Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Of the five hundred and fifty-seven thousand square miles of desert-land in the southwest Death Valley is the lowest below sea level, the most arid and desolate. It derives its felicitous name from the earliest days of the gold strike in California, when a caravan of Mormons, numbering about seventy, struck out from Salt Lake, to cross the Mojave Desert and make a short cut to the gold fields. All but two of these prospectors perished in the deep, iron-walled, ghastly sink-holes, which from that time became known as Death Valley.
The survivors of this fatal expedition brought news to the world that the sombre valley of death was a treasure mine of minerals; and since then hundreds of prospectors and wanderers have lost their lives there. To seek gold and to live in the lonely waste places of the earth have been and ever will be driving passions of men.
My companion on this trip was a Norwegian named Nielsen. On most of my trips to lonely and wild places I have been fortunate as to comrades or guides. The circumstances of my meeting Nielsen were so singular that I think they will serve as an interesting introduction. Some years ago I received a letter, brief, clear and well-written, in which the writer stated that he had been a wanderer over the world, a sailor before the mast, and was now a prospector for gold. He had taken four trips alone down into the desert of Sonora, and in many other places of the southwest, and knew the prospecting game. Somewhere he had run across my story Desert Gold in which I told about a lost gold mine. And the point of his letter was that if I could give him some idea as to where the lost gold mine was located he would go find it and give me half. His name was Sievert Nielsen. I wrote him that to my regret the lost gold mine existed only in my imagination, but if he would come to Avalon to see me perhaps we might both profit by such a meeting. To my surprise he came. He was a man of about thirty-five, of magnificent physique, weighing about one hundred and ninety, and he was so enormously broad across the shoulders that he did not look his five feet ten. He had a wonderful head, huge, round, solid, like a cannon-ball. And his bronzed face, his regular features, square firm jaw, and clear gray eyes, fearless and direct, were singularly attractive to me. Well educated, with a strange calm poise, and a cool courtesy, not common in Americans, he evidently was a man of good family, by his own choice a rolling stone and adventurer.
Nielsen accompanied me on two trips into the wilderness of Arizona, on one of which he saved my life, and on the other he rescued all our party from a most uncomfortable and possibly hazardous situation—but these are tales I may tell elsewhere. In January 1919 Nielsen and I traveled around the desert of southern California from Palm Springs to Picacho, and in March we went to Death Valley.
Nowadays a little railroad, the Tonapah and Tidewater Railroad, runs northward from the Santa Fe over the barren Mojave, and it passes within fifty miles of Death Valley.
It was sunset when we arrived at Death Valley Junction—a weird, strange sunset in drooping curtains of transparent cloud, lighting up dark mountain ranges, some peaks of which were clear-cut and black against the sky, and others veiled in trailing storms, and still others white with snow. That night in the dingy little store I heard prospectors talk about float, which meant gold on the surface, and about high grade ores, zinc, copper, silver, lead, manganese, and about how borax was mined thirty years ago, and hauled out of Death Valley by teams of twenty mules. Next morning, while Nielsen packed the outfit, I visited the borax mill. It was the property of an English firm, and the work of hauling, grinding, roasting borax ore went on day and night. Inside it was as dusty and full of a powdery atmosphere as an old-fashioned flour mill. The ore was hauled by train from some twenty miles over toward the valley, and was dumped from a high trestle into shutes that fed the grinders. For an hour I watched this constant stream of borax as it slid down into the hungry crushers, and I listened to the chalk-faced operator who yelled in my ear. Once he picked a piece of gypsum out of the borax. He said the mill was getting out twenty-five hundred sacks a day. The most significant thing he said was that men did not last long at such labor, and in the mines six months appeared to be the limit of human endurance. How soon I had enough of that choking air in the room where the borax was ground! And the place where the borax was roasted in huge round revolving furnaces—I found that intolerable. When I got out into the cool clean desert air I felt an immeasurable relief. And that relief made me thoughtful of the lives of men who labored, who were chained by necessity, by duty or habit, or by love, to the hard tasks of the world. It did not seem fair. These laborers of the borax mines and mills, like the stokers of ships, and coal-diggers, and blast-furnace hands—like thousands and millions of men, killed themselves outright or impaired their strength, and when they were gone or rendered useless others were found to take their places. Whenever I come in contact with some phase of this problem of life I take the meaning or the lesson of it to myself. And as the years go by my respect and reverence and wonder increase for these men of elemental lives, these horny-handed toilers with physical things, these uncomplaining users of brawn and bone, these giants who breast the elements, who till the earth and handle iron, who fight the natural forces with their bodies.
