Josephine Clifford ~ The Romance of Gila Bend

Max Kurzweil, The Cushion, 1903


Travelling from Los Angeles to Tucson, you can, if you choose, sleep under a roof almost every night, providing you have good teams. There are Government forage stations along the whole route, where travellers are “taken in” by the station-keepers, though not on Government account. I do not say that it is pleasant at all these stations, particularly for a woman, as she will seldom or never meet one of her own sex on the way. When we left Fort Yuma, Sam, the driver, assured me that I would not see a white woman’s face between there and Tucson. He was mistaken. I met not only one, but a whole family of them, one after another.

The day that brought us to Oatman’s Flat was murky, dark, and gloomy—a day in full harmony with the character of the country we were travelling through. We descended into the Flat by an abrupt fall in the road that landed us at once among a clump of scraggy, darkling willows, drooping wearily over a sluggish little creek. In the distance we could see the white sand of the bed of the Gila, and half-buried in it the ghastly, water-bleached limbs of the trees that the river had uprooted year after year in its annual frenzy. We could not go the upper road, on account of the Gila’s having washed out a portion of it, and the lower road seemed to be regarded by Sam with all the disfavor it deserved. Verde or grease-wood, as ragged and scraggy as the willows, covered the whole Flat, except where, towards the centre, a dilapidated shanty stood on a sandy, cheerless open space. Not far from it were the remains of a fence, enclosing some six paces of uneven ground, and on the only upper rail left of the inclosure sat a dismal-looking, solitary crow.

There was something so repulsively dreary about the whole place that it made me shudder, and when Sam, pointing to it with his whip, said it was the spot where the Oatman family had been murdered and lay buried, I was not in the least surprised. Only one of the whole family had escaped—a little chap who had crawled away after he had been left for dead, and brought the white people from the next settlement to the scene of the massacre. There was nothing to be done but to bury the mutilated corpses; after this, the place had been deserted and shunned by the few who lived here, though there had been no more Indian depredations committed for years past.

I was glad that the road did not take us very near the shanty, though I watched it with a strange fascination. Sam, too, had his eyes fixed on something that might have been the shadow of one of the victims, flitting by the black gap which had once been the door. The place was so weird that the ghostly shadow seemed to belong there; it chimed in so well with the rest, that I accepted it as a part of the uncanny whole. We had been going along at the usual leisurely gait, but Sam whipped up the mules all at once, and leaned out of the ambulance to speak to Phil, who drove the army wagon containing our baggage. The road was good and solid, so I took no alarm at first; but when the speed was continued, and the baggage-wagon kept thundering close behind us, I ventured to ask, “Is there danger from Indians here?”

“There hain’t no Indians been seen around here for more’n three years,” was the answer, which satisfied me at the time.

When we came to Burke’s Station, where we were to pass the night, a surprise awaited us. The house, a squalid adobe, was built in the style common along the route—an open passage-way with rooms on either side. The principal room to the left was bar-room and store-room; the room to the right was reception-room, sitting-room, bed-room, and behind it was the kitchen. The passage-way was dining-hall. When the tall young Missourian, mine host, had ushered me into the room, he stepped to the opening leading to the kitchen and called out:

“Here, Sis, come and speak to the lady.”

Obedient to the call, a bashful, half-grown girl appeared, wiping her hands on her apron, and looking up timidly from under her long eyelashes. I took her by the hand. “How do you, child? How in the world did you get here, and where is your mother?” I asked.

Sam and Phil stood in the hall-door nudging each other, until Sam could restrain himself no longer.

“Why, that’s his wife,” pointing to the young Goliah from Missouri, “and her dad and mam’s living in the old shanty down on the Flat. I’ll be derned if they didn’t give me the worst scare I had yet—thought they was Indians, shore!”

I looked from one to the other. “And how old are you?” I asked the girl.

“Almost fifteen!” was the answer; and when the men withdrew she told me about the rest of her family, whom I would probably find along the road.

