FROM THUNDER TO BREAKFAST Chapter 3 — Pioneering
FROM THUNDER TO BREAKFAST Chapter 3 — Pioneering
It was 1914—the year that Hube Yates was eleven—that his preacher father moved the family by two covered wagons from Guthrie, Oklahoma to Phoenix, Arizona. “My father sold the farm to outfit us for the trip West. It was a 160-acre claim that he homesteaded when the Cherokee Strip was won.”
Just after school was out they left Guthrie in packed-to-the-hilt wagons pulled by mules. Two pack horses trailed along. “We took what trunks and things we had to have because we weren’t goin’ to come back. We even padded our little organ and took it along.”
There were six other youngsters besides Hube—his oldest brother, Amos, 19; oldest sister, Ruth Anna, 17; Evalina Pearl, 15; Joe 13; Esther May, 9; and his kid brother, Elmer Leon (nicknamed Skeet), 5. Their mother and father were James E. Yates and Lilly Mae Yates.
“I wanted to walk miles and miles those first few days. There was always something to do—chase grasshoppers or cottontails. We boys looked something like a group of Huckleberry Finns. The girls wore long dresses and bonnets like our mother wore. We traveled six days a week. On a Sunday, regardless of the campsite, we always stopped and rested the horses and had a church service. We’d unload the trunk-sized organ, which one of us had to pump while Mother or Evalina would play it. During the service my father would open up with a word of prayer, then he would read the scripture, we’d sing hymns and close with a prayer.” There were prayers each evening too — and singing any time they felt like it.
Soon the children realized they were in an unknown land.
“We couldn’t step over to the telephone and call an officer of the law when something went haywire. And there was no drug store to stop into for a cherry Coke, and no grocery store when we ran out of supplies. Everything had to be figured out as near as it could possibly could be done.
“On this trip some of the meals were postponed. We were hungry together. It was feast or famine. We got short of water many times. When you have all those people and animals drinkin’ it, it didn’t last long, and our stock got awfully dry a few times. We not only ran short of food and water on the way West, but we also ran short of money, which is a common thing in our family.”
As they traveled along, the landscape changed. Every day or two they’d see a little ranch, and when they saw a creek and grass they would stop and let the horses graze on the grass. Usually on those stops Hube went exploring among the trees.
He was surprised one fine day to find a wobbly colt walking a short distance back and forth. “I looked down and here his mother was bogged down in quicksand. From the manure of the colt, he must have been there a long day anyway. The old mare had fought and fought to get out. She was absolutely all in, and was just gradually goin’ out of sight. The colt was strong enough to wobble around and nudge the mare’s face, but not heavy enough to sink in.”
Hube said he ran back to the camp and “broadcast my findings.” His father, Hube and his two older brothers grabbed some rope and logs to stand on and hurried back to dig around the mare and put ropes under her so she wouldn’t sink any farther.
“When we’d take a bucket of quicksand out, the hole would fill with water. It was like a vacuum. You just had to put a tension on, hold the tension, and work around her. We finally got her out and washed her off. The little colt didn’t lose any time gettin’ its lunch.”
It was time to look for the owner. A nearby shack seemed the logical place to start. They found an elderly fellow there who said he’d been riding around, looking for the mare, which happened to be a racehorse. It had been bred to a very valuable stallion.
“When he heard that we had got her out of the quicksand he asked, ‘Is she alive?’”
The old man was delighted with the news, and so was the owner. When he found out, he was so overjoyed that he wanted to hug everybody. He excitedly asked, ”Who found the mare?”
Jim Yates said, “My son over there” and he pointed to Hube.
It was a highlight of the trip when the man pulled out thirty-five dollars. Little Hube’s jaw dropped. “It was like givin’ me a farm in Texas,” he said. He told the rancher that he didn’t do it for the money, but the man insisted that he take it, “so I gave it to my mother.”
He didn’t know, until then, that they were broke. Five dollars would go a long way. Two dollars would go a long way. Thirty-five dollars was a bonanza!
