1905, Camp Verde, Arizona
Intro … My grandfather, William “Floyd” Gillet (1892-1972), was many things: a real-life cowboy in the wild, wild west; a card shark who couldn’t stomach losing; a businessman and entrepreneur; a schoolteacher to Navajo children; a prince and a pauper; an elected Arizona legislator; a successful land speculator; a writer and poet; and certainly, a raconteur.
Amazingly, he never completed fifth grade.
Houses Granddad built in Phoenix have been designated with brass plaques as “historically significant’ by the US Dept. of Interior. His law books from the 1930’s are a treasure of mine. Granddad was a real cowboy, not the idealized John Wayne version in movies. He broke horses – and bones breaking them.
Today, I proudly present Part One of a four part series – Granddad’s true story of his journey herding horses across the Colorado River and through the killing fields of the Mojave Desert. He almost died … but lived to write about this adventure.
I have edited and abridged his narrative for this newspaper.
In 1906, one month shy of his 14th birthday, young Floyd Gillet embarked on that 1,000 mile journey to Northern California. But his story begins earlier, in 1905 …
Part One ... We were living near Camp Verde, 40 miles east of Prescott.
I was 12 years-old when my father sent me out with a team of horses to fill and haul barrels for family drinking water. Father and my older brothers had dug a well, but the water it produced contained gypsum – unsuitable for drinking. All our water had to be hauled in barrels. Every drop.
Father was a preacher from back east, so he hardly knew how to harness a team of horses, much less drive them without causing the horses to balk. Despite my young age, I was pretty adept at handling a team, so I was often given the job to get water.
A cousin went along and helped me load the water without any problems. But on the way back, a fast-moving storm approached. I hurried the team as fast as they could go, but it was too late to avoid the deluge.
When it rained in that part of Arizona, it really rained. I have seen stagecoaches wait for as much as two hours until a dry gully could be crossed. In the Old West, what roads existed were mostly dirt and mud, and there were no bridges to cross over streams. If you wanted to cross a river, there was only one option – you waded into the water. If the water rose too high, you waited for it to recede.
My team of horses was heading into the direction of the storm, and in the driving rain, they balked and refused to budge. My cousin jumped off the wagon and began running for the house, but I couldn’t leave the team.
If I had left, the horses would have twisted and tangled the lines, causing the wagon to overturn. Both the wagon and the harness would have broken apart. So I jumped down and unhooked the traces, the lines of the harness. I separated the horses and tied each one to a front wheel, so they could turn their backs to the storm.
By this time the rain was coming down in torrents. I had to hold one hand over my nose, almost to keep from drowning. I needed to find shelter quickly, so I started for the house, almost half a mile away.
The mud balled up on my feet and my boots got so heavy I could hardly walk. But I finally made it to the front porch, exhausted from fighting the torrential rain and deep mud. As I stumbled up the steps, the front door swung open.
My father grabbed me and said, “Come on in, Son. I have been watching you through the window.” He added, “I knew you would make it. You’re a real man, now.”
I have never forgotten those words … “I knew you would make it.”
My father was a “hell, fire and damnation” preacher who wrote several books, which are included in the permanent, historical archives of The Church Of The Brethren in Illinois. He was not a man given to effusive praise, so his words meant a lot to me.
I had proven I was a man. I had no way of knowing then how much my father’s words would inspire me the following year, when I began a long journey to a new home, 1,000 miles away. When I set out, I was all of 13 years-old.
Edited by R. Michael Owens. Next week: Part 2. The family departs, leaving young Floyd and his brother behind to break horses for the trip North.