19. SUMMER AT EHRENBERG
THE WEEK we spent going up the Colorado in June was not as uncomfortable as the time spent on the river in August of the previous year. Everything is relative, I discovered, and I was happy in going back to stay with the First Lieutenant of C Company, and share his fortunes awhile longer.
Patrocina recovered, as soon as she found we were to return to Ehrenberg. I wondered how anybody could be so homesick for such a God-forsaken place. I asked her if she had ever seen a tree, or green grass (for I could talk with her quite easily now). She shook her mournful head. ‘‘“But don't you want to see trees and grass and flowers?”’’
She took her child upon her knee, and lighted a cigarette; I took mine upon my knee, and gazed at the river banks: they were now old friends: I had gazed at them many times before; how much I had experienced, and how much had happened since I first saw them! Could it be that I should ever come to love them, and the pungent smell of the arrow-weed which covered them to the water's edge?
The June heat was bad enough, though not quite so stifling as the August heat. I was becoming accustomed to climates, and had learned to endure discomfort. The salt beef and the Chinaman's peach pies were no longer offensive to me. Indeed, I had a good appetite for them, though they were not exactly the sort of food prescribed by the modern doctor, for a young mother. Of course, milk eggs, and all fresh food were not to be had on the river boats. Ice was still a thing unknown on the Colorado.
When, after a week, the “Gila” pushed her nose up to the bank at Ehrenberg, there stood the Quartermaster. He jumped aboard, and did not seem in the least surprised to see me. ‘‘“I knew you'd come back,”’’ said he. I laughed, of course, and we both laughed.
‘‘“Oh, well, we can make things comfortable here and get through the summer some way,”’’ he said. ‘‘“I'll build some rooms on, and a kitchen, and we can surely get along. It's the healthiest place in the world for children, they tell me.”’’
So work was begun immediately on the kitchen. My first stipulation was, that the new rooms were to have wooden floors; for, although the Cocopah Charley kept the adobe floors in perfect condition, by sprinkling them down and sweeping them out every morning, they were quite impossible, especially where it concerned white dresses and children, and the little sharp rocks in them seemed to be so tiring to the feet.
Life as we Americans live it was difficult in Ehrenberg. I often said: ‘‘“Oh! if we could only live as the Mexicans live, how easy it would be!”’’ For they had their fire built between some stones piled up in their yard, a piece of sheet iron laid over the top: this was the cooking-stove. A pot of coffee was made in the morning early, and the family sat on the low porch and drank it, and ate a biscuit. Then a kettle of frijoles * was put over to boil. These were boiled slowly for some hours, then lard and salt were added, and they simmered down until they were deliciously fit to eat, and had a thick red gravy.
Then the young matron, or daughter of the house, would mix the peculiar paste of flour and salt and water, for tortillas, a species of unleavened bread. These tortillas were patted out until they were as
How I envied them the simplicity of their lives! Besides, the tortillas were delicious to eat, and as for the frijoles, they were beyond anything I had ever eaten in the shape of beans. I took lessons in the making of tortillas. A woman was paid to come and teach me; but I never mastered the art. It is in the blood of the Mexican, and a girl begins at a very early age to make the tortilla. It is the most graceful thing to see a pretty Mexican toss the wafer-like disc over her bare arm, and pat it out until transparent.
This was their supper; for, like nearly all people in the tropics, they ate only twice a day. Their fare was varied sometimes by a little carni seca, pounded up and stewed with chile verde or chile colorado.
Now if you could hear the soft, exquisite, affectionate drawl with which the Mexican woman says chile verde you could perhaps come to realize what an important part the delicious green pepper plays in the cookery of these countries. They do not use it in its raw state, but generally roast it, stripping off the thin skin and throwing away the seeds, leaving only the pulp, which acquires a fine flavor by having been roasted or toasted over the hot coals.
I have always been sorry I did not adopt their fashion of house apparel. Instead of that, I yielded to the prejudices of my conservative partner, and sweltered during the day in high-necked and long-sleeved white dresses, kept up the table in American fashion, ate American food in so far as we could get it, and all at the expense of strength; for our soldier cooks, who were loaned us by Captain Ernest from his company at Fort Yuma, were constantly being changed, and I was often left with the Indian and the indolent Patrocina. At those times, how I wished I had no silver, no table linen, no china, and could revert to the primitive customs of my neighbors!
There was no market, but occasionally a Mexican killed a steer, and we bought enough for one meal; but having no ice, and no place away from the terrific heat, the meat was hung out under the ramáda with a piece of netting over it, until the first heat had passed out of it, and then it was cooked.
The Mexican, after selling what meat he could, cut the rest into thin strips and hung it up on ropes to dry in the sun. It dried hard and brittle, in its natural state, so pure is the air on that wonderful river bank. They called this carni seca, and the Americans called it “jerked beef.”
Patrocina often prepared me a dish of this, when I was unable to taste the fresh meat. She would pound it fine with a heavy pestle, and then put it to simmer, seasoning it with the green or red pepper. It was most savory. There was no butter at all during the hot months, but our hens laid a few eggs, and the Quartermaster was allowed to keep a small lot of commissary stores, from which we drew our supplies of flour, ham, and canned things. We were often without milk for weeks at a time, for the cows crossed the river to graze, and sometimes could not get back until the river fell again.