That day about noon I looked back down the long gravel and greasewood slope which we had ascended and I saw the borax-mill now only a smoky blot on the desert floor. When we reached the pass between the Black Mountains and the Funeral Mountains we left the road, and were soon lost to the works of man. How strange a gladness, a relief! Something dropped away from me. I felt the same subtle change in Nielsen. For one thing he stopped talking, except an occasional word to the mules.
The blunt end of the Funeral Range was as remarkable as its name. It sheered up very high, a saw-toothed range with colored strata tilted at an angle of forty-five degrees. Zigzag veins of black and red and yellow, rather dull, ran through the great drab-gray mass. This end of the range, an iron mountain, frowned down upon us with hard and formidable aspect. The peak was draped in streaky veils of rain from low-dropping clouds that appeared to have lodged there. All below lay clear and cold in the sunlight.
Our direction lay to the westward, and at that altitude, about three thousand feet, how pleasant to face the sun! For the wind was cold. The narrow shallow wash leading down from the pass deepened, widened, almost imperceptibly at first, and then gradually until its proportions were striking. It was a gully where the gravel washed down during rains, and where a scant vegetation, greasewood, and few low cacti and scrubby sage struggled for existence. Not a bird or lizard or living creature in sight! The trail was getting lonely. From time to time I looked back, because as we could not see far ahead all the superb scene spread and towered behind us. By and bye our wash grew to be a wide canyon, winding away from under the massive, impondering wall of the Funeral Range. The high side of this magnificent and impressive line of mountains faced west—a succession of unscalable slopes of bare ragged rock, jagged and jutted, dark drab, rusty iron, with gray and oblique strata running through them far as eye could see. Clouds soared around the peaks. Shadows sailed along the slopes.
Walking in loose gravel was as hard as trudging along in sand. After about fifteen miles I began to have leaden feet. I did not mind hard work, but I wanted to avoid over-exertion. When I am extremely wearied my feelings are liable to be colored somewhat by depression or melancholy. Then it always bothered me to get tired while Nielsen kept on with his wonderful stride.
"Say, Nielsen, do you take me for a Yaqui?" I complained. "Slow up a little."
Then he obliged me, and to cheer me up he told me about a little tramping experience he had in Baja California. Somewhere on the east slope of the Sierra Madre his burros strayed or were killed by mountain-lions, and he found it imperative to strike at once for the nearest ranch below the border, a distance of one hundred and fifty miles. He could carry only so much of his outfit, and as some of it was valuable to him he discarded all his food except a few biscuits, and a canteen of water. Resting only a few hours, without sleep at all, he walked the hundred and fifty miles in three days and nights. I believed that Nielsen, by telling me such incidents of his own wild experience, inspired me to more endurance than I knew I possessed.
As we traveled on down the canyon its dimensions continued to grow. It finally turned to the left, and opened out wide into a valley running west. A low range of hills faced us, rising in a long sweeping slant of earth, like the incline of a glacier, to rounded spurs. Half way up this slope, where the brown earth lightened there showed an outcropping of clay-amber and cream and cinnamon and green, all exquisitely vivid and clear. This bright spot appeared to be isolated. Far above it rose other clay slopes of variegated hues, red and russet and mauve and gray, and colors indescribably merged, all running in veins through this range of hills. We faced the west again, and descending this valley were soon greeted by a region of clay hills, bare, cone-shaped, fantastic in shade, slope, and ridge, with a high sharp peak dominating all. The colors were mauve, taupe, pearl-gray, all stained by a descending band of crimson, as if a higher slope had been stabbed to let its life blood flow down. The softness, the richness and beauty of this texture of earth amazed and delighted my eyes.
