6. UP THE RIO COLORADO
AND NOW began our real journey up the Colorado River, that river unknown to me except in my early geography lessons—that mighty and untamed river, which is to-day unknown except to the explorer, or the few people who have navigated its turbulent waters. Back in memory was the picture of it on the map; here was the reality, then, and here we were, on the steamer “Gila,” Captain Mellon, with the barge full of soldiers towing on after us, starting for Fort Mojave, some two hundred miles above.
The vague and shadowy foreboding that had fluttered through my mind before I left Fort Russell had now also become a reality and crowded out every other thought. The river, the scenery, seemed, after all, but an illusion, and interested me but in a dreamy sort of way.
We had staterooms, but could not remain in them long at a time, on account of the intense heat. I had never felt such heat, and no one else ever had of has since. The days were interminable. We wandered around the boat, first forward, then aft, to find a cool spot. We hung up our canteens (covered with flannel and dipped in water), where they would swing in the shade, thereby obtaining water which
But that dining-room was hot! The metal handles of the knives were uncomfortably warm to the touch; and even the wooden arms of the chairs felt as if they were slowly igniting. After a hasty meal, and a few remarks upon the salt beef, and the general misery of our lot, we would seek some spot which might be a trifle cooler. A siesta was out of the question, as the staterooms were insufferable; and so we dragged out the weary days.
At twilight some of the soldiers came on board and laid our mattresses side by side on the after deck. Pajamas and loose gowns were soon en evidence, but nothing mattered, as there were no electric lights to disturb us with their glare. Rank also mattered not; Lieutenant-Colonel Wilkins and his wife lay down to rest, with the captains and lieutenants and their wives, wherever their respective strikers had placed their mattresses (for this was the good old time when the soldiers were allowed to wait upon officers' families).
Under these circumstances, much sleep was not to be thought of; the sultry heat by the river bank, and the pungent smell of the arrow-weed which lined the shores thickly, contributed more to stimulate than to soothe the weary nerves. But the glare of the sun was gone, and after awhile a stillness settled down upon this company of Uncle Sam's servants and their followers. (In the Army Regulations, wives are not rated except as “camp followers.”)
And thus began another day of intolerable glare and heat. Conversation lagged; no topic seemed to have any interest except the thermometer, which hung in the coolest place on the boat; and one day when Major Worth looked at it and pronounced it one hundred and twenty-two in the shade, a grim despair seized upon me, and I wondered how much more heat human beings could endure. There was nothing to relieve the monotony of the scenery. On each side of us, low river banks, and nothing between those and the horizon line. On our left was Lower * California, and on our right, Arizona. Both appeared to be deserts.
As the river narrowed, however, the trip began to be enlivened by the constant danger of getting aground on the shifting sand-bars which are so numerous in this mighty river. Jack Mellon was then the most famous pilot on the Colorado, and he was very skilful in steering clear of the sand-bars, skimming over them, or working his boat off, when once fast upon them. The deck-hands, men of a mixed Indian and Mexican race, stood ready with long poles, in the bow, to jump overboard, when we struck a bar, and by dint of pushing, and reversing the engine, the boat would swing off.
On approaching a shallow place, they would sound with their poles, and in a sing-song high-pitched tone drawl out the number of feet. Sometimes their sleepy drawling tones would suddenly cease, and crying loudly, ‘‘“No alli agua!”’’ they would swing themselves over the sides of the boat into the river, and begin their strange and intricate manipulations with the poles. Then, again, they would carry the anchor away off and by means of great spars, and some method too complicated for me to describe, Captain Mellon would fairly lift the boat over the bar.
But our progress was naturally much retarded, and sometimes we were aground an hour, sometimes a half day of more. Captain Mellon was always cheerful. River steamboating was his life, and sand-bars were his excitement. On one occasion, I said, ‘‘“Oh! Captain, do you think we shall get off this bar today!”’’
Sometimes the low trees and brushwood on the banks parted, and a young squaw would peer out at us. This was a little diversion, and picturesque besides. They wore very short skirts made of stripped bark, and as they held back the branches of the low willows, and looked at us with curiosity, they made pictures so pretty that I have never forgotten them. We had no kodaks then, but even if we had had them, they could not have reproduced the fine copper color of those bare shoulders and arms, the soft wood colors of the short bark skirts, the gleam of the sun upon their blue-black hair, and the turquoise color of the wide bead-bands which encircled their arms.
One morning, as I was trying to finish out a nap in my stateroom, Jack came excitedly in and said: ‘‘“Get up, Martha, we are coming to Ehrenberg!”’’ Visions of castles on the Rhine, and stories of the middle ages floated through my mind, as I sprang up, in pleasurable anticipation of seeing an interesting and beautiful place. Alas! for my ignorance. I saw but a row of low thatched hovels, perched on the edge of the ragged looking river-bank; a road ran lengthwise
‘‘“Oh, some old German prospector, I suppose; but never mind, the place is all right enough. Come! Hurry up! We are going to stop here and land freight. There is an officer stationed here. See those low white walls? That is where he lives. Captain Bernard of the Fifth Cavalry. It's quite a place, come out and see it.”’’
But I did not go ashore. Of all dreary, miserable-looking settlements that one could possibly imagine, that was the worst. An unfriendly, dirty, and Heaven-forsaken place, inhabited by a poor class of Mexicans and half-breeds. It was, however, an important shipping station for freight which was to be sent overland to the interior, and there was always one army officer stationed there.
I looked over towards those low white walls, which enclosed the Government corral and the habitation of this officer, and thanked my stars that no such dreadful detail had come to my husband. I did not dream that in less than a year this exceptionally hard fate was to be my own.
On the third of September the boilers “foamed” so that we had to tie up for nearly a day. This was caused by the water being so very muddy. The Rio Colorado deserves its name, for its swift-flowing current sweeps by like a mass of seething red liquid, turbulent and thick and treacherous. It was said on the river, that those who sank beneath its surface were never seen again, and in looking over into those whirlpools and swirling eddies, one might well believe this to be true.
From there on, up the river, we passed through great cañons and the scenery was grand enough; but one cannot enjoy scenery with the mercury ranging from 107 to 122 in the shade. The grandeur was quite lost upon us all, and we were suffocated by the scorching heat radiating from those massive walls of rocks between which we puffed and clattered along.
At last, on the eighth of September, we arrived at Camp Mojave, eleven days from Fort Yuma. ‘‘“A quick trip,”’’ said the Captain. I listened and wondered if I heard aright—for those eleven days in midsummer on the Great Colorado had burned themselves into my memory, and I made an inward vow that nothing would ever force me into such a situation again. I would get out of that Territory some other way and in some other season. Futile vow for an army woman to make!
We bade good-bye to our gallant river captain, and watched him turn the round flat bow of his boat down river. Brave, dashing, handsome Jack Mellon! What would I give, and what would we all give, to see thee once more, thou Wizard of the Great Colorado!
We heard no more the crackling and fizzing of the stern-wheeler's high-pressure engines at daylight, and our eyes, tired with gazing at the red whirlpools of the river, found relief in looking out upon the grey-white flat expanse which surrounded Fort Mojave, and merged itself into the desert beyond.
*. This term is here used (as we used it at Ehrenberg) to designate the low, flat lands west of the river, without any reference to Lower California proper,—the long peninsula belonging to Mexico.