Life among the Apaches/Chapter 10

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Fort Yuma.—The Yuma Indians.—Desperate Situation.—Dr. Webb's Bluntness.—Caballo en Pelo.—Method of Camping.—Yuma Chiefs our Prisoners.—The Launch.—Crossing the Colorado.—March into the Desert.—Release of the Yumas.——Sandstorm in the Desert.—Final Escape from the Yumas.—Sufferings on the Desert.—Carisso Creek.—Vallecito.—Hospitality of Army Officers.—Col. Heintzleman.—Yumas Reduced to Subjection.

The foregoing digression is excusable, on the ground that it exposes, to some extent, the character of the American people who first made the intimate acquaintance of the Indian tribes occupying the country on the direct route of migration between the Atlantic and Pacific States, and, in a measure, accounts for their hostile advances. The Pimos and Maricopas must, however, be excepted from this category, as they never, on any occasion, no matter how much goaded, exhibited any vengeful or adverse spirit toward Americans. In like manner, these remarks cannot apply to the Apaches, who never, at any time, ceased their active hostility and treacherous attacks.

Soon after Caballo en Pelo, or the "Naked Horse," entered our camp, he made a signal to his associates, and we soon had an accession of fourteen more, embracing several of the principal men in the Yuma tribe. They were all unarmed, and each one expressed his desire to maintain friendly relations with our people. Dr. Webb, with his usual blunt honesty of character, and total neglect of policy, abruptly asked them—"If you mean as you profess, why did you drive away the small body of soldiers left here to assist the Americans in crossing the river and supplying their needs, and, why did you massacre the American party with sheep, who came here on their road to California?" These unexpected queries discomfited the savages, and threw us "all aback," as may readily be supposed. Caballo en Pelo, Pasqual, and several other leading men, undertook to deny these charges in toto, but we were too well informed, and their denials only tended to put us more than ever on the qui vive.

A few words interchanged between the members of our party decided our course of action. In any case we were fully committed, and nothing but perilous measures could decide the result of our desperate surroundings. It was determined to hold all the Yumas present as captives, subject to instant death upon the exhibition of any hostility on the part of that tribe. We felt that our lives were at the mercy of those savages, but also resolved that we should not be sacrificed without a corresponding amount of satisfaction. Their principal men were in our camp unarmed; we had the disposal of their lives in our power, and knew that they could not escape in the event of any hostile act against our small party. These deliberations were fully unfolded to the chiefs, who were informed that no more of their tribe would be admitted into our camp without jeopardizing the safety of those already there. They were also told, that having come of their own free will, they would be expected to remain during our pleasure, and, in the meantime, be fed from our very limited resources. They were furthermore informed that the launch which they had taken from the soldiers would be needed for our conveyance across the Colorado, and as we knew it to be in their possession, it must be forthcoming when required. The first act of Caballo en Pelo was to signalize his people not to approach our camp, which was located on a sand-spit, with three hundred yards clear rifle range on all sides not covered by the river. He then went on to disclaim any inimical design, quoting the fact that he and his chief men had sought us unarmed, when they might have overwhelmed our paltry force with hundreds of warriors. He also stated that they had no hostile feelings toward white men coming from the east, but would oppose all from the west, as they had learned that a force from that quarter was being prepared for a campaign against them. They were not at war with Americans generally, but solely with those whom they expected from California with warlike intentions. Caballo en Pelo then asked if he and his companions were to consider themselves prisoners. To this home question Dr. Webb, who was in charge of our party, directed me to answer—yes, they were; and would be held as such, until the launches they had taken from the soldiers were produced for our passage across the Colorado, and they had given satisfactory evidence of their peaceful intentions. This abrupt announcement was not pleasing to our savage guests, who exhibited alarm, mingled with half-uttered threats of vengeance; but the old motto, "in for a penny, in for a pound," was the only one we could adopt under the circumstances, and our resolution was as unalterable as the laws of the Medes and Persians.

Dr. Webb furthermore informed the Yumas that they must order their warriors, who were gathering thickly on our side the river, not to approach within three hundred yards, adding, "we suspect your motives, and intend to have the first blood, if any is to be shed. Your chief men are in our power. Your people can kill us, as they are so much more numerous, but we will kill you first, if they do not obey our orders which shall be promulgated through you."

This was undoubtedly the "tightest fix" our visitors ever got in. They were by no means prepared for such a decided stand, and were quite at a loss for expedient. Seeing resolution in each man's eye, and knowing that it was our determination to put them to death the moment any decidedly hostile step should be taken by their people, they concluded to make the best of a bad bargain, and escape by strategy from the trap they had prepared to spring upon us, but in which they had caught themselves.

