Frontier Teacher In Tonto Basin

Chapter 12: Skunks and Cattle Stampedes


The day after teacher Angie Mitchell’s torturous day with the Apache warriors, she wrote (Tuesday, Oct. 19, 1880), “Too lame to more than scrawl a line. Jane in bed. Mrs. Harer came tonight and was greatly surprised to find a lot of semi-invalids done up in liniment, salve and arnica.”

Arnica is a liquid preparation made from the dried, yellow-orange flower heads of the perennial herb “Arnica Montana.” Similar looking to daises, this plant originated in Europe, and since the Middle Ages has been used to treat bruises and sprains.

By the next day she was able to teach school, though her arms were still very sore, and she held an extra class on Saturday to make up for Monday’s absence. Each night during that week she got little sleep because Jane’s new baby, who was sick, kept everyone wakeful with constant crying.

On Sunday “a big skunk came in and made things rattle at a lively rate for awhile but Mrs. H. got after him and he left.” The next night the creature returned, creating even more excitement. Angie wrote on Monday, “My goodness but this is a lively place to live, only a bit wearing on one’s nerves. Last night at Mrs. H’s request I ‘exhumed’ my 42 caliber pistol from the bottom of my trunk and laid it handy when we retired about 9. Baby cried steadily till 12, then grew quiet and everyone went to sleep. About 1 o’clock a skunk got in and Mrs. Harer sprang up, called me as she ran outside after the skunk. I grabbed that gun of mine and followed barefooted, and got a fair shot at the skunk. It tumbled him over, but in a second he jumped and ran into a cat claw bush. Mrs. Harer seized a pole from the woodpile and beat round till she dislodged him and he broke for another bush. She followed, striking violent blows at him without however damaging anything but the ground. Meanwhile Jane and Alice had put a board about two feet high across the door and stuck two stools against it to prevent his coming back into the house. I, out in the sand, rocks and brush, had concluded that bare feet were not best calculated to run around on…”

Angie turned to return to the house and get her slippers, but unaware of the barricade the girls had put in place the teacher tripped over the board, “fell over it and onto it and through it and ricocheted wildly around with those stools till I finally landed in a heap under the table at the other side of the room. (I had) several abrasions on my limbs and the more prominent parts of my anatomy, uncertain whether it was myself or some other person, and not quite clear as to what had happened to me for the room was dark…”

As Angie came to her senses, the baby “was yelling at the top of his lungs,” and Mrs. Harer was calling loudly for them to come outside. Alice ran out ahead of Angie, only to receive an unintended blow on the head from Mrs. Harer’s wild swing of the stick against the skunk. The teacher followed just in time to see this happen, and reported, “I decided that in this case discretion was the better part of valor and fell into the rear of the procession. His skunkship crawled into a sage brush and then Mrs. H., Alice and I demolished him with poles.”

Retreating to the house they changed their clothes as they had received “a liberal dose of perfume.” Although it had become very cold outside, they carried their soiled clothes to the creek, along with soap and towels, and all plunged into the Tonto Creek. They got rid of the smell as best they could, put on their clean nightgowns, and “carried the old ones on sticks a little way down the creek and buried them in the sand. Then we went back to bed.”

The Blake baby was worse the next day, Monday, and they sent a cowboy after the baby’s father, Andy Blake, “who is coming home from Phoenix and must be somewhere on Reno mountain by now…” However that night she would report, “Worse and more of it.”

The Hook family was in the process of moving, and spent the night with the teacher. “Mrs. Hook slept with me and she snored and snorted so, and tossed around like a restless child. My sleep was of short duration. While I was meditating about sliding out on the floor with a quilt, there arose a great barking of coyotes and bellowing of cattle some ways up the mountain side above us. It awakened us all and in a minute we heard the hoof beats of the panic stricken cattle and their bellowing grew nearer. We sprang out of bed and rushed in a body for the door, sure that the stampeding herd would rush straight though our frail house and probably crush us as well. Everyone grabbed the first thing they could that would aid in frightening them. Alice and I were first out and each had a sheet, so we ran round to the side the cattle were coming from and faced them. Not more than a hundred yards away, tearing along on that manner peculiar to a badly frightened hare, and making straight for our house in their mad rush for the creek and safety, were about 100 head of stock. We took a firm hold of our sheets, flapped them up and down and ran forward yelling as loud as we could. Directly behind came Mrs. Harer and Mrs. Hook, each beating a tin pan with a stick and yelling, and behind them Clara and Belle with an old tin can and a spoon for Belle and a big white apron and old tin horn of Abbie’s for Clara. Each was swelling the noise as well as they could and Clara wildly waving her apron in one hand.

“Such an awful powwow was too much for the cattle and they swerved, passed each side of us and our house so close they nearly grazed us and went on tearing through the bushes and rushed across the creek. We returned out of breath and badly scared to find poor Janie just lying outside the door in a faint with her baby wrapped in a blanket close to her. We brought her to and took care of the baby, built a little fire and got hot water to make tea for Jane. At last we subsided into our peaceful beds.”

The next morning the spirited team found that the cattle had demolished the brush arbor they had erected by the creek for shelter when they washed their clothes. Their tub, wash bucket, bench and stool had been smashed to pieces, and several items of clothing that had been left to dry on a clump of bushes were trampled or had been “carried in fragments away on their horns.”

Two nights later, lions screaming in the distance set off the cattle herd and another stampede ensued. This time the herd was not as large, and the women took their implements and waved off the cattle farther from the house. “A few more nights of this sort of business and we’ll all be crazy.”

Next: A typical weekend in Tonto Basin.


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