Adventures continued to happen. Farther west they came upon some burned-out ranches. The first one they came to couldn’t have been burned very many days before they got there. There wasn’t a soul around. It couldn’t have been an accident because there was too much distance between the buildings. The fire had to be purposely set.
Several days before they reached the Rio Grande in New Mexico they saw dust way off to the north. They knew it wasn’t a whirlwind or dust devil. They could see objects coming into view as they went down through little draws and canyons.
“When they got closer we could see a long string of riders—about fifteen of them. We had traveled days and saw nothin’ or nobody. Here we were in the great big open world and here come a group of riders.
“As they closed in it didn’t take too much eyesight to see that they were naked except for little clouts about twelve inches by twelve inches They were hung from their waists with little buckskin thongs which weren’t much protection, actually. This was just like a patch over a man’s eye, only a little larger. They never worried about them stayin’ in place too much. There wasn’t anything in the back.”
The Yates family didn’t know what tribe it was, but to a little kid in 1914 Indians were Indians. The thrills and chills were the same, regardless of who they were. They remembered the burned out ranches and barns they had seen along the way, and remembered the stories of Indian rampages.
“When they got close to us they looked gold-colored in the sun. One of them had on a brand-new stovepipe hat that didn’t belong in that part of the country any more than a grand piano. Another one had on a brand-new pair of black pants, and still another had a brand-new black coat on, one a pair of black slippers, one a white shirt, and one wore a vest. That’s all they had on except their clouts.”
Where did they get those articles of clothing? It concerned the Yates family. They also noticed that, contrary to the concept of warring Indian parties, they didn’t make any noise. “They never whooped or hollered. They just rode up and stopped about a hundred yards away and looked at us for a minute or two. The man who was apparently in charge said something to them. They didn’t point with their fingers. They puckered up their lips and pointed them over here or over there. Then they rode in a circle around our two covered wagons and pack horses.
“We were all huggin’ the guns we had. I don’t think the Indians had more than four guns and they all looked like single shots.
They had bows and arrows and had us outnumbered all to thunder. There was only nine of us, countin’ the women too. I’ll never forget that I was huggin’ the same gun I used at night when I guarded camp. I had to take my turn even at the age of eleven.
“I figured on four Indians if I didn’t get discombobulated somewhere.
“My father walked out to the Indian who was wearin’ the cocky stove-pipe hat. There was fuzz up and down the backs of everybody in our outfit.
“The Indians looked down at my father like they were lookin’ at an ant. There wasn’t one word spoken. My father just walked back and leaned up against the wheel of the wagon. My brother was watchin’ from the other side of the wagon. The women had been told to stay out of sight.
“Whether the Indians sat there for fifteen minutes or thirty minutes, I couldn’t say, but it seemed like hours and hours. It was just that we were so tense and on the fryin’ pan that it seemed like a long time, but it wasn’t. It was probably thirty minutes that we stared at each other, but it was a long thirty minutes. It was a silence that was almost noisy.
“Somebody was on the verge of getting’ shot. Any time anybody is afraid as much as I was, all you’ve got to do is to make a false move and they’ll shoot. A lot of things went through my mind. Whether they figured out that there wasn’t enough there to take the chance of some of them gettin’ killed, I don’t know.
“Then, just out of nowhere, the fellow who was in charge said something we couldn’t understand, and he pointed south with his pursed lips. They made a complete circle and rode off. We watched them leave just like we watched them come, only with a lot more relief.”
The Yates family rolled on in a westerly direction, over rolly land through mesquite thickets and on to flat sections. The sight of an old dilapidated ranch house upped their hopes. A couple of shade trees meant that there was water available. Eighteen or twenty good-looking horses in the corral were a good sign, but they looked kind of drawn.
“We were within a couple hundred yards of the house when a man looked up and saw us. He looked like he had been stabbed with an icicle. He turned and hurried into the house. We saw one guy look from behind a window, another one through another window. There was four or five men there–white men.”
Jim Yates seemed to know what to do, no matter what the situation was. He walked to the house and asked one of the men who had ventured outside, “What’s the chance of getting’ water here?”
There was silence. It was a dead giveaway that they were outlaws.
