Moisture, a Trace by Stewart Edward White
Last fall I revisited Arizona for the first time in many years. My ultimate destination lay one hundred and twenty-eight miles south of the railroad. As I stepped off the Pullman I drew deep the crisp, thin air; I looked across immeasurable distance to tiny, brittle, gilded buttes; I glanced up and down a ramshackle row of wooden buildings with crazy wooden awnings, and I sighed contentedly. Same good old Arizona.
The Overland pulled out, flirting its tail at me contemptuously. A small, battered-looking car, grayed and caked with white alkali dust, glided alongside, and from under its swaying and disreputable top emerged someone I knew. Not individually. But by many campfires of the past I had foregathered with him and his kind. Same old Arizona, I repeated to myself.
This person bore down upon me and gently extracted my bag from my grasp. He stood about six feet three; his face was long and brown and grave; his figure was spare and strong. Atop his head he wore the sacred Arizona high-crowned hat, around his neck a bright bandana; no coat, but an unbuttoned vest; skinny trousers, and boots. Save for lack of spurs and chaps and revolver he might have been a moving-picture cowboy. The spurs alone were lacking from the picture of a real one.
He deposited my bag in the tonneau, urged me into a front seat, and crowded himself behind the wheel. The effect was that of a grown-up in a go-cart. This particular brand of tin car had not been built for this particular size of man. His knees were hunched up either side the steering column; his huge, strong brown hands grasped most competently that toy-like wheel. The peak of his sombrero missed the wrinkled top only because he sat on his spine. I reflected that he must have been drafted into this job, and I admired his courage in undertaking to double up like that even for a short journey.
"Roads good?" I asked the usual question as I slammed shut the door.
"Fair, suh," he replied, soberly.
"What time should we get in?" I inquired.
"Long 'bout six o'clock, suh," he informed me.
It was then eight in the morning--one hundred and twenty-eight miles--ten hours--roads good, eh?--hum.
He touched the starter. The motor exploded with a bang. We moved.
I looked her over. On the running board were strapped two big galvanized tanks of water. It was almost distressingly evident that the muffler had either been lost or thrown away. But she was hitting on all four. I glanced at the speedometer dial. It registered the astonishing total of 29,250 miles.
We swung out the end of the main street and sailed down a road that vanished in the endless gentle slope of a "sink." Beyond the sink the bank rose again, gently, to gain the height of the eyes at some mesas. Well I know that sort of country. One journeyed for the whole day, and the mesas stayed where they were; and in between were successively vast stretches of mesquite, or alkali, or lava outcrops, or sacatone bottoms, each seeming, while one was in it, to fill all the world forever, without end; and the day's changes were of mirage and the shifting colours of distant hills.
It was soon evident that my friend's ideas of driving probably coincided with his ideas of going up a mountain. When a mounted cowboy climbs a hill he does not believe in fussing with such nonsense as grades; he goes straight up. Similarly, this man evidently considered that, as roads were made for travel and distance for annihilation, one should turn on full speed and get there. Not one hair's breadth did he deign to swerve for chuck-hole or stone; not one fractional mile per hour did he check for gully or ditch. We struck them head-on, bang! did they happen in our way. Then my head hit the disreputable top. In the mysterious fashion of those who drive freight wagons my companion remained imperturbably glued to his seat. I had neither breath nor leisure for the country or conversation.
Thus one half hour. The speedometer dial showed the figures 29,260. I allowed myself to think of a possible late lunch at my friend's ranch.
We slowed down. The driver advanced the hand throttle the full sweep of the quadrant, steered with his knees, and produced the "makings." The faithful little motor continued to hit on all four, but in slow and painful succession, each explosion sounding like a pistol shot. We had passed already the lowest point of the "sink," and were climbing the slope on the other side. The country, as usual, looked perfectly level, but the motor knew different.
"I like to hear her shoot," said the driver, after his first cigarette. "That's why I chucked the muffler. Its plumb lonesome out yere all by yourself. A hoss is different."
"Who you riding for?"
"Me? I'm riding for me. This outfit is mine."
It didn't sound reasonable; but that's what I heard.
"You mean you drive this car--as a living----"
"I should think you'd get cramped!" I burst out.
"Me? I'm used to it. I bet I ain't missed three days since I got her--and that's about a year ago."
He answered my questions briefly, volunteering nothing. He had never had any trouble with the car; he had never broken a spring; he'd overhauled her once or twice; he averaged sixteen actual miles to the gallon. If I were to name the car I should have to write advt. after this article to keep within the law. I resolved to get one. We chugged persistently along on high gear; though I believe second would have been better.
