The time was 1850, the place that long, soft, hot dry stretch of blasted desolation known as the Humboldt Sink. The sun stared, the heat rose in waves, the mirage shimmered, the dust devils of choking alkali whirled aloft or sank in suffocation on the hot earth. Thus it had been since in remote ages the last drop of the inland sea had risen into a brazen sky. But this year had brought something new. A track now led across the desert. It had sunk deep into the alkali, and the soft edges had closed over it like snow, so that the wheel marks and the hoof marks and the prints of men’s feet looked old. Almost in a straight line it led to the west. Its perspective, dwindling to nothingness, corrected the deceit of the clear air. Without it the cool, tall mountains looked very near. But when the eye followed the trail to its vanishing, then, as though by magic, the Ranges drew back, and before them denied dreadful forces of toil, thirst, exhaustion, and despair. For the trail was marked. If the wheel ruts had been obliterated, it could still have been easily followed. Abandoned goods, furniture, stores, broken-down wagons, bloated carcasses of oxen or horses, bones bleached white, rattling mummies of dried skin, and an almost unbroken line of marked and unmarked graves–like the rout of an army, like the spent wash of a wave that had rolled westward–these in double rank defined the road.
The buzzards sailing aloft looked down on the Humboldt Sink as we would look upon a relief map. Near the centre of the map a tiny cloud of white dust crawled slowly forward. The buzzards stooped to poise above it.
Two ox wagons plodded along. A squirrel–were such a creature possible–would have stirred disproportionately the light alkali dust; the two heavy wagons and the shuffling feet of the beasts raised a cloud. The fitful furnace draught carried this along at the slow pace of the caravan, which could be seen only dimly, as through a dense fog.
The oxen were in distress. Evidently weakened by starvation, they were proceeding only with the greatest difficulty. Their tongues were out, their legs spread, spasmodically their eyes rolled back to show the whites, from time to time one or another of them uttered a strangled, moaning bellow. They were white with the powdery dust, as were their yokes, the wagons, and the men who plodded doggedly alongside. Finally, they stopped. The dust eddied by; and the blasting sun fell upon them.
The driver of the leading team motioned to the other. They huddled in the scanty shade alongside the first wagon. Both men were so powdered and caked with alkali that their features were indistinguishable. Their red-rimmed, inflamed eyes looked out as though from masks.
The one who had been bringing up the rear looked despairingly toward the mountains.
“We’ll never get there!” he cried.
“Not the way we are now,” replied the other. “But I intend to get there.”
“Leave your wagon, Jim; it’s the heaviest. Put your team on here.”
“But my wagon is all I’ve got in the world!” cried the other, “and we’ve got near a keg of water yet! We can make it! The oxen are pulling all right!”
His companion turned away with a shrug, then thought better of it and turned back.
“We’ve thrown out all we owned except bare necessities,” he explained, patiently. “Your wagon is too heavy. The time to change is while the beasts can still pull.”
“But I refuse!” cried the other. “I won’t do it. Go ahead with your wagon. I’ll get mine in, John Gates, you can’t bulldoze me.”
Gates stared him in the eye.
“Get the pail,” he requested, mildly.
He drew water from one of the kegs slung underneath the wagon’s body. The oxen, smelling it, strained weakly, bellowing. Gates slowly and carefully swabbed out their mouths, permitted them each a few swallows, rubbed them pityingly between the horns. Then he proceeded to unyoke the four beasts from the other man’s wagon and yoked them to his own. Jim started to say something. Gates faced him. Nothing was said.
“Get your kit,” Gates commanded, briefly, after a few moments. He parted the hanging canvas and looked into the wagon. Built to transport much freight it was nearly empty. A young woman lay on a bed spread along the wagon bottom. She seemed very weak.
“All right, honey?” asked Gates, gently.
She stirred, and achieved a faint smile.
“It’s terribly hot. The sun strikes through,” she replied. “Can’t we let some air in?”
“The dust would smother you.”
“Are we nearly there?”
“Getting on farther every minute,” he replied, cheerfully.
Again the smothering alkali rose and the dust cloud crawled.
Four hours later the traveller called Jim collapsed face downward. The oxen stopped. Gates lifted the man by the shoulders. So exhausted was he that he had not the strength nor energy to spit forth the alkali with which his fall had caked his open mouth. Gates had recourse to the water keg. After a little he hoisted his companion to the front seat.
At intervals thereafter the lone human figure spoke the single word that brought his team to an instantaneous dead stop. His first care was then the woman, next the man clinging to the front seat, then the oxen. Before starting he clambered to the top of the wagon and cast a long, calculating look across the desolation ahead. Twice he even further reduced the meagre contents of the wagon, appraising each article long and doubtfully before discarding it. About mid-afternoon he said abruptly:
“Jim, you’ve got to walk.”
The man demurred weakly, with a touch of panic.
“Every ounce counts. It’s going to be a close shave. You can hang on to the tail of the wagon.”
Yet an hour later Jim, for the fourth time, fell face downward, but now did not rise. Gates, going to him, laid his hand on his head, pushed back one of his eyelids, then knelt for a full half minute, staring straight ahead. Once he made a tentative motion toward the nearly empty water keg, once he started to raise the man’s shoulders. The movements were inhibited. A brief agony cracked the mask of alkali on his countenance. Then stolidly, wearily, he arose. The wagon lurched forward. After it had gone a hundred yards and was well under way in its painful forward crawl, Gates, his red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes fixed and glazed, drew the revolver from its holster and went back.
At sundown he began to use the gad. The oxen were trying to lie down. If one of them succeeded, it would never again arise. Gates knew this. He plied the long, heavy whip in both hands. Where the lash fell it bit out strips of hide. It was characteristic of the man that though heretofore he had not in all this day inflicted a single blow on the suffering animals, though his nostrils widened and his terrible red eyes looked for pity toward the skies, yet now he swung mercilessly with all his strength.
Dusk fell, but the hot earth still radiated, the powder dust rose and choked. The desert dragged at their feet; and in the twilight John Gates thought to hear mutterings and the soft sound of wings overhead as the dread spirits of the wastes stooped low. He had not stopped for nearly two hours. This was the last push; he must go straight through or fail.
And when the gleam of the river answered the gleam of the starlight he had again to rouse his drained energies. By the brake, by directing the wagon into an obstruction, by voice and whip he fought the frantic beasts back to a moaning standstill. Then pail by pail he fed them the water until the danger of overdrinking was past. He parted the curtains. In spite of the noise outside the woman, soothed by the breath of cooler air, had fallen asleep.
Some time later he again parted the curtains.
“We’re here, honey,” he said, “good water, good grass, shade. The desert is past. Wake up and take a little coffee.”
She smiled at him.
“I’m so tired.”
“We’re going to rest here a spell.”
She drank the coffee, ate some of the food he brought her, thrust back her hair, breathed deep of the cooling night.
“Where’s Jim?” she asked at last.
“Jim got very tired,” he said, “Jim’s asleep.”
– – – – – – –
Three months later. The western slant of the Sierras just where the ca