Quite unprepared, at time approaching sunset, we reached and rounded a sharp curve, to see down and far away, and to be held mute in our tracks. Between a white-mantled mountain range on the left and the dark-striped lofty range on the right I could see far down into a gulf, a hazy void, a vast stark valley that seemed streaked and ridged and canyoned, an abyss into which veils of rain were dropping and over which broken clouds hung, pierced by red and gold rays.
Death Valley! Far down and far away still, yet confounding at first sight! I gazed spellbound. It oppressed my heart. Nielsen stood like a statue, silent, absorbed for a moment, then he strode on. I followed, and every second saw more and different aspects, that could not, however, change the first stunning impression. Immense, unreal, weird! I went on down the widening canyon, looking into that changing void. How full of color! It smoked. The traceries of streams or shining white washes brightened the floor of the long dark pit. Patches and plains of white, borax flats or alkali, showed up like snow. A red haze, sinister and sombre, hung over the eastern ramparts of this valley, and over the western drooped gray veils of rain, like thinnest lacy clouds, through which gleams of the sun shone.
Nielsen plodded on, mindful of our mules. But I lingered, and at last checked my reluctant steps at an open high point with commanding and magnificent view. As I did not attempt the impossible—to write down thoughts and sensations—afterward I could remember only a few. How desolate and grand! The far-away, lonely and terrible places of the earth were the most beautiful and elevating. Life's little day seemed so easy to understand, so pitiful. As the sun began to set and the storm-clouds moved across it this wondrous scene darkened, changed every moment, brightened, grew full of luminous red light and then streaked by golden gleams. The tips of the Panamint Mountains came out silver above the purple clouds. At sunset the moment was glorious—dark, forbidding, dim, weird, dismal, yet still tinged with gold. Not like any other scene! Dante's Inferno! Valley of Shadows! Canyon of Purple Veils!
When the sun had set and all that upheaved and furrowed world of rock had received a mantle of gray, and a slumberous sulphurous ruddy haze slowly darkened to purple and black, then I realized more fully that I was looking down into Death Valley.
Twilight was stealing down when I caught up with Nielsen. He had selected for our camp a protected nook near where the canyon floor bore some patches of sage, the stalks and roots of which would serve for firewood. We unpacked, fed the mules some grain, pitched our little tent and made our bed all in short order. But it was dark long before we had supper. During the meal we talked a little, but afterward, when the chores were done, and the mules had become quiet, and the strange thick silence had settled down upon us, we did not talk at all.
The night was black, with sky mostly obscured by clouds. A pale haze marked the west where the after glow had faded; in the south one radiant star crowned a mountain peak. I strolled away in the darkness and sat down upon a stone. How intense the silence! Dead, vast, sepulchre-like, dreaming, waiting, a silence of ages, burdened with the history of the past, awful! I strained my ears for sound of insect or rustle of sage or drop of weathered rock. The soft cool desert wind was soundless. This silence had something terrifying in it, making me a man alone on the earth. The great spaces, the wild places as they had been millions of years before! I seemed to divine how through them man might develop from savage to a god, and how alas! he might go back again.
When I returned to camp Nielsen had gone to bed and the fire had burned low. I threw on some branches of sage. The fire blazed up. But it seemed different from other camp-fires. No cheer, no glow, no sparkle! Perhaps it was owing to scant and poor wood. Still I thought it was owing as much to the place. The sadness, the loneliness, the desolateness of this place weighed upon the camp-fire the same as it did upon my heart.
We got up at five-thirty. At dawn the sky was a cold leaden gray, with a dull gold and rose in the east. A hard wind, eager and nipping, blew up the canyon. At six o'clock the sky brightened somewhat and the day did not promise so threatening.