Sis was badly dressed; a coarse cotton gown, made with a yoke about an inch and a half in depth, was drawn up close around her neck, and hung loosely about her slender, immature form; her naked feet were thrust into coarse boots, and a large check apron completed her costume. But there was a shy, daisy-like grace about her that made one forget the dress and see only the dove-like eyes and half-pensive smile on her face. Her husband treated her in all things like a child, and she obeyed him without a murmur or a question. When we left he told us that we would find Sis’s aunt at Kenyon’s Station, and charged us to say that Sis was well, and not the least bit homesick.

We made Kenyon’s Station early in the day, Sam and Phil greatly enjoying the prospect of seeing another white woman here. She appeared on the threshold, a brawny, coarse-handed woman of about forty, tidy-looking, in spite of her bare feet and the short pipe in her mouth. By her side appeared a shock-headed girl of twelve, with eyes agog and mouth open at the strange apparition of a civilized-looking white woman. The husband stood beside the ambulance—six feet and a half in his cowhide boots—a good-humored smile on his leathery face, and lifted me to the ground as though I had been a feather. Though the house, like that at Burke’s Station, was only adobe, there was an air of homely comfort about it, inside and out, that made it much more cheerful than the other place.

Aunt Polly was an excellent housekeeper—as viewed from a Texan standpoint—and after she had in the most naïve manner satisfied her curiosity in regard to my looks and general make-up, she commenced preparations for dinner. Sarah Eliza Jane, sole daughter of the house and race, stayed by me in the room. Sitting in a low, home-made chair, she stared steadily at me, sitting on a taller home-made chair, till she had comprehended that the bits of braid and lace in my lap were to be manufactured into a collar similar to the one I wore in my dress. When she learned that the collar was to be for her, she ran out to the kitchen, shouting for her mother to come and see what I was doing. The mother’s delight was as frank and hearty as the daughter’s, and all at once the secret leaked out that the family was in possession of a fine American cow. Never speak disparagingly to me of Pikes and Texans. The least kindness shown to them is returned tenfold, and the smallest advance of friendliness is met by them half-way. When dinner (or supper) was placed on the table, there came with it the most delicious butter I had eaten for many a long day, to say nothing of a glass of buttermilk, the sweetest I ever tasted. But I must tell you how Aunt Polly made the butter, in case you should emigrate to Arizona without a patent diamond churn. The cream was put into a high tin quart cup, and beaten with a spoon till the butter came—which it did in about fifteen minutes.

By the time dinner was over we had become quite intimate, and Aunt Polly having resumed her pipe, gave me a short account of her history since emigrating from Texas. The two most striking incidents were the loss of her former husband by a stroke of lightning, about ten months ago, and the acquisition of her present husband by a stroke of policy, about three months ago. Though she did not show me the weeds she had worn on becoming a widow, she exhibited the gorgeous “good clothes” she wore on again becoming a wife. She stood at a little distance from me and spread out the second-day dress, so that I could see the whole of the pattern, consisting of detached bouquets—brilliantly variegated in color and gigantic in size—scattered over a plain of light sky-blue. The dress worn for “the occasion” was a gauzy white muslin, which must have had a delicate effect—if she wore bare feet and a pipe in her mouth with it. Her husband had proved kind and indulgent. Since their marriage he had been at Maricopa Wells, and had bought at the store there another beautiful dress of many colors—which, alas! had run out of his saddle-bags, after a two hours’ hard rain, on his way home. I saw the dress pattern, and—oh, it was pitiful.

