5. THE SLUE
AT LAST, after a voyage of thirteen days, we came to anchor a mile or so off Port Isabel, at the mouth of the Colorado River. A narrow but deep slue runs up into the desert land, on the east side of the river's mouth, and provides a harbor of refuge for the flat-bottomed stern-wheelers which meet the ocean steamers at this point. Hurricanes are prevalent at this season in the Gulf of California, but we had been fortunate in not meeting with any on the voyage. The wind now freshened, however, and beat the waves into angry foam, and there we lay for three days on the “Newbern,” off Port Isabel, before the sea was calm enough for the transfer of troops and baggage to the lighters.
This was excessively disagreeable. The wind was like a breath from a furnace; it seemed as though the days would never end, and the wind never stop blowing. Jack's official diary says: ‘‘“One soldier died to-day.”’’
Finally, on the fourth day, the wind abated, and the transfer was begun. We boarded the river steamboat “Cocopah,” towing a barge loaded with soldiers, and steamed away for the slue. I must say that we welcomed the change with delight. Towards the end
What was our chagrin, the next morning, to learn that we must go back to the “Newbern,” to carry some freight from up-river. There was nothing to do but stay on board and tow that dreary barge, filled with hot, red, baked-looking ore, out to the ship, unload, and go back up the slue. Jack's diary records: “Aug. 23rd. Heat awful. Pringle died today.” He was the third soldier to succumb. It seemed to me their fate was a hard one. To die, down in that wretched place, to be rolled in a blanket and buried on those desert shores, with nothing but a heap of stones to mark their graves!
The adjutant of the battalion read the burial service, and the trumpeters stepped to the edge of the graves and sounded “Taps,” which echoed sad and melancholy far over those parched and arid lands. My eyes filled with tears, for one of the soldiers was from our own company, and had been kind to me.
I listened, and heard the gay strains of ‘‘“The girl I left behind me,”’’ which the trumpeters were playing with all their might. ‘‘“You see,”’’ said Jack. ‘‘“it would not do for the soldiers to be sad when one of them dies. Why, it would demoralize the whole command. So they play these gay things to cheer them up.”’’
And I began to feel that tears must be out of place at a soldier's funeral. I attended many a one after that, but I had too much imagination, and in spite of all my brave efforts, visions of the poor boy's mother on some little farm in Missouri of Kansas perhaps, or in some New England town, or possibly in the old country, would come before me, and my heart was filled with sadness.
That day we had a little diversion, for we saw the “Gila” come down the river and up the slue, and tie up directly alongside of us. She had on board and in barges four companies of the Twenty-third Infantry, who were going into the States. We exchanged greetings and visits, and from the great joy manifested by them all, I drew my conclusions as to what lay before us, in the dry and desolate country we were about to enter.
Little cared they, those women of the Twenty-third, for, joy upon joys! They saw the “Newbern” out there in the offing, waiting to take them back to green hills, and to cool days and nights, and to those they had left behind, three years before.
We spent seven days in and out of that slue. Finally, on August the 26th, the wind subsided and we started up river. Towards sunset we arrived at a place called “Old Soldier's Camp.” There the “Gila” joined us, and the command was divided between the two river-boats. We were assigned to the “Gila,” and I settled myself down with my belongings, for the remainder of the journey up river.
We resigned ourselves to the dreadful heat, and at the end of two more days the river had begun to narrow, and we arrived at Fort Yuma, which was at that time the post best known to, and most talked about by, army officers, of any in Arizona. No one except old campaigners knew much about any other post in the Territory.
It was said to be the very hottest place that ever existed, and from the time we left San Francisco we had heard the story, oft repeated, of the poor soldier who died at Fort Yuma, and after awhile returned to beg for his blankets, having found the regions of Pluto so much cooler than the place he had left. But the fort looked pleasant to us, as we approached. It lay on a high mesa to the left of us and there was a little green grass where the post was built.
Lieutenant Haskell, Twelfth Infantry, who was stationed there, came down to the boat to greet us, and brought us our letters from home. He then extended his gracious hospitality to us all, arranging for us to come to his quarters the next day for a meal, and dividing the party as he could best accommodate us. It fell to our lot to go to breakfast with Major and Mrs. Wells and Miss Wilkins.
Of course it was hot; it was August, and we expected it. But the heat of those places can be much alleviated by the surroundings. There were shower baths, and latticed piazzas, and large ollas hanging in the shade of them, containing cool water. Yuma was only twenty days from San Francisco, and they were able to get many things direct by steamer. Of course there was no ice, and butter was kept only by ingenious
We staid one more day, and left two companies of the regiment there. When we departed, I felt, somehow, as though we were saying good-bye to the world and civilization, and as our boat clattered and tugged away up river with its great wheel astern, I could not help looking back longingly to old Fort Yuma.