“Sure,” he finally answered. “Uh, where are ya goin’?” Then he wanted to know where they’d come from.
Jim seemed to give all the right answers, so he asked if he could fill up the water kegs and then leave.
The fellow said, ”Well, there’s lots of water right there. You’ll find feed for your horses about eight miles down. You’ll come to a little place down on the wash.”
The family could see that the men did not want them to hang around, so they went on their way for nine miles where they camped for the night.
“The next mornin’ we had the fire goin’ good, and way off to the west we saw a lot of dust. Sure enough, there must have been twenty riders comin’ toward us. They were some of the saltiest lookin’ characters I ever saw. As they got closer we could see the sun shinin’ on their stars. It was the sheriff’s posse, all wearin’ six-guns and carryin’ thirty-thirties. It was a rough-lookin’ bunch.
“When they saw us they winged out. They didn’t all want to be in one bunch in case there was some shootin’.”
The Sheriff questioned Jim. “How long you been here?”
“Since last night,” he replied.
“You didn’t happen to see four or five fellows with about twenty head of horses, did you?”
“You did?” Then they all squeezed in. “Where did you see them?”
Jim filled in the particulars.
“Thanks a lot, fellow. They stole all those horses. They’re racehorses. When we catch up with them, we’ll bring nothin’ back but the horses.”
Hube described their exit. “Boy, how they took out of there, just ridin’ for leather. I wouldn’t have wanted to be on the other end. They didn’t fool with horse thieves in those days. There was no trial. If there was no place to hang someone they caught, they just poked a hole in their middle. Sometimes they’d take time to bury them, and sometimes they wouldn’t.”
“It was so long ago that I can’t remember what little old jerk-water town it was, but it was fifty or a hundred miles from nowhere. There was a general store that sold such things as tobacco, salt, pepper, flour, nails, saddles and harnesses.
“The Indians at this little town were just at the point of decidin’ where they wanted to go—whether they wanted to be left alone or wanted to stay on the reservation. There’d be burnin’ and plunderin’ of the ranches in these out-of-the-way places. It was dangerous.
“When the ranchers had to drive to the general store for supplies, if they lived twenty or thirty miles away, they’d stay in town overnight. They’d have to come down to the edge of a river and go across a big flat. If it was rainy weather, they’d get stuck there and they wouldn’t get through.
“The Indians got wise to that and directed the water around to this old Gumbo Flat. They’d hang around and work like a dog for hours helpin’ people across. Maybe they’d get ten cents or a package of Bull Durham or something.” Jim Yates wasn’t buying that.
“When we come up to that thing it wasn’t rainy season at all, but you could see that they had worked like Trojans to get that water to run through there and gum up the detail. It was maybe a hundred yards across and looked like it was impossible to get a wagon through.
“About twenty-five or thirty angry Indians were standin’ there watchin’ us pull those two wagons through. It took a lot of engineerin’ and hard work. By the time we got through, the day was done. We hadn’t made three miles that day. It was a chore.”
The atmosphere felt like it was ready to blow up. The Indians were not pleased that the family got through the mud without their help.
Jim Yates had an idea. “Let’s get the organ out.” He had often said, “Music has the power to charm the savage breast.” They unpacked the organ and Evalina started playing it.
The Indians gradually began to relax. “Finally they were layin’ over in the brush just listenin’ to the music. That went on for two or three hours, then my father said, “I think we can button up the organ and go to bed. Everything’s goin’ to be all right.” It was.
“We got into Socorro, New Mexico a few days later. It was a wide place on the Rio Grande. There were people there who could speak English and, I’ll tell you, that was a treat.”
The bad news was that one of their horses got sick from the alkali water. Hube explained that an old horse that’s used to the alkali is not affected by it because he’s grown up with it all his life. They had to stay camped on the Rio Grande for a whole week. “We picked up the horse three times a day. We tied a lasso rope around him and the whole family had to stand him up and hold him for a while. If he laid down very long, he’d be dead. Horses can’t lay down for a long time like a cow. If you don’t get them up, they never get up. We had a vet/blacksmith treat him.”