An hour later we broke camp. Traveling in the early morning was pleasant and we made good time down the winding canyon, arriving at Furnace Creek about noon, where we halted to rest. This stream of warm water flowed down from a gully that headed up in the Funeral Mountains. It had a disagreeable taste, somewhat acrid and soapy. A green thicket of brush was indeed welcome to the eye. It consisted of a rank coarse kind of grass, and arrowweed, mesquite, and tamarack. The last named bore a pink fuzzy blossom, not unlike pussy-willow, which was quite fragrant. Here the deadness of the region seemed further enlivened by several small birds, speckled and gray, two ravens, and a hawk. They all appeared to be hunting food. On a ridge above Furnace Creek we came upon a spring of poison water. It was clear, sparkling, with a greenish cast, and it deposited a white crust on the margins. Nielsen, kicking around in the sand, unearthed a skull, bleached and yellow, yet evidently not so very old. Some thirsty wanderer had taken his last drink at that deceiving spring. The gruesome and the beautiful, the tragic and the sublime, go hand in hand down the naked shingle of this desolate desert.
While tramping around in the neighborhood of Furnace Creek I happened upon an old almost obliterated trail. It led toward the ridges of clay, and when I had climbed it a little ways I began to get an impression that the slopes on the other side must run down into a basin or canyon. So I climbed to the top.
The magnificent scenes of desert and mountain, like the splendid things of life, must be climbed for. In this instance I was suddenly and stunningly confronted by a yellow gulf of cone-shaped and fan-shaped ridges, all bare crinkly clay, of gold, of amber, of pink, of bronze, of cream, all tapering down to round-knobbed lower ridges, bleak and barren, yet wonderfully beautiful in their stark purity of denudation; until at last far down between two widely separated hills shone, dim and blue and ghastly, with shining white streaks like silver streams—the Valley of Death. Then beyond it climbed the league-long red slope, merging into the iron-buttressed base of the Panamint Range, and here line on line, and bulge on bulge rose the bold benches, and on up the unscalable outcroppings of rock, like colossal ribs of the earth, on and up the steep slopes to where their density of blue black color began to thin out with streaks of white, and thence upward to the last noble height, where the cold pure snow gleamed against the sky.
I descended into this yellow maze, this world of gullies and ridges where I found it difficult to keep from getting lost. I did lose my bearings, but as my boots made deep imprints in the soft clay I knew it would be easy to back-track my trail. After a while this labyrinthine series of channels and dunes opened into a wide space enclosed on three sides by denuded slopes, mostly yellow. These slopes were smooth, graceful, symmetrical, with tiny tracery of erosion, and each appeared to retain its own color, yellow or cinnamon or mauve. But they were always dominated by a higher one of a different color. And this mystic region sloped and slanted to a great amphitheater that was walled on the opposite side by a mountain of bare earth, of every hue, and of a thousand ribbed and scalloped surfaces. At its base the golds and russets and yellows were strongest, but ascending its slopes were changing colors—a dark beautiful mouse color on one side and a strange pearly cream on the other. Between these great corners of the curve climbed ridges of gray and heliotrope and amber, to meet wonderful veins of green—green as the sea in sunlight—and tracery of white—and on the bold face of this amphitheater, high up, stood out a zigzag belt of dull red, the stain of which had run down to tinge the other hues. Above all this wondrous coloration upheaved the bare breast of the mountain, growing darker with earthy browns, up to the gray old rock ramparts.
This place affected me so strangely, so irresistibly that I remained there a long time. Something terrible had happened there to men. I felt that. Something tragic was going on right then—the wearing down, the devastation of the old earth. How plainly that could be seen! Geologically it was more remarkable to me than the Grand Canyon. But it was the appalling meaning, the absolutely indescribable beauty that overcame me. I thought of those who had been inspiration to me in my work, and I suffered a pang that they could not be there to see and feel with me.
On my way out of this amphitheater a hard wind swooped down over the slopes, tearing up the colored dust in sheets and clouds. It seemed to me each gully had its mystic pall of color. I lost no time climbing out. What a hot choking ordeal! But I never would have missed it even had I known I would get lost. Looking down again the scene was vastly changed. A smoky weird murky hell with the dull sun gleaming magenta-hued through the shifting pall of dust!