Presently we stopped and gave her a drink. She was boiling like a little tea kettle, and she was pretty thirsty.
"They all do it," said Bill. Of course his name was Bill. "Especially the big he-ones. High altitude. Going slow with your throttle wide open. You're all right if you got plenty water. If not, why then ketch a cow and use the milk. Only go slow or you'll git all clogged up with butter."
We clambered aboard and proceeded. That distant dreamful mesa had drawn very near. It was scandalous. The aloof desert whose terror, whose beauty, whose wonder, whose allure was the awe of infinite space that could be traversed only in toil and humbleness, had been contracted by a thing that now said 29,265.
"At this rate we'll get there before six o'clock," I remarked, hopefully.
"Oh, this is County Highway!" said Bill.
As we crawled along, still on high gear--that tin car certainly pulled strongly--a horseman emerged from a fold in the hills. He was riding a sweat-covered, mettlesome black with a rolling eye. His own eye was bitter, and likewise the other features of his face. After trying in vain to get the frantic animal within twenty feet of our mitrailleuse, he gave it up.
"Got anything for me?" he shrieked at Bill.
Bill leisurely turned off the switch, draped his long legs over the side of the car, and produced his makings.
"Nothing, Jim. Expaicting of anything?"
"Sent for a new grass rope. How's feed down Mogallon way?"
"Fair. That a bronco you're riding?"
"Just backed him three days ago."
"Amount to anything?"
"That," said Jim, with an extraordinary bitterness, "is already a gaited hoss. He has fo' gaits now."
"Four gaits," repeated Bill, incredulously. "I'm in the stink wagon business. I ain't aiming to buy no hosses. What four gaits you claim he's got?"
"Start, stumble, fall down and git up," said Jim.
Shortly after this joyous rencontre we topped the rise, and, looking back, could realize the grade we had been ascending.
The road led white and straight as an arrow to dwindle in perspective to a mere thread. The little car leaped forward on the invisible down grade. Again I anchored myself to one of the top supports. A long, rangy fowl happened into the road just ahead of us, but immediately flopped clumsily, half afoot, half a-wing, to one side in the brush, like a stampeded hen.
"Road runner," said Bill, with a short laugh. "Remember how they used to rack along in front of a hoss for miles, keeping just ahead, lettin' out a link when you spurred up? Aggravatin' fowl! They got over tryin' to keep ahead of gasoline."
In the white alkaline road lay one lone, pyramidal rock. It was about the size of one's two fists and all its edges and corners were sharp. Probably twenty miles of clear space lay on either flank of that rock. Nevertheless, our right front wheel hit it square in the middle. The car leaped straight up, the rock popped sidewise, and the tire went off with a mighty bang. Bill put on the brakes, deliberately uncoiled himself, and descended.
"Seems like tires don't last no time at all in this country," he remarked, sadly. He walked around the car and began to examine the four wrecks he carried as spares. After some inspection of their respective merits, he selected one. "I just somehow kain't git over the notion she ought to sidestep them little rocks and holes of her own accord," he exclaimed. "A hoss is a plumb, narrow-minded critter, but he knows enough for that."
While he changed the tire--which incidentally involved patching one of half a dozen over-worn tubes--I looked her over more in detail. The customary frame, strut rods, and torsion rods had been supplemented by the most extraordinary criss-cross of angle-iron braces it has ever been my fortune to behold. They ran from anywhere to everywhere beneath that car. I began to comprehend her cohesiveness.
"Jim Coles, blacksmith at the O T, puts them braces in all our cars," explained Bill. "He's got her down to a system."
