans some precious time. Still, they had a genuine fight on their hands. Three times during the next hour, the Mescaleros staged charges across the open ground in an effort to recapture their mounts, or attempted to shift off to the side and outflank the Texans. Each time the frontiersmen’s accurate shooting drove them back to the cover of a rock ledge. At that point, the Indians probably had only one man killed but more than a few wounded.
The Texans also sustained casualties in the fight. Several other men besides Ayers suffered wounds. William Moss had emptied his revolver and was crouching to extract the expended cartridge cases from the cylinder when he was hit. A bullet entered the point of his right shoulder and transited his arm to lodge in his back. The shot had been fired from behind by a warrior who had broken cover from just below the slope of the summit. This brave had originally been posted as a look out by his comrades, but he had apparently fallen asleep at his post and been bypassed unknowingly by the advancing whites. It was probably his fire that also wounded Eli Lloyd through both wrists. Moments later, a Spencer cracked, and the Mescalero paid for his earlier negligence with his life. Arch Martin meanwhile took a bullet in the left groin. An Indian slug blew the pocketknife from Bob Brown’s trouser pocket, leaving him with a grazing wound on his thigh. Rushed by an Apache, Brown grappled with the brave in a hand-to-hand fight and finally brained him with the butt of his revolver before taking his scalp as a trophy.
A lull in the fighting occurred as the braves began keening a doleful chant and disappeared behind the cover of the rock ledge. The stockmen took advantage of the break in the action to tend their wounded and reload their weapons. Suddenly eight warriors sprang over the crest of the ledge and charged forward in one
final desperate bid to reclaim their horses. Texan fire quickly drove them back to cover. Soon afterward, the band’s chieftain harangued his braves in their native language, exhorting them to follow him in another try for their mounts. When none rose to join him, he staged a solitary headlong charge that carried him to within a few yards of the stockmen before he fell, pierced by six bullets. He was wearing a deer hide jacket, and the riflemen could “see the hair fly” as the slugs struck the Mescalero. Later, the dead Indian leader was found to be wearing a belt made of the bones of human fingers.
With their leader gone, the surviving Mescaleros withdrew into a stand of cedars and began descending the treacherous slope afoot. James Moss and his companions were content to let them go, for with half their number wounded they were in no condition to mount a pursuit. The Texans bandaged their wounded and helped them back into their saddles. Elijah Harrington and Pink Ayers remained behind to round up the captured horses and collect what weapons and camp equipage had been left behind by the fleeing tribesmen. Ayers moved stiffly, favoring the two shallow wounds in his “hip.” The two men burned anything they could not use, and Harrington lifted the scalps of two of the three dead they found on the summit. For good measure, Harrington also took the ears of the slain chieftain. Numerous blood trails from wounded Indians were also visible. Some weeks later, the bones of a dead Indian were found near the base of the mountain and a recent grave was also discovered nearby, increasing the toll of Apache dead to at least five.
The victorious stockmen descended the trail and rode several miles northward to the John B. Duncan ranch, where the wounded were sheltered in a commodious two-story stone house. Baalam’s wounds were dressed, and the mule was well watered and fed. Not even Stephen Moss could complain about Ayers’ having brought a mule into battle. Harrington spurred northward to Llano, leaving the Duncan house a little after 5 p.m. and covering the 14 miles to town by 6:30. He summoned Dr. C.C. Smith and was back on the trail with him within an hour. The doctor offered little hope for William Moss, pronouncing his wound fatal, but the burly lad survived the night and in a week’s time rode a wagon home. He was in the saddle again within a month. The Indian .44 slug would remain in his body for the rest of his life. The medic set about extracting the bullet from Arch Martin’s groin wound without benefit of any anesthetic. Martin bore the pain as stoically as he could, but finally cried out to Smith, “Can’t you whet that damned old knife a little bit?”
All the men survived their injuries, although Pink Ayers was so humiliated by his brace of “hip” wounds that he gave up on cowboying and returned to Tennessee. In 1938 the citizens of Llano County erected a monument on the battle site. Among the honored guests, 65 years after the fight, was silver-haired Elijah Deaver Harrington, the last survivor of the celebrated engagement.
The Battle of Packsaddle Mountain marked the last Indian raid in Llano County, and a second marker alongside state Highway 71 also celebrates the heroism and dogged tenacity of James Moss and his compadres. A microwave relay tower now stands on the site of the Mescaleros’ defeat, and young men possessing more audacity than good sense use the peak as a launching site for hang gliders. Ayers’ Model 1866 Winchester rifle, serial number 105696, was presented to a friend in neighboring Burnet County upon his departure for Tennessee, and in 1988 it was acquired by a Texas gun collector to be rightfully cherished and preserved for posterity.
In 1927 an elderly Stephen Moss told an interviewer, “I have heard my brother, Jim, who was our captain, say many times that Pink Ayers won the battle for us, although in a manner that we refrained from making known because of our respect for the man’s sensitive feelings…now that he is dead, I want his people to know what a man he really was.” So were they all really men, except for the mule, of course. Where is the monument to noble Baalam?
Wayne R. Austerman is the command historian at the U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Suggested for further reading: Rangers and Sovereignty, by Dan W. Roberts; and Austerman’s manuscript Instructor’s Guide for the Battle of Packsaddle Mountain Staff Ride (Fort Houston, Texas)
Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.