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Loafing Along Death Valley Trails

Chapter XII

A Hovel That Ought To Be a Shrine

An Indian rode up to the bench, leaped from his cayuse and tried to tell Joe Ryan something about a “hiko.” Joe matched his pantomime and broken English, finally jerking a thumb over his shoulder and the Indian went into the store.

“That’s Indian Johnnie,” Joe said: “Hundred and fifty miles to his place, other side of the Panamint. Awful country to get at. Shorty Harris is in a bad way at Ballarat.”

A few moments later Charlie drove his pickup to the pump, filled the gas tank and before we realized it, was swallowed in a cloud of dust. “He’s in for a helluva trip,” Joe said.

Before the day was over, snow covered the high peaks and a biting wind drove us from the bench. “Let’s go over to the Mesquite Club,” Joe said.

We hurried across the road to the sprawling old building hidden in a thicket and listing in every direction of the compass, but over the roof, like friendly arms crooked the branches of big mesquite trees. Among mining men that ramshackle was known around the world.

Inside was a big pot-bellied stove. Beside it, a huge woodbox. Chairs held together with baling wire. Two or three old auto seats hauled in from cars abandoned on the desert. An ancient, moth-eaten sofa on which the wayfarer out of luck was privileged to sleep. Three or four tables, each with a dog-eared deck of cards where old timers played solitaire or a spot of poker. There were books and magazines—high and low-brow, left by the tourists. But there was a friendliness about the shabby room that had nothing to gain from mahogany or chandeliers of gold.

Wind kept us indoors for two days. On the third we were on the bench again when someone said, “Here comes Charlie....”

A moment later Joe and Big Dan were helping Charlie take Shorty Harris, dean of Death Valley prospectors, more dead than alive, into a cabin and lay him on the bed. “You must have had an awful time,” Joe said to Charlie.

“Not too bad ... made it,” Charlie answered as he started a fire in the stove. He brought in water and wood and turned to Joe. “Wish you’d fill up that gas tank and see about the oil....”

Joe looked at him, puzzled.

“Got to take him to the hospital,” Charlie said.

We knew that meant another trip of 140 miles.

“Damned if you do,” Joe said. “I’ll get somebody to go.”

I supposed after the all night trip under such conditions Brown would go to bed but an hour later when I went to the store for some small purchase a woman climbed out of a pickup truck and with three small children, came in. She lived on her ranch 60 miles away and had come to buy her month’s supply of provisions—a full load for the truck. When she paid her bill she nodded toward her brood: “Charlie, those kids look like brush Indians with all that hair....”

Charlie got scissors and comb and went to work. Before he had swept out the shorn locks Ben Brandt came in, holding his jaw.

“Feels like a stamp mill,” he groaned. “Haven’t slept in a week. Be dead by the time I get to Barstow.” It was 125 miles to Barstow and Ben was waiting for a ride with someone going that way.

Charlie went behind the counter, returned with forceps, opening and closing the jaws of the instrument two or three times as if in practice and then he turned to the sufferer: “You understand it’s against the law for me to use these things. In a pinch—”

“To hell with the law,” Ben snapped. “Yank it out!”

Charlie took a chair to the back porch. Ben sat down and with a vice-like arm about Ben’s head, the forceps went in and the tooth came out.

I went outside and sat on the bench with a better understanding of Shoshone and people and values which come only from friendships closely knitted and help unselfishly given.

Why does a man like the desert? As good an answer as any is another question: Why does he like chicken? Students of human behavior, poets, writers, gushing debutantes and greying dowagers, humorless scientists, and bored urbanites have labored mightily to explain it.

“Something just gets into the blood,” one says, frankly groping for an answer. Immensities of space. Solitudes that whittle the ego down to size. Detachment from routine cares. A feel of nearness to whatever 84it is that is God. Stars to finger. The muted symphonies of farflung sky and earth.

Whatever it is, I was now aware that as between hell and Shoshone, I would give the nod to Shoshone. I was getting used to Shoshone and desolation when a few days later Charlie came out of the store and sat beside me on the bench. “Road’s open,” he said. “I reckon you’re in a hurry to get away.”

I didn’t answer at once but conscious of his searching look, finally stammered that Dan Modine wanted me to go with him to Happy Jack’s party. “I can spare another day....” Charlie lit a cigarette, took a puff or two. “You’ve gone desert,” he chuckled and went back into the store.

For a week I’d been hearing of Happy Jack’s party and when Dan told me that everyone within 100 miles would be on hand, I was glad to go. Dan gave me Jack’s background on the 35 mile trip across dry washes, deep sands, and hairpin turns on pitching hills.

Born on the desert, Jack was the son of a Forty Niner and a Piute squaw. He had grown up as an Indian and had married Mary, a full blood Piute. Jack’s brother Lem married Anna, another squaw.

“Lem had worked at odd jobs and in the mines,” Dan said. “Now and then he and Anna would do a little prospecting. Anna found a claim that showed a little color. Lem worked alongside his squaw a couple weeks, but it was a back breaking job and Lem quit it. But Anna kept digging and one day she came up to their shack with a piece of ore that was almost pure gold. Anna’s find made them rich.