The repair finished and the radiator refilled we resumed the journey. It was now just eleven o'clock. The odometer reading was 29,276. The temperature was well up toward 100 degrees. But beneath the disreputable top, and while in motion, the heat was not noticeable. Nevertheless, the brief stop had brought back poignantly certain old days--choking dust, thirst, the heat of a heavy sun, the long day that led one nowhere----
The noon mirages were taking shape, throwing stately and slow their vast illusions across the horizon. Lakes glimmered; distant ranges took on the forms of phantasm, rising higher, flattening, reaching across space the arches of their spans, rendering unreal a world of beauty and dread. That in the old days was the deliberate fashion the desert had of searing men's souls with her majesty. Slowly, slowly, the changes melted one into the other; massively, deliberately the face of the world was altered; so that at last the poor plodding human being, hot, dry, blinded, thirsty, felt himself a nothing in the presence of eternities. Well I knew that old spell of the desert. But now! Honestly, after a few minutes I began to feel sorry for the poor old desert! Its spells didn't work for the simple reason that we didn't give it time! We charged down on its phantom lakes and disproved them and forgot them. We broke right in on the dignified and deliberate scene shifting of mountains and mesas, showed them up for the brittle, dry hills they were, and left them behind. It was pitiful! It was as though a revered tragedian should overnight find that his vogue had departed; that he was no longer getting over; that an irreverent upstart, breaking in on his most sonorous periods, was getting laughs with slang. We had lots of water; the dust we left behind; it wasn't even hot in the wind of our going!
In the shallow crease of hills a shimmer of white soon changed to evident houses. We drew into a straggling desert town.
It was typical--thirty miles from the railroad, a distributing point for the cattle country. Four broad buildings with peeled, sunburned faces, a wooden house or so, and a dozen flat-roofed adobe huts hung pleasingly with long strips of red peppers. Of course one of the wooden buildings was labelled General Store; and another, smaller, contained a barber shop and postoffice combined. The third was barred and unoccupied. The fourth had been a livery stable but was now a garage. Six saddle horses and six Fords stood outside the General Store, which was a fair division.
Bill slowed down.
"Have a drink," I observed, hospitably.
"Arizona's a dry state," Bill reminded me; but nevertheless stopped and uncoiled. That unbelievable phenomenon had escaped my memory. In the old days I used to shut my eyes and project my soul into what I imagined was the future. I saw Arizona, embottled, dying in the last-wet ditch, while all the rest of the world, even including Milwaukee, bore down on her carrying the banners of Prohibition. So much for prophecy. I voiced a thought.
"There must be an awful lot of old timers died this spring. You can't cut them off short and hope to save them."
We entered the store. It smelled good, as such stores always do--soap, leather, ground coffee, bacon, cheese--all sorts of things. On the right ran a counter and shelves of dry goods and clothing; on the left groceries, cigars, and provisions generally. Down the middle saddles, ropes, spurs, pack outfits, harness, hardware. In the rear a glass cubby-hole with a desk inside. All that was customary, right and proper. But I noticed also a glass case with spark plugs and accessories; a rack full of tires; and a barrel of lubricating oil. I did not notice any body polish. By the front door stood a paper-basket whose purport I understood not at all.
Bill led me at once past two or three lounging cow persons to the cubbyhole, where arose a typical old timer.
"Mr. White, meet Mr. Billings," he said.
The old timer grasped me firmly by the right hand and held tight while he demanded, as usual, "What name?" We informed him together. He allowed he was pleased. I allowed the same.
"I want to buy a yard of calico," said Bill.
The old timer reached beneath the counter and produced a strip of cloth. It was already cut, and looked to be about a yard long. Also it showed the marks of loving but brutal and soiled hands.
"Wrap it up?" inquired Mr. Billings.
"Nope," said Bill, and handed out three silver dollars. Evidently calico was high in these parts. We turned away.
"By the way, Bill," Mr. Billings called after us, "I got a little present here for you. Some friends sent her in to me the other day. Let me know what you think of it."
We turned. Mr. Billings held in his hand a sealed quart bottle with a familiar and famous label.
"Why, that's kind of you," said Bill, gravely. He took the proffered bottle, turned it upside down, glanced at the bottom, and handed it back. "But I don't believe I'd wish for none of that particular breed. It never did agree with my stummick."
Without a flicker of the eye the storekeeper produced a second sealed bottle, identical in appearance and label with the first.
"Try it," he urged. "Here's one from a different case. Some of these yere vintages is better than others."
"So I've noticed," replied Bill, dryly. He glanced at the bottom and slipped it into his pocket.
We went out. As we passed the door Bill, unobserved, dropped into the heretofore unexplained waste-basket the yard of calico he had just purchased.
"Don't believe I like the pattern for my boudoir," he told me, gravely.
We clambered aboard and shot our derisive exhaust at the diminishing town.
"Thought Arizona was a dry state," I suggested.
"She is. You cain't sell a drop. But you can keep stuff for personal use. There ain't nothing more personal than givin' it away to your friends."
"The price of calico is high down here."
"And goin' up," agreed Bill, gloomily. He drove ten miles in silence while I, knowing my type, waited.