After this display of good-will and fine clothes on her part, she said she had a favor to ask of me, too. She pointed to my trunk, and said her husband was crazy to know whether there was a waterfall in it? He had read so much about waterfalls in the stray papers that fell into his hands that he had the greatest curiosity in the world to know what it was, and to see one with his own eyes. He imagined it to be a kind of box or bag that ladies wore on their heads to carry their hair in, and, seeing no foreign matter on my head, he “reckoned that I packed it with me in my trunk.” Aunt Polly had shrewdly guessed it to be a new fashion of “putting up” the hair; but they both had about as correct an idea of it as a blind man has of colors. With deep regret I owned that there was no waterfall in my trunk; but seeing their disappointment, I succeeded, with the aid of a pair of stockings and a pin-cushion, in putting up my hair into quite a little Niagara, to the great delight of these fashion-worshipping people.

How charming the grove of trees looks, when you draw up under their shadow at Gila Bend, after days of travel over tedious sand-plains or through wildernesses of grease-wood and cactus. The whisper of the wind in the trees, the bark of the dog that ran out to meet us, and the cackle of the busy hens around the doorway, told us that we should find good and happy people here. There was the solitary house as usual, but it seemed more pretentious than those at the other stations. The passage-way was higher and wider, the rooms more numerous, and finished with whitewash and good glass windows. At the windows curtains; a gay-colored counterpane on the bed, and wolf-skins in front of it and the lounge.

The station-keeper was a black-bearded, good-looking man, and his name was George Washington—(I won’t give the rest of his name—it’s too long). I knew I should find Sis’s elder sister here as Mrs. George W. ——, for she had been married on the same day with her Aunt Polly. The blue eyes, under long, silken lashes, that met my gaze on the threshold at Gila Bend were like Sis’s, only these were the eyes of a woman; there were the same pretty movements, too, only there was more of self-assertion in them. She might have been eighteen; from out of the muslin dress she wore shone the whitest shoulders that belle ever exhibited in a ball-room. Her hands and feet were small, and her rich brown hair, oddly, though not unbecomingly dressed, lay on a forehead white and pure as that of a child.

No wonder George W. was proud of his wife, and had tried hard to win as such the barefooted girl whom he found one day, with her family and some sorry ox-teams, camped near his house, on their way from Texas to California. It was quite a large family. There was the girl’s mother, her step-father, her sister, her brother, the aunt, and the aunt’s little girl. Aunt Polly seemed to be the leading man, for to her belonged the two best ox-teams, one of which was driven by herself, the other by the girl, Dorinda. She had hired or bought her niece from the step-father for this purpose, after she had lost her husband by lightning, and Dora had been faithful to her task, although pretty nearly worn out crossing the Desert from Maricopa Wells to Gila Bend, where George W. first found them. After he had taken a deep look into the girl’s eyes, he very disinterestedly invited the whole family to come into his house—as far as they would go in—to rest there from the long, hard journey. The family was treated to the best the house afforded, and the oxen were fed on such hay as they had perhaps never dreamed of before.

The Texans were in no hurry to move on, and George W. was in no hurry to have them go; being a bachelor, he was naturally fond of ladies’ society. Dora, Sis, and the ten-year-old brother soon became warmly attached to him, and they, with the big dog, Bose, would daily wander off to the Gila to catch fish. When they got there the two barefooted girls and the brother would wade into the stream with ever fresh zest, as they recalled that dreadful drag across the waterless desert. Bose always went into the water with them, George W. alone remaining on the bank, fishing-line in hand.

One day, when Dora had watched the cool, clear water gliding swiftly over her sun-browned feet in silence, she raised her eyes suddenly from under the long, shading lashes:

“Why do you never come into the water? Don’t you like to stand in it?” she asked of George.

“Come and sit beside me here, and I will tell you!”

She nestled down beside him, and he called to Bose, who laid his head on his master’s knee and looked knowingly from one to the other.