In the afternoon we proceeded leisurely, through an atmosphere growing warmer and denser, down to the valley, reaching it at dusk. We followed the course of Furnace Creek and made camp under some cottonwood trees, on the west slope of the valley.
The wind blew a warm gale all night. I lay awake a while and slept with very little covering. Toward dawn the gale died away. I was up at five-thirty. The morning broke fine, clear, balmy. A flare of pale gleaming light over the Funeral Range heralded the sunrise. The tips of the higher snow-capped Panamints were rose colored, and below them the slopes were red. The bulk of the range showed dark. All these features gradually brightened until the sun came up. How blazing and intense! The wind began to blow again. Under the cottonwoods with their rustling leaves, and green so soothing to the eye, it was very pleasant.
Beyond our camp stood green and pink thickets of tamarack, and some dark velvety green alfalfa fields, made possible by the spreading of Furnace Creek over the valley slope. A man lived there, and raised this alfalfa for the mules of the borax miners. He lived there alone and his was indeed a lonely, wonderful, and terrible life. At this season a few Shoshone Indians were camped near, helping him in his labors. This lone rancher's name was Denton, and he turned out to be a brother of a Denton, hunter and guide, whom I had met in Lower California.
Like all desert men, used to silence, Denton talked with difficulty, but the content of his speech made up for its brevity. He told us about the wanderers and prospectors he had rescued from death by starvation and thirst; he told us about the terrific noonday heat of summer; and about the incredible and horrible midnight furnace gales that swept down the valley. With the mercury at one hundred and twenty-five degrees at midnight, below the level of the sea, when these furnace blasts bore down upon him, it was just all he could do to live. No man could spend many summers there. As for white women—Death Valley was fatal to them. The Indians spent the summers up on the mountains. Denton said heat affected men differently. Those who were meat eaters or alcohol drinkers, could not survive. Perfect heart and lungs were necessary to stand the heat and density of atmosphere below sea level. He told of a man who had visited his cabin, and had left early in the day, vigorous and strong. A few hours later he was found near the oasis unable to walk, crawling on his hands and knees, dragging a full canteen of water. He never knew what ailed him. It might have been heat, for the thermometer registered one hundred and thirty-five, and it might have been poison gas. Another man, young, of heavy and powerful build, lost seventy pounds weight in less than two days, and was nearly dead when found. The heat of Death Valley quickly dried up blood, tissue, bone. Denton told of a prospector who started out at dawn strong and rational, to return at sunset so crazy that he had to be tied to keep him out of the water. To have drunk his fill then would have killed him! He had to be fed water by spoonful. Another wanderer came staggering into the oasis, blind, with horrible face, and black swollen tongue protruding. He could not make a sound. He also had to be roped, as if he were a mad steer.
I met only one prospector during my stay in Death Valley. He camped with us. A rather undersized man he was, yet muscular, with brown wrinkled face and narrow dim eyes. He seemed to be smiling to himself most of the time. He liked to talk to his burros. He was exceedingly interesting. Once he nearly died of thirst, having gone from noon one day till next morning without water. He said he fell down often during this ordeal, but did not lose his senses. Finally the burros saved his life. This old fellow had been across Death Valley every month in the year. July was the worst. In that month crossing should not be attempted during the middle of the day.
I made the acquaintance of the Shoshone Indians, or rather through Nielsen I met them. Nielsen had a kindly, friendly way with Indians. There were half a dozen families, living in squalid tents. The braves worked in the fields for Denton and the squaws kept to the shade with their numerous children. They appeared to be poor. Certainly they were a ragged unpicturesque group. Nielsen and I visited them, taking an armload of canned fruit, and boxes of sweet crackers, which they received with evident joy. Through this overture I got a peep into one of the tents. The simplicity and frugality of the desert Piute or Navajo were here wanting. These children of the open wore white men's apparel and ate white men's food; and they even had a cook stove and a sewing machine in their tent. With all that they were trying to live like Indians. For me the spectacle was melancholy. Another manifestation added to my long list of degeneration of the Indians by the whites! The tent was a buzzing beehive of flies. I never before saw so many. In a corner I saw a naked Indian baby asleep on a goat skin, all his brown warm-tinted skin spotted black with flies.
