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P233, Scribner's Magazine 1922,--The Desert.png

The Desert

BY RAYMOND S. SPEARS
Author of "The Ripe Peach," etc.

Illustrations by Edmund Duffy


UUTAH HALL had been to Four Trees, where a little brook out of the Green Clay Range gave moisture to a few hundred acres of orchard and alfalfa. He had been for supplies, including two or three bushels of peaches and melons for the ranch, which had only an alkali spring and a tooele marsh for moisture, and a trickle that, drop by drop, gave humans enough water to drink and make their coffee—Little Duck Ranch.

It was early morning. The sun was just rising. Early as it was, however, another car had gone out of the little town and rolled along ahead of the thousand-pound utility truck which Utah drove. The sky was crystal-clear blue; the mountains shone like precious stones, except one great, gray mass which looked like pearl. The desert, whether level or uptilted, was glinting and shimmering, sparkling with that splashing of the utterly brilliant sun-rays against the monotonous glittering earth.

The sage-brush was stunted and scattered; the goldenrod was ashy and only an inch or two high; the alkali flats were cream-colored, and toward the northwest lay a lake of leaden hue, miles broad, and saturated with a dozen kinds of salt, crystals of which spread for miles around the shores, where shallows had been exposed by evaporation, and covered the beaches.

The desert youth lived in the vast thirsty land, and loved it. He knew the names of the ranges, the gray ridge, the chocolate-colored one, the red one, the one in the distance that looked blue and white, like snow, and even the knobs here and there, many of which had sinister names. The name Dry Top, for instance, seemed superfluous, till one knew that on this desert Indians had some time since held a party of emigrants who just escaped—but named that low, barricaded peak. Dead Man, No Pass, and Lost Skeletons were among the others—local names, a few of which had found their way into permanence on topographical survey maps.

There men—stalwarts!—had found the springs, claimed them, and established ranches, where in winter sheep were pastured on the tooele marshes, or fed on the sparse vegetation which sprang up when the autumn rain—a mere shower—had brought quick blossoming to soil which aridity seemed to have made utterly sterile—and yet in which a drop of water gave life to seeds long dormant.

Hall rolled along a mile or two behind the other car. The flour-like dust from the tourist's wheels fluffed out at chuck holes, and rolled away like the smoke from explosions. He could even see the sudden increase in the amount of dust where the exhaust of the leading car puffed harder under the impulse due to a little incline. He noted that the four wheels of the car had tires of the same make, and remarked the pretty tread they left in the two ruts of the roadway.

He made about the same speed they did. He did not hurry, for that would bring him into their dust which hung in the quiet air for half a mile behind them. He had a feeling of companionship in their presence, though he thought they probably had not noticed him, being bent on the chucks, the sands, the stones, and all the things that made this road a rough one—but the best they could have, for how could families fifty miles apart or more work such enormous stretches into good going?

As the sun grew hotter, and Hall every mile or two drank a swallow of water from his canteen, the other car rolled into Bone Flat. A stranger might have thought the whole region was flat, with here and there a mountain range rising out of it. Here, however, the native saw the land was leveler, and that the sage-brush, instead of growing every ten or fifteen feet apart, did not grow as much as a bush to the thirty or forty square feet, and after four miles, the ruts of the roadway passed tiny twigs of sage only at intervals of a hundred feet. Crumbling stone, dead-levels of glaring whitish alkali and crusted earth, crumbling into stinging dust, distinguished Bone Flat.

Here in the centre of this ashy waste a flickering white thing danced like a contorted creature. Hall knew what it was, and thought nothing of it. He saw the car ahead stop. He knew the wheels stopped because the dust ceased flying. He rolled nearly half a mile while the car ahead paused. Then it rolled on again. A minute later, Hall uttered a gasp of astonishment. The car was going straight ahead!

When he reached the shimmering thing he stopped. It was a sign-board ten feet high by fifteen wide. On a background of white was painted in black the resolution of the county commissioners, which in part declared:


ALL PERSONS ARE ACCORDINGLY PROHIBITED PROM FOLLOWING THE CUT-OFF BECAUSE OF THE PERIL, DURING THE MONTHS OF JULY AND AUGUST, AND NOT BEFORE SEPTEMBER 15TH!