“About three years ago, before I had built this house of mine, I lived in a little shanty, about a mile from the river—just back here. The summer was very hot. I had suffered much from the sun and the want of water in crossing the country, and after the man who came out here with me had gone on to Fort Yuma, I was left entirely alone. When I see you over your ankles in the water now, I am often tempted to call you back, only I know that you are young and strong, and I remember but too well what pleasure there is in it. Besides, you do not remain in it as I did, for long weary hours every day, standing in the shade of a willow catching fish for my dinner. There was little else here to eat then, and I never left off fishing till I was taken with rheumatism, from which I had suffered years before. I was all alone and could not move, and had nearly perished for want of water, because I could not walk down to the river to get it. Nor could I cook anything, because beans require a great deal of water, and I would have died alone in my shanty, if it had not been for this dog.” (Bose wagged his tail to indicate that he understood what was being said.) “A dozen times a day Bose would trot down to the river, dip up a small tin pailful of water, and bring it to me where I stood or lay. Otherwise the faithful old fellow never left my side, day or night, and though he would, no doubt, nurse me through another spell of rheumatism, it would be dreadful to be sick and alone here after you and your people have left me.”

Dora was stroking the dog’s rough coat. “It would be dreadful,” she repeated, absently, a tear rolling from her lashes to her cheek. Her words and the look in her eyes thrilled the man to his inmost soul.

“Dora,” he said, and arrested the hand travelling over Bose’s head; “Dora, I am old enough to be your father—”

“Yes,” she replied, looking up artlessly—but there was something in his face that made her eyes drop and the warm blood flush her cheeks.

When he spoke again it was of something quite different, and after awhile the conversation turned to her family. Her stepfather did not always treat her well; he had struck her cruelly once, and her mother dared not interfere, she knowing his temper but too well. George could hardly keep from putting his arms about her to shield her from the man’s rough ways, and in his heart he vowed that it should be different if Dora did but will it so. The stepfather and aunt had spoken of pulling up stakes soon, but what wonder that Dora was averse to going?

In the evening George W. proposed to the stepfather that he remain at the station and “farm it” near the river, while the mother kept house for them all and served meals to the travelling public of Arizona. From sheer perverseness the stepfather refused, saying that he wanted to go on to California, and George W. determined to hasten matters in another direction. He hovered as much as possible about Dora, who, since the day by the riverside, had taken Bose into her confidence and affection. Wherever she went the dog went, too, and his master augured well for himself from this, though Dora was shy and more distant than when she first came to Gila Bend.

One day the Texans commenced gathering up their “tricks” and making ready to go. Dora’s eyes were red, and George W., to cheer her, perhaps, proposed that she should go with him to where he suspected one of the hens had made a nest in the bushes by the river bank. When they came back she seemed even more shy, though she stole up to him in the twilight, where he stood by the big mesquite tree, and hastily put her hands into his. He drew her to him quickly, pressed her head to his breast, and murmured: “Thanks, my little girl!” as he touched her hair with his lips. An hour later there was clamor and confusion at Gila Bend. George W. seemed to have caused it all, for to him the aunt vehemently declared that she would have the girl to drive her ox-team into California—she had hired her and paid for her; and the step-father shouted that he had control of the child, and go she should, whether or no.

Poor George passed a sleepless night. The picture of Dora, barefooted and weary, toiling hopelessly through the sand on the desert, was always before him, and he swore to himself that she should not go from him; that he would shelter her henceforth from the cruel, burning sun, and the sharp words and sharper blows of her stepfather. In the morning, after exacting a promise from the aunt and the stepfather to remain until he returned, he started out alone on his trusty horse, Bose running close by his side. When he had left the shelter of the trees, he halted and looked keenly about him in every direction. A sharp bark from Bose made him turn toward the river. Swift of foot as the antelope of the plains, Dora was crossing the stretch of land between the road and the river, and when she reached the lone horseman waiting for her, a light bound brought her foot into the stirrup and her flushed face on a level with his.

“Thanks, my little girl, I knew you would come,” he said, as on the night before; but this time he held her face between his hands and looked searchingly into her eyes. “What if they should try to take my little girl away before I come back—would she go off and leave me?”

She met his look fearlessly and confidingly. “Tell me what direction you are going, and I will run away and follow you, if they break up before your return.”