“I reckon money does things to people. Anyway, it didn’t take Lem long to get rid of Anna. He gave her enough so that she could take it easy. Then he pushed off to the city to live high, wide, and handsome. I see Anna now and then. She’s not jolly like she used to be. Lem has always wanted Jack to get rid of Mary and come to the city. In fact, Jack told me once that Lem offered to give him half of his money if he would do that. But Jack said, to hell with the city. He’s the happy go lucky sort. Big, good looking, and lazy. His old dobe under the cottonwood tree and the water running by with plenty of outdoors—that suits Jack.”

We found, as Dan had predicted, that everybody in the country had come to Jack’s party. A long U shaped table was placed outside under the shade of a tree. From nearby pits came a tantalizing aroma of barbecue. A keg of bourbon encircled with glasses stood beside a bucket of dripping mint. Cigars and cigarettes were on top of the keg and Jack saw that his guests were always supplied.

There was an orchestra with capable musicians, Jack occasionally 85pinch hitting for the bull fiddler when the latter took time out for a drink or a dance. But when the snare drum player wanted his bourbon, Jack was like a kid pulling doodads from a Christmas tree. “It will last a week,” Dan said. “A few may pull out after a day or two, but others will take their places.”

“This must have cost Jack a year’s labor,” I said. “I told him that once,” Dan laughed. “He asked me what else would a fellow work a year for.”

Jack’s views of life and things were Mary’s, except that Mary knew lean years come and if any provisions were to be made for them she would have to make them. She tended the goats and the sheep, cut the deer and the mountain sheep into strips and hung them high, where the flies wouldn’t get them, to cure in the breeze. If Jack wanted to throw a party, so did Mary. “... Big party ... kill fat steer. Five sheep. Heap good time....” To Jack’s everlasting credit, be it said that whatever Mary did, suited Jack.

“Oh, him fine man,” Mary would say. “Like home. Play with children. No get mad....”

There may be somewhere in this world a morsel approaching Mary’s barbecued mountain sheep, but I’ve never tasted it.

Jack told me later that the best meat is that from an old ram with no teeth. “He hasn’t eaten all winter, because his teeth won’t let him cut the hard, woody sage and being starved when spring comes, he gorges on the new sacatone. He fattens quickly and his flesh is tender.”

While Dan and I were walking about, a long limousine came across the valley and parked behind a screen of mesquite well away from the house and the guests. Dan and I happened to be nearby as a big, dark man expensively tailored stepped out. A lady fashionably dressed remained in the car.

“That’s Lem,” Dan explained. “When he was a kid he ran around in a gee string. I reckon his wife doesn’t want to meet the in-laws.”

We came upon him a moment later and while he and Dan talked of old times Jack rushed down and embraced Lem. “Come up,” he urged, but Lem’s interest was lukewarm. Mary was busy and he would see her later. No, he didn’t wish a drink. He had cigars. Just stopped in to see how Jack was and if he’d changed his mind.

Dan and I moved away and sat under a shed along the runoff of the spring and had no choice about listening to a conversation not intended for our ears.

Jack was squatted on his heels and his brother was sitting on a boulder. Lem was talking, his voice brittle: “Of course, we married squaws ... but we are more white than Indian. I’ll give you all the 86money you need. Let Mary go back to her people. She’ll be happy. Look at Anna ... she’s contented and better off with her own people and it will be the same with Mary.”

Lem lifted his hand, a big diamond ring flashing on his finger as he pointed to the squalid cabin where Jack’s fat squaw, her face beaming, was serving the guests. “Look at that hovel. Just a pig sty. If you prefer that to $10,000 a year, it’s your business. I’ve come out for the last time....”

Jack, bareheaded, rose, his hair rumpled in the wind as he glanced at the things about—the sagging roof, the shade tree beside it and following his glance I saw Mary smile at him and wave. Then he turned to Lem: “A pig sty, huh? Ten thousand a year. Mansion in the city.” His eyes traveled over Lem’s smart tailored suit, the diamond, the malacca cane pecking the gravel at his feet. I could see Jack’s fingers digging at his palms, the muscles rippling along his wrists and I sensed that he was seething inside.

“Pig sty.... One year I recollect, no crop. No meat. No game. Nothing. I was down with fever. She was down too, but she got up and walked and crawled from here to Indian Springs. Through the brush. Over the mountain to get grub from her people. Why, sometimes I’d feel like going off by myself and bawling....” Jack turned again to his brother, flint in his dark eyes. “I ought to brain you. To hell with your money. She stuck with me and bigod, I’ll stick with her.”

Then Jack calmly strode back to his party, and somehow it seemed to me the hovel had suddenly become a holy shrine.

A Personal Narrative of People and Places
Published by Death Valley Publishing Co.
Ontario, California

A Foretaste of Things to Come
What Caused Death Valley?
Aaron and Rosie Winters
John Searles and His Lake of Ooze
But Where Was God?
Death Valley Geology
Indians of the Area
Desert Gold. Too Many Fractions
Romance Strikes the Parson
Greenwater-Last of the Boom Towns
The Amargosa Country
A Hovel That Ought To Be a Shrine
Sex in Death Valley Country
Shoshone Country. Resting Springs
The Story of Charles Brown
Long Man, Short Man
Shorty Frank Harris
A Million Dollar Poker Game
Death Valley Scotty
Odd But Interesting Characters
Roads. Cracker Box Signs
Lost Mines. The Breyfogle and Others
Panamint City. Genial Crooks
Indian George. Legend of the Panamint
Ballarat. Ghost Town
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