The Indian brought the water every morning in buckets from the river. It looked like melted chocolate. He filled the barrels, and when it had settled clear, the ollas were filled, and thus the drinking water was a trifle cooler than the air. One day it seemed unusually cool, so I said: ‘‘“Let us see by the thermometer how cool the water really is.”’’ We found the temperature of the water to be 86 degrees; but that, with the air at 122 in the shade, seemed quite refreshing to drink.
Like the others, she was spotlessly clean, modest and gentle. I asked her what on earth they did about bathing, for I had found the tub baths with the muddy water so disagreeable. She told me the women bathed in the river at daybreak, and asked me if I would like to go with them.
I was only too glad to avail myself of her invitation, and so, like Pharoah's daughter of old, I went with my gentle handmaiden every morning to the river bank, and, wading in about knee-deep in the thick red waters, we sat down and let the swift current flow by us. We dared not go deeper, as the currents were so tremendously strong that we could not keep our foothold. But the swiftly-moving muddy water was vastly to be preferred to the muddy tub.
A clump of low mesquite trees at the top of the bank afforded sufficient protection at that hour; we rubbed dry, slipped on a loose gown, and wended our way home. What a contrast to the limpid, bracing salt waters of my own beloved shores!
When I thought of them, I was seized with a longing which consumed me and made my heart sick; and I thought of these poor people, who had never known anything in their lives but those desert places, and that muddy red water, and wondered what they would do, how they would act, if transported into some beautiful forest, or to the cool bright shores where clear blue waters invite to a plunge.
Whenever the river-boat came up, we were sure to have guests, for many officers went into the Territory via Ehrenberg. Sometimes the “transportation” was awaiting them; at other times, they were obliged to wait at Ehrenberg until it arrived. They usually lived on the boat; as we had no extra rooms, but I generally asked them to luncheon or supper (for anything that could be called a dinner was out of the question).
This caused me some anxiety, as there was nothing to be had; but I remembered the hospitality I had received, and thought of what they had been obliged to eat on the voyage, and I always asked them to share what we could provide, however simple it might be.
At such times we heard all the news from Washington and the States, and all about the fashions, and they, in their turn, asked me all sorts of questions about Ehrenberg and how I managed to endure the life. They were always astonished when the Cocopah Indian waited on them at table, for he wore nothing
But “Charley” appealed to my æsthetic sense in every way. Tall, and well-made, with clean-cut limbs and features, fine smooth copper-colored skin, handsome face, heavy black hair done up in pompadour fashion and plastered with Colorado mud, which was baked white by the sun, a small feather at the crown of his head, wide turquoise bead bracelets upon his upper arm, and a knife at his waist—this was my Charley, my half-tame Cocopah, my man about the place, my butler in fact, for Charley understood how to open a bottle of Cocomonga gracefully, and to pour it as well.
Charley also wheeled the baby out along the river banks, for we had had a fine “perambulator” sent down from San Francisco. It was an incongruous sight, to be sure, and one must laugh to think of it. The Ehrenberg babies did not have carriages, and the village flocked to see it. There sat the fair-haired, six-months-old boy, with but one linen garment on, no cap, no stockings—and this wild man of the desert, his knife gleaming at his waist, and his loin-cloth floating out behind, wheeling and pushing the carriage along the sandy roads.
The heat was terrific. Our cots were placed in the open part of the corral (as our courtyard was always called). It was a desolate-looking place; on one side, the high adobe wall; on another, the freight-house; and on the other two, our apartments. Our kitchen and the two other rooms were now completed. The kitchen had no windows, only open spaces to admit the air and light, and we were often startled in the night by the noise of thieves in the house, rummaging for food.
At such times, our soldier-cook would rush into the corral with his rifle, the Lieutenant would jump up and seize his shotgun, which always stood near by, and together they would roam through the house. But the thieving Indians could jump out of the windows as easily as they jumped in, and the excitement would soon be over.
The violent sand-storms which prevail in those deserts, sometimes came up in the night, without warning; then we rushed half suffocated and blinded into the house, and as soon as we had closed the windows it had passed on, leaving a deep layer of sand on everything in the room, and on ourselves as well.
Then came the work, next day, for the Indian had to carry everything out of doors; and one storm was so bad that he had to use a shovel to remove the sand from the floors. The desert literally blew into the house.
And now we saw a singular phenomenon. In the late afternoon of each day, a hot steam would collect over the face of the river, then slowly rise, and floating over the length and breadth of this wretched hamlet of Ehrenberg, descend upon and envelop us. Thus we wilted and perspired, and had one part of the vapor bath without its bracing concomitant of the cool shower. In a half hour it was gone, but always left me prostrate; then Jack gave me milk punch, if milk was at hand, or sherry and egg, or something to bring me up to normal again. We got to dread the steam so; it was the climax of the long hot day and was peculiar to that part of the river.