“Toward Fort Yuma. I shall ride day and night, and return to you in ten days. Good-bye; keep faith and keep courage.”

“Good-bye!” for the first time the soft, bare arms were laid around his neck, and the blushing, child-like face half-buried in his full black beard. “Let me keep Bose here,” she called after him, and at a word from his master, the dog sped after her over the cactus-covered ground.

At Gila Bend, preparations for departure on George’s return were kept on foot—purposely, it seemed, to keep before Dora’s eyes the fact that she was expected to go with her people when they went. The days passed, one like the other; there was no event to break the monotony of this desert-life. Yes, there was a change; but none knew of it nor perceived it, except, perhaps, Dora’s mother. From a thoughtless, easily-guided girl, Dora was changing into a self-reliant, strong-spirited woman. Her mother knew of her resolve as well as though she had heard her utter it; she looked upon her eldest-born with all the greater pride when she discovered that “the gal had a heap of her dad’s grit,” as well as his mild blue eyes.

When the morning of the tenth day dawned, Dora was up betimes, mending, with deft fingers, all the little rents she could find, in her thin, well-worn dress. Never before had she felt that she was poor, or that she wanted more than the simple gown and the limp sun-bonnet making up her attire.

“Moving” had been their permanent state and normal condition as long as she could think back; and she had known mostly only those who lived in the same condition. She had never seen town or city; yet, in the settlements through which they had passed, she had seen enough of backwoods finery to know that her wardrobe was scantily furnished. At last, one by one, the tears gathered slowly in her eyes, and she leaned her head on the edge of the bed where her sister lay still asleep, and sobbed till Sis woke up and looked at her with wondering eyes.

In the course of the day, Dora went to the river two or three times, Bose always close at her heels. Whatever may have been the character of the mysterious consultations they held, in the afternoon the dog was missing until near sundown, when he dashed into the station, panting and with protruding tongue, his tail wagging excitedly while lapping up the water Dora had filled his basin with. Unobserved she stole away, and when quite a distance from the house, Bose came tearing through the cactus after her, “pointing” in the direction from where a light dust arose. The little cloud came nearer, and soon a horseman could be discovered in it. A race began between Dora and the dog, and when the different parties met, Bose was fain to leap up and salute the horse’s face, because the rider was otherwise engaged. When Dora was perched in front of him, the horse continued the journey in a slow walk, while the girl looked the question she was too timid to ask. George answered her look: “Yes, darling, I think your aunt will be satisfied.”

“Then you have brought a man?” Her curiosity had conquered, for she could see no human being beside themselves.

“I have.” His laugh made her shrink a little—like the mimosa sensitiva, when touched by ever so dainty a finger—and, he added, soberly, “Two of them. One is the station-keeper at Kenyon’s Station. Their wagon will come into sight directly; but I don’t want them to see my little girl out here with me.”

An hour afterward a heavily laden wagon, drawn by two stout horses, was rolling into Gila Bend, followed by Mr. George W., mounted on Bess. A pleasant welcome was extended by all to the new arrivals; even Bose, the hypocrite, barked and capered and flounced his tail as though he hadn’t greeted his master, two miles down the road, a little while ago. Supper was served by the mother and aunt—this latter lady being narrowly but furtively watched by the station-keeper of Kenyon’s Station. All thoughts of business or departure seemed banished for that night. The aunt and the newly-come station-keeper enjoying their pipe in quiet harmony, a little apart from the rest, so much taken up with each other that the second man was left entirely to the family. The next morning this second man was offered to the aunt by George W. as a substitute for Dora; but, as the Kenyon’s station-keeper had offered himself to her as a husband, earlier in the day, the substitute was declined. Neither George nor the second man, however, seemed put out about it. Indeed, there was something suspicious about the readiness with which he went to work on the half-finished corral building at the station. The aunt and the stepfather did not seem to notice this. Only the mother thought her own thoughts about it.