Later in the day one of the Indian men called upon us at our camp. I was surprised to hear him use good English. He said he had been educated in a government school in California. From him I learned considerable about Death Valley. As he was about to depart, on the way to his labor in the fields, he put his hand in his ragged pocket and drew forth an old beaded hat band, and with calm dignity, worthy of any gift, he made me a present of it. Then he went on his way. The incident touched me. I had been kind. The Indian was not to be outdone. How that reminded me of the many instances of pride in Indians! Who yet has ever told the story of the Indian—the truth, the spirit, the soul of his tragedy?
Nielsen and I climbed high up the west slope to the top of a gravel ridge swept clean and packed hard by the winds. Here I sat down while my companion tramped curiously around. At my feet I found a tiny flower, so tiny as to almost defy detection. The color resembled sage-gray and it had the fragrance of sage. Hard to find and wonderful to see—was its tiny blossom! The small leaves were perfectly formed, very soft, veined and scalloped, with a fine fuzz and a glistening sparkle. That desert flower of a day, in its isolation and fragility, yet its unquenchable spirit to live, was as great to me as the tremendous reddening bulk of the Funeral Mountains looming so sinisterly over me.
Then I saw some large bats with white heads flitting around in zigzag flights—assuredly new and strange creatures to me.
I had come up there to this high ridge to take advantage of the bleak lonely spot commanding a view of valley and mountains. Before I could compose myself to watch the valley I made the discovery that near me were six low gravelly mounds. Graves! One had two stones at head and foot. Another had no mark at all. The one nearest me had for the head a flat piece of board, with lettering so effaced by weather that I could not decipher the inscription. The bones of a horse lay littered about between the graves. What a lonely place for graves! Death Valley seemed to be one vast sepulchre. What had been the lives and deaths of these people buried here? Lonely, melancholy, nameless graves upon the windy desert slope!
By this time the long shadows had begun to fall. Sunset over Death Valley! A golden flare burned over the Panamints—long tapering notched mountains with all their rugged conformation showing. Above floated gold and gray and silver-edged clouds—below shone a whorl of dusky, ruddy bronze haze, gradually thickening. Dim veils of heat still rose from the pale desert valley. As I watched all before me seemed to change and be shrouded in purple. How bold and desolate a scene! What vast scale and tremendous dimension! The clouds paled, turned rosy for a moment with the afterglow, then deepened into purple gloom. A sombre smoky sunset, as if this Death Valley was the gateway of hell, and its sinister shades were upflung from fire.
The desert day was done and now the desert twilight descended. Twilight of hazy purple fell over the valley of shadows. The black bold lines of mountains ran across the sky and down into the valley and up on the other side. A buzzard sailed low in the foreground—fitting emblem of life in all that wilderness of suggested death. This fleeting hour was tranquil and sad. What little had it to do with the destiny of man! Death Valley was only a ragged rent of the old earth, from which men in their folly and passion, had sought to dig forth golden treasure. The air held a solemn stillness. Peace! How it rested my troubled soul! I felt that I was myself here, far different from my habitual self. Why had I longed to see Death Valley? What did I want of the desert that was naked, red, sinister, sombre, forbidding, ghastly, stark, dim and dark and dismal, the abode of silence and loneliness, the proof of death, decay, devastation and destruction, the majestic sublimity of desolation? The answer was that I sought the awful, the appalling and terrible because they harked me back to a primitive day where my blood and bones were bequeathed their heritage of the elements. That was the secret of the eternal fascination the desert exerted upon all men. It carried them back. It inhibited thought. It brought up the age-old sensations, so that I could feel, though I did not know it then, once again the all-satisfying state of the savage in nature.