Caballo en Pelo made a few signs to the surrounding and anxious multitude, which then quietly retreated out of sight among the dense willows which grew with remarkable luxuriance about three hundred yards from the river. We then dug two holes, about twenty feet apart, parallel to each other, and each about five feet long by one and a half wide and two deep. In these holes we made blazing fires which rose about two or three feet above the surface of the ground, and between these fires we ordered the Yumas to lie down, side by side, while a sentinel with a cocked six-shooter paraded along the line of their heads, and another along the line of their feet. A flank escape was impossible, as it was prevented by a bright and hot fire on each side. Our few remaining animals were drawn up in line on the river side of the camp, with a guard outside of them and within twenty feet of the whole party. "We slept but little that night, and at early dawn we were once more afoot, and in discussion with the Yumas, who stoutly denied any hostile motive, and professed indignation at their treatment. We gave them a good breakfast, as we had given them a plentiful supper the evening previous, and then reiterated our demand for the launches, while they as stubbornly denied any knowledge of their existence.

That day we moved down the river about eleven miles and selected a good camp ground early in the afternoon. Again we were surrounded by hundreds of Indians, but the personal fears of our hostages kept them at bay, and they did not approach nearer than three hundred yards. The night passed as the previous one had done, and we perceived it was the intention of the Yumas to wear us out, and then seize their opportunity; but this scheme was frustrated by the nerve and decision of Dr. Webb, who next morning informed Caballo en Pelo and his chief followers, that "we were well aware of the existence of the launches by oral as well as written intelligence; that they were absolutely necessary to cross the Colorado; that we knew the Yumas had driven away the small garrison of American soldiers and had the launches in their possession; that we had met the escaped Maricopas, who told us all about the massacre of Gallantin and his party, and the appropriation of the launches by the Yumas; and, finally, that if those launches were not forthcoming by twelve o'clock the next day, we should at once proceed to extremities and kill him and all the Yumas in our camp."

It may well be supposed that this sort of talk aroused the liveliest alarm among our prisoners, who commenced an excited conversation in their own tongue, which culminated in a request from Caballo en Pelo that one of his young men be permitted to leave our camp and make inquiry if the launches really were in existence, and if so, to bring it down river to our camp. This was agreed to, and a young lad, about eighteen years of age, the son of Pasqual, selected for the business. He was allowed to depart with the positive assurance that we would keep our words in regard to his father and the other head men of the Yuma tribe in our camp.

That night we observed more than the usual precautions, for one-half our number were on guard at all times. Next morning no Indians were to be seen, but at ten o'clock a. m., a large launch, capable of holding half our party with their baggage, was seen approaching under the conduct of two Yumas. It was moored in front of our camp, and immediate preparations were made for crossing. Five of us, taking half the Yuma prisoners, immediately embarked with rifles in hand, ready for use, and as we could easily sweep both sides the river, our party was really as strong as ever. Our mules and horses were made to swim across under the lead and direction of two Yumas, who were kept within range of our rifles, and in this manner we succeeded in gaining the western bank of the Colorado, after three most exciting days of detention amidst overwhelming numbers of hostile savages; but our troubles were not yet ended. We had still to undergo another ordeal, even more perilous, because we had no hostages as securities for our safety from attack.

Having gained the western bank of the Colorado in peace, the Yumas demanded to be released from captivity, but our safety would not permit such a course, and Dr. Webb informed them that they must remain in camp that night and would be set free next day. The utmost precaution was again observed throughout the night, and at three o'clock next morning we were once more en route toward California, accompanied by the leading Yumas, who were kept closely guarded. That day we penetrated twenty-eight miles into the great Colorado desert, halting about four o'clock p. m, in a place where neither water nor wood existed, and completely surrounded by hills and banks of white sand. With much toil several of our number ascended one or two of the highest hillocks, but as far as the eye could reach nothing was to be seen but one unbroken expanse of sand—white, dazzling under the rays of a burning sun, unrelieved by a single bush or shrub—broken and fretted with countless hillocks, and utterly void of animal life. This part of the Colorado desert is much more frightful than the great Sahara of Africa. The absolute stillness and repose is something awful; it is death in life; it is the most impressive lesson of man's feebleness, and the most startling reproof against his vanity. In our case these sensations were not mitigated by the knowledge of being surrounded by a fierce, warlike and numerous Indian tribe, thirsting for our blood, and eager to revenge the indignity they had suffered by the captivity of their head chiefs, and the failure of their treacherous schemes.

As before stated, we halted and made preparations as if to encamp. Dr. Webb then directed Mr. Thurber to ascend the highest sand hill in the neighborhood, examine all around with his field glass and report if the Indians were upon our trail. In about half an hour Mr. Thurber returned, and assured us that from two to three hundred Yumas were within five miles of our position, and heading toward our camp. There was no time to lose. Caballo en Pelo with his fellow captives were immediately informed that they must take the back track and return to the river, that our road was toward the west, that we had no more provisions to give them, and that it was indispensable for us to part company then and there. To these requirements the wily chief demurred, and stated his desire to go on with us to California. He was overruled by the strong persuasive force of drawing our pistols, and giving him the sole alternative of obeying or dying. They chose the former, and decamped with haste. So soon as they disappeared round the base of a friendly sand hill, we immediately repacked our wagon, and drove on with all possible speed, hoping to escape in the fast coming darkness.