"That old Billings ought to be drug out and buried," he remarked at last. "We rode together on the Chiracahua range. He ought to know better than to try to put it onto me."
"???" said I.
"You saw that first bottle? Just plain forty-rod dog poison--and me payin' three good round dollars!"
"For calico," I reminded.
"Shore. That's why he done it. He had me--if I hadn't called him."
"But that first bottle was identically the same as the one you have in your pocket," I stated.
"Why, yes--at least--that is, the bottle and label were the same, and I particularly noticed the cork seal looked intact."
"It was," agreed Bill. "That cap hasn't never been disturbed. You're right."
"Then what objection----"
"It's one of them wonders of modern science that spoils the simple life next to Nature's heart," said Bill, unexpectedly. "You hitch a big hollow needle onto an electric light current. When she gets hot enough you punch a hole with her in the bottom of the bottle. Then you throw the switch and let the needle cool off. When she's cool you pour out the real thing for your own use--mebbe. Then you stick in your forty-cent-a-gallon squirrel poison. Heat up your needle again. Draw her out very slow so the glass will close up behind her. Simple, neat, effective, honest enough for down here. Cork still there, seal still there, label still there. Bottle still there, except for a little bit of a wart-lookin' bubble in the bottom."
It was now in the noon hour. Knowing cowboys of old I expected no lunch. We racketed along, and our dust tried to catch us, and sleepy, accustomed jack rabbits made two perfunctory hops as we turned on them the battery of our exhaust.
We dipped down into a carved bottomland, several miles wide, filled with minarets, peaks, vermilion towers, and strange striped labyrinths of many colours above which the sky showed an unbelievable blue. The trunks of colossal trees lay about in numbers. Apparently they had all been cross-cut in sections like those sawed for shake bolts, for each was many times clearly divided. The sections, however, lay all in place; so the trunks of the trees were as they had fallen. About the ground were scattered fragments of rock of all sizes, like lava, but of all the colours of the giddiest parrots. The tiniest piece had at least all the tints of the spectrum; and the biggest seemed to go the littlest several better. They looked to me like beautiful jewels. Bill cast at them a contemptuous glance.
"Every towerist I take in yere makes me stop while he sags down the car with this junk," he said. Whenever I say "Bill said" or "I said," I imply that we shrieked, for always through that great, still country we hustled enveloped in a profanity of explosions, creaks, rattles, and hums. Just now though, on a level, we travelled at a low gear. "Petrified wood," Bill added.
I swallowed guiltily the request I was about to proffer.
The malpais defined itself. We came to a wide, dry wash filled with white sand. Bill brought the little car to a stop.
Well I know that sort of sand! You plunge rashly into it on low gear; you buzz bravely for possibly fifty feet; you slow down, slow down; your driving wheels begin to spin--that finishes you. Every revolution digs a deeper hole. It is useless to apply power. If you are wise you throw out your clutch the instant she stalls, and thus save digging yourself in unnecessarily. But if you are really wise you don't get in that fix at all. The next stage is that wherein you thrust beneath the hind wheels certain expedients such as robes, coats, and so forth. The wheels, when set in motion, hurl these trivialities yards to the rear. The car then settles down with a shrug. About the time the axle is actually resting on the sand you proceed to serious digging, cutting brush, and laying causeways. Some sand you can get out of by these methods, but not dry, stream-bed sand in the Southwest. Finally you reach; the state of true wisdom. Either you sit peacefully in the tonneau and smoke until someone comes along; or, if you are doubtful of that miracle, you walk to the nearest team and rope. And never, never, never are you caught again! A detour of fifty miles is nothing after that!
While Bill manipulated the makings, I examined the prospects. This was that kind of a wash; no doubt of it!
"How far is the nearest crossing?" I asked, returning.
"About eight feet," said he.
My mind, panic-stricken, flew to several things--that bottle (I regret that I failed to record that by test its contents had proved genuine), the cornered rock we had so blithely charged, other evidences of Bill's casual nature. My heart sank.
"You ain't going to tackle that wash!" I cried.
"I shore am," said Bill.
I examined Bill. He meant it.
"How far to the nearest ranch?"
"'Bout ten mile."
I went and sat on a rock. It was one of those rainbow remnants of a bygone past; but my interest in curios had waned.
Bill dove into the grimy mysteries of under the back seat and produced two blocks of wood six or eight inches square and two strong straps with buckles. He inserted a block between the frame of the car and the rear axle; then he ran a strap around the rear spring and cinched on it until the car body, the block, and the axle made one solid mass. In other words, the spring action was entirely eliminated. He did the same thing on the other side.