At the end of that week the family discovered the horse standing up. It was a happy day. They had been traveling for at least two months and they wanted to move along to Phoenix—wherever that was.
Arizona! A feeling of victory swept over the Yates family.
They finally arrived at the White Mountains, just a few day’s drive west of Springerville.
“I was takin’ the watch from midnight on. I was alert because my horses were restless. All of a sudden they reared up and snorted. I knew that there was a scent there that they didn’t know, and I was scared to death.
“I saw something about seventy-five yards away comin’ toward the horses. The breeze was blowin’ from the horses right over him. I was just ready to shoot this guy, when he raised up and I saw that it was a bear. Boy, that didn’t help my blood pressure one little bit. I didn’t know that if I’d just hollered at him, he’d break a leg getting’ away. The horses were snortin’ and spookin’. If the wind had been the other way we’d still be huntin’ horses. They’d have left the country.”
The bear departed for parts unknown, which made Hube very happy. He was also happy to see his father when he came out to get the horses before daylight. Dad explained that the bear was probably more afraid of Hube than he was of it. Hube replied, “That’s what you think.”
Walking through the pines on the way to get the horses, they saw something else move. Jim said, “What in tarnation is that thing?” It looked like a little man two or two-and-a-half feet tall. He’d bounce around from one dark shadow to another. He asked Hube for the rope he was carrying, made a loop and threw it. It landed just where he wanted it to.
Just as soon as the animal settled down they knew what it was. “Holy smoke, he’d roped a civet cat. I’d never seen one before. My father took the rope off as soon as we caught him.
“Since the spotted cat had spooked the horses so bad, we decided we’d better get the scent off of it. We took it to the creek and washed it and washed it. You couldn’t walk up to a horse with that rope to save your soul. The horses would not stand for that cat smell.
“The whole night was a spooky night for me. I welcomed the dawn.”
Crossing rivers with two covered wagons, horses and mules was a huge problem. “The first time that we came to one of the Western rivers I looked and saw big boulders floatin’ and bobbin’ along like corks. Some of them looked like they’d weigh five or six hundred pounds. It was brand-new to me. I thought, Holy smoke, what kind of a country is this?
“Every time we forded one of those rivers we had to be sure that the trunks and suitcases we were carryin’ were up on blocks so that the water wouldn’t get to them. We forgot that one time, and we had to stop and take everything out and let it dry in the sun. Everything in the bed of the wagon was soaked. That taught us a lesson.”
Another lesson was about rough and rocky terrain. Hube described a place that was “almost straight down” or so it seemed to him. “It was so steep that you absolutely could not put a wagon over it.
“My father got the ax out and chopped down two big trees. He chained them on the back of the wagon so they would drag, and chained the wheels of the wagon so they wouldn’t turn. We would point those wagons with the chained wheels down off of those mountains and go right off. The neck-yokes would be stickin’ up. The wagon tongue would stick way out and the poor old mules would be just scootin’ on their fannies, diggin’ holes and slidin’ rocks, goin’ straight down. The collars were way up on the mules’ ears. The trees would dig in to keep us from goin’ too fast. They dug rocks out too, so we had little rock slides goin’ down with us.”
What a relief it was to get to the bottom and have a few days of good driving along the flats.
Then there’d be a river to ford. They couldn’t be sure there wasn’t quicksand there to further thwart their efforts, so they carefully checked it out. They surely didn’t want to lose any of their animals or equipment. Next on the agenda was finding a large dry log or two in order to tie them on the downstream side of the wagon wheels. Next, the horses crossed, then the mules.
“We put lasso ropes on the wagons and we’d get upstream from them to hold them. We tried to stay where the horses wouldn’t hit bottom. Sometimes they would plunge. That’s where the treacherous water was. We forded one river after another like that, and on two or three occasions it was really touch-and-go.”
Even the drifting and floating was dangerous. Decades later when Hube watched Western films he compared the action on screen with his family’s experiences. “I’ve seen how wrong they do it in the movies. That’s why a lot of those wagons roll over and they lose a lot of them. The stage is set for the movies. There are lots of rescue workers right there to help them. Our closest rescue team, I suppose, was on the ninth cloud. There was nobody there to help us.