Later in the day, when the father and the brother were with the man at the corral, the aunt with her station-keeper, and Sis thoughtfully kept employed by her mother, Dora found a chance to steal out to the wagon, where George was waiting for her. From under the wagon sheet he drew two or three bundles, which, on being opened, contained what Dora thought the finest display of dry-goods she had ever seen. Lost in admiration, her face suddenly fell, and a queer, unexplained sense of something painful or humiliating jarred on her feelings when several pairs of ladies’ shoes and numerous pairs of stockings made their appearance from out of one of the bundles. She drew back, hurt and abashed, and when George asked—

“But, Dora, don’t you like your finery? I thought you liked pink. Isn’t this dress pretty?”

She answered confusedly, “I—I didn’t know they were for me—and besides—I can’t take them. I know I am a poor—ignorant girl—but—” a sob finished the sentence as she turned to go to the house.

But she did not go. I don’t know what George W. said to her while he held her close to him. It was something about his right to buy finery for his little wife, and the like nonsense, which Dora did not repeat to Sis when she presented to her a dress of the brightest possible scarlet.

That night they all sat out under the trees together. There was no more reserve or secrecy maintained. A dozen papers of the choicest brands of tobacco and half a dozen bottles of “Colorado river water,” from Fort Yuma, had wonderfully mollified the stepfather. The mother would have been happy, even without the indigo-blue dress that fell to her share, and Buddy was radiant in new suspenders and a white store shirt. As soon as possible a Justice of the Peace was imported from Arizona City, to which place he was faithfully returned, after having made two happy couples at Gila Bend.

Many months after, on my way back from Tucson, we came quite unexpectedly, between the latter place and Sacaton, on a new shanty. It was built of unhewn logs of cottonwood and mesquite trees, the branches, with their withered foliage, furnishing the roof. A certain cheerful, home-like air about the place made me surmise the presence of a woman.

I was not mistaken; for though the only door of the hut was closed, and I could see no window, a loud but pleasant treble voice rang out directly: “Dad! Bud! come right h’yere to me. I know that’s her comin’ thar—I jist know it is,” and a little lithe body rushed out of the door and up to the ambulance, as though she meant to take wagon, mules, and all by storm. A rough-looking man came slowly from behind the house, and Bud, with a selection of dogs at his heels, clambered over a piece of fence—merely for the sake of climbing, as there was plenty of open space to cross.

The delegation insisted on my alighting, which I did in consideration of Dora’s mother being at the head of it. The family had moved back here from Oatman’s Flat, where they had given Sam his Indian scare on our way out. Once in the house I no longer wondered how she had discovered the ambulance, with the door closed and no windows in the house. The walls had not been “chinked,” so that between the logs was admitted as much light and air as the most fastidious could desire. All around were the signs of busy preparation. It was near Christmas, and they were expecting company for the holidays—a family moving from Texas to California had sent word by some vehicle swifter than their ox-teams that they would be with them by Christmas-day.

Though the house contained but this one airy room, it was neat and well kept. Just outside the door there were two Dutch ovens, and this was the kitchen. Beyond the half-fenced clearing the willows and cottonwoods grew close by the river, and the mild December sun of Arizona lying on the rude homestead seemed to give promise of future peace and well-doing to these who had planted their roof-tree on the banks of the Gila.

The mother sent her love and a fresh-baked cake by us to her daughter. A loaf of the same cake was given to me, and I can say that it tasted better than what I have often eaten at well-set tables, though there was no cow to furnish milk or butter, and only a few chickens to lay eggs. At Gila Bend, you remember, they had chickens, too; and when I got out of the ambulance there some days later, I stopped to admire a brood of little chicks just out of the shell.

“How pretty they are,” said I, looking up into George W.’s honest face.

“Ah!” he exclaimed, his eyes lighting up, “but go inside, to Dora.”

He led the way to the room, and there, in a little cradle, lay a sweet, pretty girl-baby—the first white child, so far as history records, that was ever born at Gila Bend.

DMdJ Neu2


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