"Climb in," said he.
We went into low and slid down the steep clay bank into the waiting sand. To me it was like a plunge into ice water. Bill stepped on her. We ploughed out into trouble. The steering wheel bucked and jerked vainly against Bill's huge hands; we swayed like a moving-picture comic; but we forged steadily ahead. Not once did we falter. Our wheels gripped continuously. When we pulled out on the other bank I exhaled as though I, too, had lost my muffler. I believe I had held my breath the whole way across. Bill removed the blocks and gave her more water. Still in low we climbed out of the malpais.
It was now after two o'clock. We registered 29,328. I was getting humble minded. Six o'clock looked good enough to me now.
One thing was greatly encouraging. As we rose again to the main level of the country I recognized over the horizon a certain humped mountain. Often in the "good old days" I had approached this mountain from the south. Beneath its flanks lay my friend's ranch, our destination. Five hours earlier in my experience its distance would have appalled me; but my standards had changed. Nevertheless, it seemed far enough away. I was getting physically tired. There is a heap of exercise in many occupations, such as digging sewers and chopping wood and shopping with a woman; but driving in small Arizona motor cars need give none of these occupations any odds. And of late years I have been accustoming myself to three meals a day.
For this reason there seems no excuse for detailing the next three hours. From three o'clock until sunset the mirages slowly fade away into the many-tinted veils of evening. I know that because I've seen it; but never would I know it whilst an inmate of a gasoline madhouse. We carried our own egg-shaped aura constantly with us, on the invisible walls of which the subtle and austere influences of the desert beat in vain. That aura was composed of speed, bumps, dust, profane noise, and an extreme and exotic busyness. It might be that in a docile, tame, expensive automobile, garnished with a sane and biddable driver, one might see the desert as it is. I don't know whether such a combination exists. But me--I couldn't get into the Officers' Training Camp because of my advanced years: I may be an old fogy, but I cherish a sneaking idea that perhaps you have to buy some of these things at the cost of the aforementioned thirst, heat, weariness, and the slow passing of long days. Still, an Assyrian brick in the British Museum is inscribed by a father to his son away at school with a lament over the passing of the "good old days!"
At any rate, we drew into Spring Creek at five o'clock, shooting at every jump. My friend's ranch was only six miles farther. This was home for Bill, and we were soon surrounded by many acquaintances. He had letters and packages for many of them; and detailed many items of local news. To us shortly came a cowboy who had evidently bought all the calico he could carry. This person was also long and lean and brown; hard bitten; bedecked with worn brown leather chaps, and wearing a gun. The latter he unbuckled and cast from him with great scorn.
"And I don't need no gun to do it, neither!" he stated, as though concluding a long conversation.
"Shore not, Slim," agreed one of the group, promptly annexing the artillery. "What is it?"
"Kill that ---- ---- ---- Beck," said Slim, owlishly. "I can do it; and I can do it with my bare hands, b' God!"
He walked sturdily enough in the direction of the General Store across the dusty square. No one paid any further attention to his movements. The man who had picked up the gun belt buckled it around his own waist. Bill refilled the ever-thirsty radiator, peered at his gasoline gauge, leisurely turned down a few grease cups. Ten minutes passed. We were about ready to start.
Back across the square drifted a strange figure. With difficulty we recognized it as the erstwhile Slim. He had no hat. His hair stuck out in all directions. One eye was puffing shut, blood oozed from a cut in his forehead and dripped from his damaged nose. One shirt sleeve had been half torn from its parent at the shoulder. But, most curious of all, Slim's face was evenly marked by a perpendicular series of long, red scratches as though he had been dragged from stem to stern along a particularly abrasive gravel walk. Slim seemed quite calm.
His approach was made in a somewhat strained silence. At length there spoke a dry, sardonic voice.
"Well," said it, "did you kill Beck?"
"Naw!" replied Slim's remains disgustedly, "the son of a gun wouldn't fight!"
We reached my friend's ranch just about dusk. He met me at the yard gate.
"Well!" he said, heartily. "I'm glad you're here! Not much like the old days, is it?"
I agreed with him.
"Journey out is dull and uninteresting now. But compared to the way we used to do it, it is a cinch. Just sit still and roll along."
I disagreed with him--mentally.
"The old order has changed," said he.
"Yes," I agreed, "now it's one yard of calico."