24. UP THE VALLEY OF THE GILA
THE DECEMBER sun was shining brightly down, as only the Arizona sun can shine at high noon in winter, when we crossed the Colorado on the primitive ferryboat drawn by ropes, clambered up into the great thorough-brace wagon (or ambulance) with its dusty white canvas covers all rolled up at the sides, said good-bye to our kind hosts of Fort Yuma, and started, rattling along the sandy main street of Yuma City, for old Camp MacDowell.
But it all seemed so good to me: I was happy to see the Soldiers again, the drivers and teamsters, and even the sleek Government mules. The old blue uniforms made my heart glad. Every sound was familiar, even the rattling of the harness with its ivory rings and the harsh sound of the heavy brakes reinforced with old leather soles.
Even the country looked attractive, smiling under the December sun. I wondered if I had really grown to love the desert. I had read somewhere that people did. But I was not paying much attention in those days to the analysis of my feelings. I did not stop to
In Nantucket, no one thought much about the army. The uniform of the regulars was never seen there. The profession of arms was scarcely known or heard of. Few people manifested any interest in the life of the Far West. I had, while there, felt out of touch with my oldest friends. Only my darling old uncle, a brave old whaling captain, had said: ‘‘“Mattie I am much interested in all you have written us about Arizona; come right down below and show me on the dining-room map just where you went.”’’
Gladly I followed him down the stairs, and he took his pencil out and began to trace. After he had crossed the Mississippi, there did not seem to be anything but blank country, and I could not find Arizona, and it was written in largo letters across the entire half of this antique map, “Unexplored.”
Gila City was our first camp; not exactly a city, to be sure, at that time, whatever it may be now. We were greeted by the sight of a few old adobe houses, and the usual saloon. I had ceased, however, to dwell upon such trifles as names. Even “Filibuster,” the name of our next camp, elicited no remark from me.
The weather was fine beyond description. Each day, at noon, we got out of the ambulance, and sat down on the warm white sand, by a little clump of mesquite, and ate our luncheon. Coveys of quail flew up and we shot them, thereby insuring a good supper.
The mules trotted along contentedly on the smooth white road, which followed the south bank of the Gila River. Myriads of lizards ran out and looked at us. ‘‘“Hello, here you are again,”’’ they seemed to say.
Each morning, when the tent was struck, and I sat on the camp-stool by the little heap of ashes, which was all that remained of what had been so pleasant a home for an afternoon and a night, a little lonesome feeling crept over me, at the thought of leaving the place. So strong is the instinct and love of home in some people, that the little tendrils shoot out in a day and weave themselves around a spot which has given them shelter. Such as those are not born to be nomads.
Camps were made at Stanwix, Oatman's Flat, and Gila Bend. There we left the river, which makes a mighty loop at this point, and struck across the plains to Maricopa Wells. The last day's march took us across the Gila River, over the Maricopa desert, and brought us to the Salt River. We forded it at sundown, rested our animals a half hour or so, and drove through the MacDowell canon in the dark of the evening, nine miles more to the post. A day's march of forty-five miles. (A relay of mules had been sent to meet us at the Salt River, but by some oversight, we had missed it.)
Jack had told me of the curious cholla cactus, which is said to nod at the approach of human beings, and to deposit its barbed needles at their feet. Also I had heard stories of this deep, dark cañon and things that had happened there.
Fort MacDowell was in Maricopa County, Arizona, on the Verde River, seventy miles of so south of Camp Verde; the roving bands of Indiana, escaping from Camp Apache and the San Carlos reservation, which lay far to the east and southeast, often found secure hiding places in the fastnesses of the Superstition Mountains and other ranges, which lay between old Camp MacDowell and these reservations.
Hence, a company of cavalry and one of infantry were stationed at Camp MacDowell, and the officers and men of this small command were kept busy, scouting, and driving the renegades from out of this part of the country back to their reservations. It was by no means an idle post, as I found after I got there; the life at Camp MacDowell meant hard work, exposure and fatigue for this small body of men.
As we wound our way through this deep, dark cañon, after crossing the Salt River, I remembered the things I had heard, of ambush and murder. Our animals were too tired to go out of a walk, the night fell in black shadows down between those high mountain walls, the chollas, which are a pale sage-green color in the day-time, took on a ghastly hue. They were dotted here and there along the road, and on the steep mountain-sides. They grew nearly as tall as a man, and on each branch were great excrescences which looked like people's heads, in the vague light which fell upon them.
The soldiers were not partial to MacDowell cañon; they knew too much about the place; and we all breathed a sigh of relief when we emerged from this dark uncanny road and saw the lights of the post, lying low, long, flat, around a square.