Eleven years afterward, Pasqual himself told me that they met about three hundred of their warriors half an hour after being expelled from our camp, and the whole band came in pursuit of us, but as the Indian never risks life when he thinks the same end can be accomplished by strategy, and as time is of no moment to them, it was agreed to fall foul of us just before daylight the next morning, and by a rapid and combined assault massacre our little party with comparative ease and impunity. Acting on that policy, they approached our abandoned camp with extreme caution, and commenced a survey from surrounding hillocks. They were not surprised to see no fire, as they knew there was no wood in that part of the desert, and they remained quiescent until nearly morning, when their scouts gave them the unwelcome information that we were gone.

Our flight was continued all night and part of the next day, until overtaken by one of those dreadful sandstorms which prevail on the Colorado desert. The day was intensely hot, and the most oppressive silence seemed to reign absolute. Suddenly a dark, dense and singular looking cloud arose in the west and moved toward us with incredible velocity. Great masses of heavy sand were lifted as if they were so many feathers and carried high into the air with extreme violence. The places formerly occupied by huge hillocks containing many thousand tons of sand, were swept clean as if by magic in a few moments, and the vast banks removed to other localities in the twinkling of an eye. Our mules fell flat upon their bellies and thrust their noses close to the ground, our horses followed their example—none of us could stand against the force and might of the storm—and we, too, laid down flat, hauling a tent over us. In a few moments the tent was so deeply covered with sand as to retain its position, and every now and then we were compelled to remove the swiftly gathering mass, to avoid being absolutely buried alive. Amidst the distress, the horrible sensations, and the suffocating feelings occasioned by this sirocco, we entertained the grateful sense of protection from our savage pursuers, who were quite as incapable of facing that terrific storm as we were. For forty-eight hours we had not tasted food, and were more than a day without water in the hottest climate known to man, and our distress heightened by the intense craving for water invariably attendant on those scorching blasts of the desert. These sensations were not alleviated by the fact of knowing that we had yet a journey of forty miles before we could find water.

About three o'clock p. m., the storm passed off, and we instantly resumed our way without cooking food, for eating could only add to our already terrible thirst. All that night our weary feet trod that infernal desert until the glowing morning sun shone upon us like a plate of molten brass, but we had arrived at a fine camp ground, thickly supplied with shady mesquit trees and abounding with excellent grass for our worn-out animals, which had dwindled down to less than one-half the number we boasted before crossing the Colorado. About an hour after camping, the step-father of Inez, who served us as guide, reported that he saw an alamo tree a short distance off, and he believed that there must be water in its neighborhood. Several of us proceeded to the spot and in a short time discovered a small pool containing about twenty gallons of water deposited in a hollow by a former copious rain, and sheltered from the sun by friendly brush. The joyful news was soon made known to the rest of our comrades, and our raging thirst slaked, after which the remainder of the water was equally divided among our famishing stock. As Carisso creek was then within a day's march, no thought was taken for the morrow, and after a most refreshing night's rest, we re-commenced our journey at early dawn, reaching Carisso creek about five o'clock on the afternoon of the same day. At this place we felt ourselves wholly safe from the Yumas. There was abundance of pasture, and water and wood, and we would have remained for a day or two to obtain much needed rest, but our provisions had entirely given out, and we had still one hundred miles of travel before us without an ounce of food, unless such as might possibly be procured in the way of game.

With sad hearts and weakened frames we pushed forward until we reached Vallecito, where we found an American garrison consisting of a company of infantry and three officers. By these warm-hearted and gallant gentlemen we were received with the greatest courtesy and kindliness, and entertained by them with a warmth of hospitality which has found an abiding place among my most grateful recollections. Some time had elapsed since supplies were received from San Diego, and they were themselves on "short commons," and unable to furnish us with the provisions needed to complete our journey; but gave us freely to the extent of their power. It would have been gross ingratitude to remain there, living upon the very diminished stores of our kind entertainers, and we again pushed forward the next day. Our course lay over the Volcan mountain, and upon its magnificent height we found a rancho owned and inhabited by a big-hearted gentleman, who ministered to our wants and furnished us with two fresh mules. Next day we resumed our march, and soon after passing the old battle ground of San Pascual met Col. Heintzleman, in command of three hundred troops, on his way to chastise the Yuma Indians for their many murders and robberies. The officers were surprised to meet us coming from the river, and asked many questions, which we were delighted to answer, giving valuable information.

Col. Heintzleman's force was subsequently increased to five hundred men, and after two years' active warfare he succeeded in reducing the Yumas, who have never since presumed to contend against our power. Since then Fort Yuma has become a noted frontier fortification, surrounded by many hundreds of American citizens, who live, for the most part, on the eastern bank of the river, and carry on a lucrative trade with the interior of Arizona and the Yumas, Cocopahs, Cushans, Amojaves and other tribes. The waters of the Colorado are now plowed by half a dozen steamers, and my old enemies, the Yumas, do the "chores" and menial offices for the whites. The next day after meeting Col. Heintzleman we reached San Diego, devoutly thankful to Providence for our many and almost miraculous escapes from the tomahawks and scalping knives of the Indian tribes through which we had passed for the distance of two thousand eight hundred miles.