When I returned to camp night had fallen. The evening star stood high in the pale sky, all alone and difficult to see, yet the more beautiful for that. The night appeared to be warmer or perhaps it was because no wind blew. Nielsen got supper, and ate most of it, for I was not hungry. As I sat by the camp-fire a flock of little bats, the smallest I had ever seen, darted from the wood-pile nearby and flew right in my face. They had no fear of man or fire. Their wings made a soft swishing sound. Later I heard the trill of frogs, which was the last sound I might have expected to hear in Death Valley. A sweet high-pitched melodious trill it reminded me of the music made by frogs in the Tamaulipas Jungle of Mexico. Every time I awakened that night, and it was often, I heard this trill. Once, too, sometime late, my listening ear caught faint mournful notes of a killdeer. How strange, and still sweeter than the trill! What a touch to the infinite silence and loneliness! A killdeer—bird of the swamps and marshes—what could he be doing in arid and barren Death Valley? Nature is mysterious and inscrutable.
Next morning the marvel of nature was exemplified even more strikingly. Out on the hard gravel-strewn slope I found some more tiny flowers of a day. One was a white daisy, very frail and delicate on long thin stem with scarcely any leaves. Another was a yellow flower, with four petals, a pale miniature California poppy. Still another was a purple-red flower, almost as large as a buttercup, with dark green leaves. Last and tiniest of all were infinitely fragile pink and white blossoms, on very flat plants, smiling wanly up from the desolate earth.
Nielsen and I made known to Denton our purpose to walk across the valley. He advised against it. Not that the heat was intense at this season, he explained, but there were other dangers, particularly the brittle salty crust of the sink-hole. Nevertheless we were not deterred from our purpose.
So with plenty of water in canteens and a few biscuits in our pockets we set out. I saw the heat veils rising from the valley floor, at that point one hundred and seventy-eight feet below sea level. The heat lifted in veils, like thin smoke. Denton had told us that in summer the heat came in currents, in waves. It blasted leaves, burned trees to death as well as men. Prospectors watched for the leaden haze that thickened over the mountains, knowing then no man could dare the terrible sun. That day would be a hazed and glaring hell, leaden, copper, with sun blazing a sky of molten iron.
A long sandy slope of mesquite extended down to the bare crinkly floor of the valley, and here the descent to a lower level was scarcely perceptible. The walking was bad. Little mounds in the salty crust made it hard to place a foot on the level. This crust appeared fairly strong. But when it rang hollow under our boots, then I stepped very cautiously. The color was a dirty gray and yellow. Far ahead I could see a dazzling white plain that looked like frost or a frozen river. The atmosphere was deceptive, making this plain seem far away and then close at hand.
The excessively difficult walking and the thickness of the air tired me, so I plumped myself down to rest, and used my note-book as a means to conceal from the tireless Nielsen that I was fatigued. Always I found this a very efficient excuse, and for that matter it was profitable for me. I have forgotten more than I have ever written.
Rather overpowering, indeed, was it to sit on the floor of Death Valley, miles from the slopes that appeared so far away. It was flat, salty, alkali or borax ground, crusted and cracked. The glare hurt my eyes. I felt moist, hot, oppressed, in spite of a rather stiff wind. A dry odor pervaded the air, slightly like salty dust. Thin dust devils whirled on the bare flats. A valley-wide mirage shone clear as a mirror along the desert floor to the west, strange, deceiving, a thing both unreal and beautiful. The Panamints towered a wrinkled red grisly mass, broken by rough canyons, with long declines of talus like brown glaciers. Seamed and scarred! Indestructible by past ages, yet surely wearing to ruin! From this point I could not see the snow on the peaks. The whole mountain range seemed an immense red barrier of beetling rock. The Funeral Range was farther away and therefore more impressive. Its effect was stupendous. Leagues of brown chocolate slopes, scarred by slashes of yellow and cream, and shadowed black by sailing clouds, led up to the magnificently peaked and jutted summits.
Splendid as this was and reluctant as I felt to leave I soon joined Nielsen, and we proceeded onward. At last we reached the white winding plain, that had resembled a frozen river, and which from afar had looked so ghastly and stark. We found it to be a perfectly smooth stratum of salt glistening as if powdered. It was not solid, not stable. At pressure of a boot it shook like jelly. Under the white crust lay a yellow substance that was wet. Here appeared an obstacle we had not calculated upon. Nielsen ventured out on it and his feet sank in several inches. I did not like the wave of the crust. It resembled thin ice under a weight. Presently I ventured to take a few steps, and did not sink in so deeply or make such depression in the crust as Nielsen. We returned to the solid edge and deliberated. Nielsen said that by stepping quickly we could cross without any great risk, though it appeared reasonable that by standing still a person would sink into the substance.
