CHAPTER XVII. A NIGHT OF THRILLS
We declined the offer of a roof that night, preferring to sleep in the open here, for the evening was quite warm. We went to work the next morning when the whistle sounded at the dredge. Beyond caulking a few leaks in the boats, little was done with them. The tin receptacles holding our photographic plates and films were carefully coated with a covering of melted paraffine; for almost anything might happen, in the one hundred miles of rapid water that separated us from our home.
Lee's Ferry was an interesting place, both for its old and its new associations. This had long been the home of John D. Lee, well known for the part he took in the Mountain Meadow Massacre, and for which he afterwards paid the death penalty. Here Lee had lived for many years, making few visits to the small settlements to the north, but on one of these visits he was captured. There were six or seven other buildings near the large stone building where we took our meals, so arranged that they made a short street, the upper row being built against a cliff of rock and shale, the other row being placed halfway between this row and the river. These buildings were all of rock, of which there was no lack, plastered with adobe, or mud. One, we were told, had been Lee's stronghold, it was a square building, with a few very small windows, and with loopholes in the sides. At the time of our visit it was occupied by two men; one, a young Englishman, recently arrived from South Africa - a remittance-man, in search of novelty - the other a grizzled forty-niner. Much could be written about this interesting group of men, and their alluring employment. There were some who had followed this work through all the camps of the West - to Colorado, to California, and to distant Alaska as well, they had journeyed; but it is doubtful if, in all their wanderings, they had seen any camp more strangely located than this, hemmed in with canyon walls. To us, their dredge and the steamboat up the river seemed as if they had been taken from the pages of some romance, or bit of fiction, and placed before us for our entertainment.
There were other men as well, just as interesting m their way as the "old-timers," the sons of some of the owners of this proposition, - clean-cut young fellows, - working side by side with the veterans, as enthusiastic as if on their college campus.
One feature about the dredge interested us greatly. This was a tube, or sucker, held suspended by a derrick above a float, and operated by compressed air. The tube was dropped into the sand at the bottom of the river, and would eat its way into it, bringing up rocks the size of one's fist, along with the gravel and sand. In a few hours a hole, ten or fifteen feet in depth and ten feet in diameter, would be excavated. Then the tube was raised, the float was moved, and the work started again. The coarse sand and gravel, carried by a stream of water, was returned to the river, after passing over the riffles; the screenings which remained passed over square metal plates - looking like sheets of tin - covered with quicksilver. These plates were cleaned with a rubber window-cleaner, and the entire residue was saved in a heavy metal pot, ready for the chemist.
One day only was needed for our work, and by evening we were ready for the next plunge. We might have enjoyed a longer stay with these men, but stronger than this desire was our anxiety to reach our home, separated from us by a hundred miles of river, no extended part of the distance being entirely free from rapids. We had written to the Grand Canyon, bidding them look for our signal fire in Bright Angel Creek Canyon, in from seven to ten days, and planned to leave on the following morning. Nothing held us now except the hope that the mail, which was due that evening, might bring us a letter, although that was doubtful, for we were nearly a week ahead of our schedule as laid out at Green River, Utah.
As we had anticipated, there was no mail for us, so we turned to inspect the mail carrier. He was a splendid specimen of the Navajo Indian, - a wrestler of note amoung his people, we were told, - large and muscular, and with a peculiar springy, slouchy walk that gave one the impression of great reserve strength. He had ridden that day from Tuba, an agency on their reservation, about seventy miles distant. This was the first sign of an Indian that we had seen in this section, although we had been travelling along the northern boundary of their reservation since leaving the mouth of the San Juan. These Indians have no use for the river, being children of the desert, rather than of the water. Beyond an occasional crossing and swimming their horses at easy fords, they make no attempt at its navigation, even in the quiet water of Glen Canyon.
Some of the men showed this Indian our boats, and told him of our journey. He smiled, and shrugged his massive shoulders as much as to say, he "would believe it when he saw it." He had an opportunity to see us start, at least, on the following morning.