Heroines of the Southwest

Both of the women immediately carried water to the roof and extinguished the flames. Another arrow, wrapped in cotton steeped in turpentine, again set the roof on fire, and as one of the intrepid matrons threw a bucket of water upon the blaze, the dastard stepped from behind the tree and sent a pistol ball through her right arm, but at the same moment received two rifle balls in his breast, and fell a corpse.

Mrs. Benham, for it was she who had been struck, was assisted by her husband to the ground floor, where her wound was examined and found to be fortunately not a dangerous one. A new peril, however, now struck terror to their hearts; the water was all exhausted. The fire began to make headway. Mrs. Braxton, calling loudly for water to extinguish it, and meeting no response, descended to the ground floor, where the defenders were about to give up all hope, and either resigns themselves to the flames, or by emerging from the house, submit to massacre at the hands of the now infuriated foe. As Mrs. Braxton rolled her eyes hither and thither in search of some substitute for water, they fell on the corpse of her husband. His coat and vest were completely saturated with blood. It was only the sad but terrible necessity which immediately suggested to her the use to which these garments could be put. Shuddering, she removed them quickly but tenderly from the body, flew to the roof and succeeded, by these dripping and ghastly tokens of her widowhood, in finally extinguishing the flames.

The attack ceased at night-fall, and the Mexicans withdrew. The outbreak having been soon quelled by the United States forces, the territory was brought again into a condition of peace and comparative security.

At the close of the war in 1848, Mrs. Braxton married a discharged volunteer named Whitley, and having disposed of the late Mr. Braxton’s interest in the New Mexican ranch, removed, in 1851, with her husband and family, to California, where they lived for two years in the Sacramento valley.

Whitley was possessed of one of those roving and adventurous spirits which is never happy in repose, and when he was informed by John Crossman, an old comrade, of the discovery of a rich placer which he had made during his march as a United States soldier across the territory of Arizona, at that time known as the Gadsden purchase, he eagerly formed a partnership with the discoverer, who was no longer in the army, and announced to his wife his resolution to settle in Arizona. She endeavored by every argument she could command to dissuade him from this rash step, but in vain, and finding all her representations and entreaties of no avail, she consented, though with the utmost reluctance, to accompany him. They accordingly sold their place and took vessel with their household goods, for San Diego, from which point they purposed to advance across the country three hundred miles to the point where Crossman had located his placer.

The territory of Arizona may be likened to that wild and rugged mountain region in Central Asia, where, according to Persian myth, untold treasures are guarded by the malign legions of Ahriman, the spirit of evil. Two of the great elemental forces have employed their destructive agencies upon the surface of the country until it might serve for an ideal picture of desolation. For countless centuries the water has seamed and gashed the face of the hills, stripping them of soil, and cutting deep gorges and canyons through the rocks. The water then flowed away or disappeared in the sands, and the sun came with its parching heat to complete the work of ruin. Famine and thirst stalk over those arid plains, or lurk in the waterless and gloomy canyons; as if to compensate for these evils, the soil of the territory teems with mineral wealth.

Grains of gold glisten in the sandy debris of ancient torrents, and nuggets are wedged in the faces of the precipices. Mountains of silver and copper are waiting for the miner who is bold enough to venture through that desolate region in quest of these metals.

The journey from San Diego was made with pack mules and occupied thirty days, during which nearly every hardship and obstacle in the pioneer’s catalogue was encountered. When they reached the spot described by Crossman they found the place, which lay at the bottom of a deep ravine, had been covered with boulders and thirty feet of sand by the rapid torrents of five rainy seasons. They immediately commenced “prospecting.” Mrs. Braxton had the good fortune to discover a large “pocket,” from which Crossman and her husband took out in a few weeks thirty thousand dollars in gold. This contented the adventurers, and being disgusted with the appearance of the country, they decided to go back to California.

Mojave Desert

Mojave Desert

Instead of returning on the same route by which they came, they resolved to cross the Colorado River higher up and in the neighborhood of the Santa Maria. They reached the Colorado River after a toilsome march, but while searching for a place to pass over, Crossman lost his footing and fell sixty feet down a precipice, surviving only long enough to bequeath his share of the treasure to his partner. Here, too, they had the misfortune to lose one of their four pack-mules, which strayed away. Pressing on in a northwesterly direction they passed through a series of deep valleys and gorges where the only water they could find was brackish and bitter, and reached the edge of the California desert.

They had meanwhile lost another mule which had been dashed to pieces by falling down a canyon. Mr. Whitley’s strength becoming exhausted his wife gave up to him the beast she had been riding, and pursued her way on foot, driving before her the other mule, which bore the gold-dust with their scanty supply of food and their only remaining cooking utensils.

Their tents and camp furniture having been lost they had suffered much from the chilly nights in the mountains, and after they had entered the desert, from the rays of the sun. Before they could reach the Mohave river Mr. Whitley became insane from thirst and hunger, and nothing but incessant watchfulness on the part of his wife could prevent him from doing injury to himself. Once while she was gathering cactus-leaves to wet his lips with the moisture they contained, he bit his arm and sucked the blood. Upon reaching the river he drank immoderately of the water and in an hour expired, regaining his consciousness before death, and blessing his devoted wife with his last breath. Ten days later the brave woman had succeeded in reaching Techichipa in so wasted a condition that she looked like a specter risen from the grave. Here by careful nursing she was at length restored to health. The gold-dust which had cost so dearly was found after a long search, beneath the carcass of the mule, twenty miles from Techichipa.

The extraordinary exploits of Mrs. Braxton can only be explained by supposing her to be naturally endowed with a larger share of nerve and hardihood than usually falls to the lot of her sex. Some influence,  too, must be ascribed to the peculiarly wild and free life that prevails in the southwest. Living so much of the time in the open air in a climate peculiarly luxuriant and yet bracing, and environed with dangers in manifold guise, all the latent heroism in woman’s nature is brought out to view, her muscular and nervous tissues are hardened, and her moral endurance by constant training in the school of hardship and danger, rests upon a strong and healthy physique. Upon this theory we may also explain the following incident which is related of another border-woman of the  southwest.