Utah Hall gasped. To the right the Cut-Off led straight on into the distance, where, no matter how far one looked, one saw a shimmering, a sparkle, a range of mountains lying beyond, and that terrible level extending miles on miles to those low, faint horizons that seemed to straggle one beyond another into uncountable mazes. There, a mile distant, he saw the tourist automobile rolling on. Dust fluffed up behind it, so that he could not always see the car. When he did see it, the black seemed at one moment like a near-by crow, at another like a reeling black mountain, and again resembled nothing more than a volcano belching smoke to unimaginable heights. Hall pictured in his mind the people in that car.

At the wheel was a man; of him Hall thought only with contempt. With the man there was probably a woman, who had married such a man— Oh, well! But probably there were children; tourists generally had two or three little tots; likely enough they had started to go to the coast in three weeks, from Chicago, or Iowa, or somewhere away back East, and then they would sell the car and return home in the remaining week of the man's vacation—lots of people in the Mississippi Valley figured that close. The Cut-Off would save fifty miles, but—but!

Utah Hall stepped on his starter, let in his clutch, and turned to the left. Forty miles south and southeast, the Little Duck Ranch would be glad of the peaches. Fifty miles west, kind of northwesterly, there were three places, and lots of people—at least a dozen. Then beyond there about ten miles, the main trail had another ranch,, and on beyond, at the Gravel Slope, the two roads came together. It was one hundred and fifty miles around, and by the Cut-Off one hundred miles across.

"He'll go through all right!" Utah Hall said to himself. "But he's a fool for luck, that's what he is! What'd he want to risk the kiddies' lives for, anyhow? Why——"

There were children in that car. Hall knew it. He had seen four peach-stones beside the wagon ruts, within a hundred feet, on the hard pan—couldn't help but see them, for they loomed like mountains on the flat, caked alkali. So he rode along southward, watching the other car roll along westward. He watched their dust for miles. An hour later it had become a tawny smoke against the dull atmosphere over the salt lake. Two hours later it was a white, ghostly mist, fairly silvery, flashing in the shimmering mirage. By and by he could see it no more, for the sand maidens were dancing in the winds that drifted over that flat—hot blasts that stung even the accustomed cheeks of the desert youth.

Ten miles an hour was fast going on that road, the good main road. Much of the way Hall drove only six or seven miles, and one stretch of trail was so bad that he refused to risk breaking anything at a speed greater than four or five miles an hour. In late afternoon, having driven for hours toward a group of buildings like playhouses at the foot of a mountain range, he crossed a broad alkali marsh, grown to reeds, and alive with the little ducks, three inches long, which gave the place its name. On the far side, and two miles to the northward, he drew up to the ranch, ran the truck under a shed, and started for the house with a bushel-basket full of peaches.

Later, when the purple shadow of the mountain had spread a shade over the ranch, he sat down to the table with his brother, mother, and father, and ate sliced peaches in condensed milk. After supper he went out and fed the horses in the corral, where they had a shed covered with reeds for shade. At sunset he looked northward, and saw a blue sea, with waves breaking upon a shore of sparkling crystals; he saw pink columns of topaz rising to clouds that were dark rose, with purple shadows, and folds of silver and gold; he saw mountains that did not exist, and when he saw ships breasting the sea, with sails set, he reckoned that they were probably a little herd of wild horses that were out there near the foot of the gray pearl mountain—he was not sure. He just thought it might be the horses, or the shades of craft bound for the Port of Missing Ships.

Night fell on the scene, night of stars like electric lights in a dark, rich blue sky; voices of coyotes, and a chill breath in the air. He strained his eyes looking northward. He tried to see a glow of light off there somewhere. With good luck the tourist on that rough Cut-Off would be somewhere to the north, or northwest, perhaps. He would be rocking and rolling along. A broken spring, a bad tire, a hot motor, a bolt dropped out, or—well, any one of many things, and none could even guess where the car would be.

Utah Hall walked to the house. On the wall was a telephone. The wires were hung on posts six feet high and one by two inches. The line led up and down that desert land. It went back to a little mine, to a cattle ranch four thousand feet higher above the sea, to a railroad station sixty miles to the south, and hither and yon westward and northward—sort of a party line. A hundred miles away northwest it connected with a general store, ranch, and thousand-acre irrigation project known as Zack's.

Utah took down the receiver and listened in. It was pretty late at night—after nine o'clock. No one was talking. He hung up, and turned the crank, two longs and a short, over and over again. By and by he heard a voice, far away, faint, vying with hummings and rumblings that might be spirits of the desert dancing on the wire.