The paraphernalia by the side of our cots at night consisted of a pitcher of cold tea, a lantern, matches, a revolver, and a shotgun. Enormous yellow cats, which lived in and around the freight-house, darted to and fro inside and outside the house, along the ceiling-beams, emitting loud cries, and that alone was enough to prevent sleep. In the old part of the house, some of the partitions did not run up to the roof, but were left open (for ventilation, I suppose), thus making a fine play-ground for cats and rats, which darted along, squeaking, meowing and clattering all the night
It was in the late summer that the boat arrived one day bringing a large number of staff officers and their wives, head clerks, and “general service” men for Fort Whipple. They had all been stationed in Washington for a number of years, having had what is known in the army as “gilt-edged” details. I went to the boat to call on them, and, remembering my voyage from San Francisco the year before, prepared to sympathize with them. But they had met their fate with resignation; knowing they should find a good climate and a pleasant post up in the mountains, and as they had no young children with them, they were disposed to make merry over their discomforts.
We asked them to come to our quarters for supper, and to come early, as any place was cooler than the boat, lying down there in the melting sun, and nothing to look upon but those hot zinc-covered decks or the ragged river banks, with their uninviting huts scattered along the edge.
The surroundings somehow did not fit these people. Now Mrs. Montgomery at Camp Apache seemed to have adapted herself to the rude setting of a log cabin in the mountains, but these were Staff people and they had enjoyed for years the civilized side of army life; now they were determined to rough it, but they did not know how to begin.
The beautiful wife of the Adjutant-General was mourning over some freckles which had come to adorn her dazzling complexion, and she had put on a large hat with a veil. Was there ever anything so incongruous as a hat and veil in Ehrenberg! For a long time I had not seen a woman in a hat; the Mexicans all wore a linen towel over their heads.
Now for some weeks Jack had been investigating the sulphur well, which was beneath the old pump in our corral. He had had a long wooden bath-tub built, and I watched it with a lazy interest, and observed his glee as he found a longshoreman or roustabout who could caulk it. The shape was exactly like a coffin (but men have no imaginations), and when I told him how it made me feel to look at it, he said: ‘‘“Oh! you are always thinking of gloomy things. It's a fine tub, and we are mighty lucky to find that man to caulk it. I'm going to set it up in the little square room, and lead the sulphur water into it, and
As for myself, rheumatism was about the only ailment I did not have at that time, and I suppose I did not really sympathize with him. But this energetic and indomitable man mended the pump, with Fisher's help, and led the water into the house, laid a floor, set up the tub in the little square room, and behold, our sulphur bath!
After much persuasion, I tried the bath. The water flowed thick and inky black into the tub; of course the odor was beyond description, and the effect upon me was not such that I was ever willing to try it again. Jack beamed. ‘‘“How do you like it, Martha?”’’ said he. ‘‘“Isn't it fine? Why, people travel hundreds of miles to get a bath like that!”’’
The Washington people seemed glad to pay us the visit. Jack's eyes danced with true generosity and glee. He marked his victim; and, selecting the Staff beauty and the Paymaster's wife, he expatiated on the wonderful properties of his sulphur bath.
So the Indian, who had put on his dark blue waistband (or sash), made from flannel, ravelled out and twisted into strands of yarn, and which showed the supple muscles of his clean-cut thighs, and who had done up an extra high pompadour in white clay, and burnished his knife, which gleamed at his waist, ushered these Washington women into a small apartment adjoining the bath-room, and turned on the inky stream into the sarcophagus.
By and by the beauty came out. ‘‘“Where is your mirror?”’’ cried she (for our appointments were primitive, and mirrors did not grow on bushes at Ehrenberg); ‘‘“I fancy I look queer,”’’ she added, and, in truth, she did; for our water of the Styx did not seem to affiliate with the chemical properties of the numerous cosmetics used by her, more or less, all her life, but especially on the voyage, and her face had taken on a queer color, with peculiar spots here and there.
Fortunately my mirrors were neither large nor true, and she never really saw how she looked, but when she came back into the living-room, she laughed and said to Jack: ‘‘“What kind of water did you say that was? I never saw any just like it.”’’
We had a merry supper: cold ham, chicken, and fresh biscuit, a plenty of good Cocomonga wine, sweet milk, which to be sure turned to curds as it stood on the table, some sort of preserves from a tin, and good coffee. I gave them the best to be had in the desert—and at all events it was a change from the Chinaman's salt beef and peach pies, and they saw fresh table linen and shining silver, and accepted our simple hospitality in the spirit in which we gave it.
I explained to her that the Indian's fashion of wearing white men's clothes was not pleasing to the eye, and told her that she must cultivate her æsthetic sense, and in a short time she would be able to admire these copper-colored creatures of Nature as much as I did.
But I fear that a life spent mostly in a large city had cast fetters around her imagination, and that the life at Fort Whipple afterwards savored too much of civilization to loosen the bonds of her soul. I saw her many times again, but she never recovered from her amazement at Charley's lack of apparel, and she never forgot the sulphur bath.
*. Mexican brown bean.