"Well, Nielsen, you go ahead," I said, with an attempt at lightness. "You weigh one hundred and ninety. If you go through I'll turn back!"
Nielsen started with a laugh. The man courted peril. The bright face of danger must have been beautiful and alluring to him. I started after him—caught up with him—and stayed beside him. I could not have walked behind him over that strip of treacherous sink-hole. If I could have done so the whole adventure would have been meaningless to me. Nevertheless I was frightened. I felt the prickle of my skin, the stiffening of my hair, as well as the cold tingling thrills along my veins.
This place was the lowest point of the valley, in that particular location, and must have been upwards of two hundred feet below sea level. The lowest spot, called the Sink Hole, lay some miles distant, and was the terminus of this river of salty white.
We crossed it in safety. On the other side extended a long flat of upheaved crusts of salt and mud, full of holes and pitfalls, an exceedingly toilsome and painful place to travel, and for all we could tell, dangerous too. I had all I could do to watch my feet and find surfaces to hold my steps. Eventually we crossed this broken field, reaching the edge of the gravel slope, where we were very glad indeed to rest.
Denton had informed us that the distance was seven miles across the valley at the mouth of Furnace Creek. I had thought it seemed much less than that. But after I had toiled across it I was convinced that it was much more. It had taken us hours. How the time had sped! For this reason we did not tarry long on that side.
Facing the sun we found the return trip more formidable. Hot indeed it was—hot enough for me to imagine how terrible Death Valley would be in July or August. On all sides the mountains stood up dim and obscure and distant in haze. The heat veils lifted in ripples, and any object not near at hand seemed illusive. Nielsen set a pace for me on this return trip. I was quicker and surer of foot than he, but he had more endurance. I lost strength while he kept his unimpaired. So often he had to wait for me. Once when I broke through the crust he happened to be close at hand and quickly hauled me out. I got one foot wet with some acid fluid. We peered down into the murky hole. Nielsen quoted a prospector's saying: "Forty feet from hell!" That broken sharp crust of salt afforded the meanest traveling I had ever experienced. Slopes of weathered rock that slip and slide are bad; cacti, and especially choya cacti, are worse: the jagged and corrugated surfaces of lava are still more hazardous and painful. But this cracked floor of Death Valley, with its salt crusts standing on end, like pickets of a fence, beat any place for hard going that either Nielsen or I ever had encountered. I ruined my boots, skinned my shins, cut my hands. How those salt cuts stung! We crossed the upheaved plain, then the strip of white, and reached the crinkly floor of yellow salt. The last hour taxed my endurance almost to the limit. When we reached the edge of the sand and the beginning of the slope I was hotter and thirstier than I had ever been in my life. It pleased me to see Nielsen wringing wet and panting. He drank a quart of water apparently in one gulp. And it was significant that I took the longest and deepest drink of water that I had ever had.
We reached camp at the end of this still hot summer day. Never had a camp seemed so welcome! What a wonderful thing it was to earn and appreciate and realize rest! The cottonwood leaves were rustling; bees were humming in the tamarack blossoms. I lay in the shade, resting my burning feet and achiag bones, and I watched Nielsen as he whistled over the camp chores. Then I heard the sweet song of a meadow lark, and after that the melodious deep note of a swamp blackbird. These birds evidently were traveling north and had tarried at the oasis.
Lying there I realized that I had come to love the silence, the loneliness, the serenity, even the tragedy of this valley of shadows. Death Valley was one place that could never be popular with men. It had been set apart for the hardy diggers for earthen treasure, and for the wanderers of the wastelands—men who go forth to seek and to find and to face their souls. Perhaps most of them found death. But there was a death in life. Desert travelers learned the secret that men lived too much in the world—that in silence and loneliness and desolation there was something infinite, something hidden from the crowd.