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"Hello, Zack!" Utah said. "This is Little Duck. Utah talking. Tourist car went into the Cut-Off this morning, about nine o'clock."

"What!"

"I say a tourist car went into the Cut-Off this morning!"

"It's against the law! Ain't that sign up——"

"It's up, but they're tourists——"

"Well, the—the— What of it, anyhow?"

"I thought I'd tell you!"

"I don't care! What'd they go for? Sick? Why—any fool would know——"

"But they are tourists, Zack! You know tourists!"

"Yes, I know! We got seven cars here strung out along the fence, and we need the water. Well's down low already. Tourists on the Cut-Off! All right! I'll watch out! But it ain't my funeral!"

"Nor mine!" Utah replied with asperity. "I thought I'd tell you, that's all. I'm coming over to your dance Labor Day."

"Good!"

"S'long!"

They hung up and rang off. Utah went to bed, but on his back thought about two little children who were on the Cut-Off, tired, thirsty, and rolling along as they must do all night long, if they would reach Zack's in the morning. He went to sleep thinking about them. They were first in his mind when he awakened. Automobiles had brought many blessings to the wide places of the deserts, but they had also brought tourists who took the cut-offs closed by order of the authorities during the summer months.

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At nine o'clock a. m. the telephone rang. Utah was nearest and with a chuckle went to it. He knew it was Zack; so it was.

"Say, tell Utah——"

"This is Utah!"

"Oh, all right! That car hasn't come by yet. 'Taint in sight, either—not this side of the Pass."

"Not come through—not in sight!" Utah exclaimed.

"No. Did they have lots of water?"

"I don't know; how in blazes would I know? I left town and they were ahead of me. They took the Cut-Off."

"Well, they're your tourists, Utah! You found 'em!"

"I 'low they be!" Utah replied frankly. "Well, let me know! I'll find out!"

They hung up. Utah called Four Trees. He asked the garage man, Denbry, about the tourists who went out the previous morning.

"I didn't notice," Denbry replied. "They didn't stop here——"

"They didn't! Where'd they get gas?"

"I don't know; why?"

"I saw them take the Cut-Off!"

"Good Lord! Well, ah right—I'll find out what I can; let you know. They're yours?"

"You call me up when you find out anything."

Thirty minutes later Denbry called up Utah, who was sitting by the instrument.

"There was a Stulander Six, camping outfit, filled at Crow Rock," Denbry said. "They took twelve gallons, which filled them, and two quarts of oil. They had water there. Fellow just come in, and said a party camped east of town about four miles, by the old stage-coach station. Said they had an interesting night, he judged. Seven dead rattlesnakes there—darn fools! Wouldn't you think they'd know better than to camp near stone ruins?"

"I wouldn't think anything," Utah replied. "Not of tourists, I wouldn't."

"Well, how about it?"

"They're mine, of course, I reckon. Let me know, will you?"

"Sure thing!"

All day long the telephone bell rang at intervals. Every one near the wire heard that tourists had gone into the Cut-Off. They had gone in in the morning. They hadn't come out the next morning. They would have come through if they kept rolling all night. Probably, being tourists, they had camped that night, when it would have been best to keep rolling. At Zack's, after three o'clock in the afternoon, some one was looking eastward all the time. Twice they were fooled. Cars from the main road showed up. Then it was known the next car must be the Cut-Off tourists, for there was no other car on the main road.

At sunset Zack rode out in his car to the Pass, which he reached at flat dark. With a pair of glasses he looked eastward along the Cut-Off road. He could see thirty odd miles, and there was no automobile headlight coming. Somewhere in the seventy miles of the Cut-Off beyond was a tourist's car. He rode back to his place, and five minutes later Utah Hall knew that the tourists were out there.

"And they're stuck!" he said to himself. "Well—all right!"

All day long every precious drop from the drinking spring at Little Duck had been conserved. The water was now in cans, lashed to the running-board of the Hall touring-car. He threw into the car some rations, a bag full of bolts, some chunks of wood, an axe, a dozen strands of hay-wire, and other odds and ends. He had a can of gasoline. His car would ride better with a hundred or so pounds of outfit in the rear, being a five-passenger.

"S'long folks!" he said to his people. "If word comes, flash a light. I'll throw my spot light——"

"I'll turn on the truck lights," his father said.

But the truck lights remained dark, though Utah looked for them two hours later when twenty miles away he passed out of sight of the home ranch to look for "his tourists."