Arizona at last. They set up camp near Springerville. It was time for dinner—time to add some meat to the pot. “We had an old single-shot 12-guage shotgun and had two shells left. We had tried to use one of them time and time again, but it wouldn’t go off. We didn’t waste them. We couldn’t afford to. My father put the good shell in when we saw a jackrabbit. He was gone longer than we thought he ought to be. We waited and waited, but we never heard him shoot.”
Finally one of the kids said, “Look, there he is.”
“We looked out among the pines and there our father was runnin’ from tree to tree, tryin’ to out-manipulate a plague-take-it bull elk. We’d never seen one before. The animal must have weighed over a thousand pounds. It stood with his head sideways, looking at my Dad.”
Jim Yates would run behind another tree and the elk would charge after him. When Jim finally made it back to camp safely, he said, “I didn’t want to shoot him. We couldn’t handle that much meat.” He didn’t even waste a shell. Someone did, and they were down to one—the shell that wouldn’t go off.
When they camped at Rice, Arizona (which no longer exists), food was scarce. “Slim pickin’s” Hube called it. “My older brother was elected as a committee of one to give that shell one more try. He pulled a bead on a jackrabbit, and it scared him pretty near to death because the gun went off and killed the rabbit. Of all the times that thing wouldn’t go off, it did just when we needed it the most. We had been livin’ on barley soup. I loved that. It was dark colored and had its own whang to it. It gave us lots of strength. We had been havin’ that for days, but the rabbit that night added a little variety to our supper. It was quite a treat to get a few mouthfuls of meat.”
The wagon train came through the old Apache Trail to the Roosevelt Dam on their way to Phoenix. It had been about three years since they had dedicated it, but builders were still working around there.
“We pulled in right down on the river below the dam where there are some hot springs. The water was so hot that I couldn’t get in, but my mother could. We got a chance to take all the hot baths we wanted, and you can bet that we needed them. Mother also put out some wash.”
The horses and mules were ankle-deep in grass, a beautiful sight. And the children played in the sunshine.
“My brother Joe was a good one to get in a river or stream and catch fish with his hands. He waded out into the river and looked for fish. He walked back out near the dam where some leftover building equipment was and got himself about a half-inch piece of pipe that was five or six feet long. He waded into the river.”
The oldest brother, Amos, said derisively, “Look at him. He’s goin’ to kill fish with a pipe.”
“While we were standin’ there laughin’ Joe was standin’ in the river where it was only about eight or nine inches deep. KA-ZOOIE! He beat something in the water. We looked and saw this big old fish floatin’ belly up. It must have weighed six or seven pounds. Joe grabbed it and carried it over the bank, threw it down and went back again. Then we all went out fishin’, the little and the big.
“It was a Saturday afternoon, as I recall, and we stayed all day Sunday to give the horses a rest, to have our church service and to catch fish. We caught over a hundred. We were cookin’ them every way we could think of.”
They left early the next morning and went to Tortilla Flats.
“It was a hard days goin’ because the trail was straight up and straight down. We didn’t know what to do with those fish. We didn’t want to lose that food so we decided to dry them. We cleaned them, got some wire ropes and we ran it through their gills and hung them from one mesquite tree to another to dry them. For the most part they were carp.
“We got up the next mornin’ and, talk about somebody lettin’ the wind out of your sails, there was nothin’ left on those wires and ropes but the fishheads. There were tracks all around which looked like little deer tracks, but we couldn’t figure what deer would be doin’ eatin’ fish.
“Later we found out that it was javelina that had swiped our fish (javelinas are pig-like peccaries). That was our first experience with wild pigs, and it left us with a few feelings that are hard to put into words.”
“Three-and-a-half months after we started our trek westward we drove up by the old Salt Canal at 12th Street and Polk in Phoenix.”
Victory! Sweet victory! But there wasn’t much time to celebrate. There was work to do.
— — — — —
Note: Hube Yates’ memoir, From Thunder to Breakfast, by author Gene K. Garrison, is available at online bookstores, on Kindle, and can be ordered in hard cover or paperback wherever you buy your books.