He drove steadily, a little faster than usual. He had a long trip ahead of him, and he wanted to make as much as he could of it at night. He turned into the Cut-Off two hours before daybreak. He rolled on for hours and hours after sunshine came, taking the forbidden trail to make sure about the tourists.

Some people said they deserved whatever had happened to them. Some said they'd never raise a finger to help such fools! Some said probably they didn't know any better—people from Nebraska and Iowa and all those Eastern States having no idea how bad it was in the desert in summer. As to their ignorance, everybody had agreed over all those wandering miles of wire. As to his own thoughts Utah held them merely to the driving of the car, with occasional flashes about the two little kiddies. Thought of the children kept him patient.

He was still rolling when night fell. Good driver as he was, for hours he could do no better than four or five miles an hour. He shuddered to think of the tourist, the 'way back Easter, from New York, who had run into that place, refusing to take the word of the people whose government had forbidden this thing. He felt sorry for such ignorance, folly, disobedience, and useless demand upon the few overworked natives.

He was dead tired when sunset came. He kept on, however, his spot light adding to the headlights to make sure he followed those fresh tire tracks where none had been for weeks before. He watched the track so steadily that he was astonished, on looking up, to see a red light ahead of him.

He rolled up to the automobile. Cries and shouts greeted him. Frantic people danced up and down waving for him to stop. They had seen him coming, and for a quarter of a mile as he approached his lights revealed them.

Two were little children! A boy and a girl. He hardly looked at the two adults.

"Say! Say!" the man cried. "Have you any water?"

"Lots of it!" Utah replied, and filled the cups the children held out first. Then he gave water to the man and woman, as he asked: "What's the trouble?"

"We ran out of gas. Can you tow us in?"

"I won't have to," Utah replied. "How many miles do you make on a gallon?"

"Why, usually about twenty, but on this road, running so much on second and low, only about ten. I thought I had plenty!"

"You better fill at every gas barrel," Utah suggested mildly. "And you can run on high through here, even if you slip your clutch a little once in a while. I've five spare gallons, though. It's fifty miles to Zack's where you can fill your tank. Water in your radiator?"

"We put in a gallon of cold tea night before last. I guess there's a little left. We didn't have water."

"How long have you been here?" Utah asked.

"Since yesterday morning. My, but it was hot!"

"Lucky I happened along," Utah remarked casually. "Well, we better fill your tank with what I have in my spare can."

"Do you always carry extra gasoline?" the tourists asked, admiringly. "You know, I never thought of that! Why, I never dreamed houses were fifty miles apart. I supposed you could get gasoline every ten or twenty miles, and we can go two hundred—that is, usually."

Utah was busy and he made no comment. Ten minutes later they rolled on. The little girl, about ten years old, wanted to ride with Utah if they were going to go on together, and she leaned against the youth's arm as she gradually went to sleep, despite the swinging and swaying of the car.

Seven hours later, just after daybreak, the two cars rolled down into Zack's. The tourist saw a number of people there, without realizing that all the population had turned out, not to greet him, but to see Utah Hall. The tourist blustered up to the store and ordered his tank filled with gasoline; he ordered five gallons for Utah's spare can, too. He thanked Utah heartily, the little girl kissed him, the boy shook the desert lad's hand.

"I'm glad I met you," the mother said, looking around. "It was wonderful—it seems almost providential you're coming along just then! I was afraid——"

"I knew somebody would be coming through, seeing our tracks! We saved fifty miles!" the man exclaimed. "Well, let's run on, and we'll cook breakfast. Won't you come join us, Hall?"

"This is as far as I go," Hall said, adding: "Thank you!"

The tourist rolled on to some planted junipers a quarter of a mile away. Zack, as the strangers went out of hearing, turned and shook Utah's hand. His daughter gave the stalwart youth a most admiring and thrilling look. "You're coming to the dance?" she demanded.

Mrs. Zack had him in to breakfast, and knowing the meaning of his bloodshot eyes, she sent him to bed in a darkened room, where he slept at last, having been two days and two nights without rest because a tourist car had taken the Cutoff and he had seen it.

The tourists didn't know—how could tourists ever know?—that Utah Hall claimed them by right of discovery, saved them from deadly arid desert peril before they realized their jeopardy, and handed them on westward to the desert kind of half a thousand miles or so; the wanderers wiser, perhaps; at least knowing enough now to keep their gasoline and water-tanks full, and spares of water and gas along the running-boards.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1950, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.