SOFT pinks and grays tinted the eastern sky; the sun was rising over the Salt River valley. Tempe was just awakening to the tasks of another day as I saddled Bud and rode out into the vast deceiving distance of the desert, over the trail toward Tucson.
Back across the river, Phoenix stood guard, like a sentinel, watching the perfect valley with its irrigated ranches.
All night the wind had kept up a dreary moaning cry like a sorrowful soul as it blew the sand about; but now, peace held the desert, and the air was cool and sweet as Bud loped easily over the trail.
Millions of tiny lizards darted in and out among the cactus and occasionally a side-winder announced his presence or a Gila monster slowly crawled away amidst the rocks.
Off to the left a good road wound its way up to the Roosevelt Dam and, as I watched, three objects appeared in the distance and gradually took the shape of horses and their riders. Down the stretch they came on a gallop. It was plain they were racing for some given point. As they drew nearer they seemed to be heading straight for me, so I wasn't exactly surprised when three horses were pulled up so suddenly that they almost sat on their haunches, and three Stetsons were doffed as with a jolly laugh their owners chorused: "Mornin' Wyomin’, -yuh goin Tucson way?"
"I sure am," I smiled back.
“Wal – we figgered on ridin’ a ways with yuh, if yuh don’t mind,” said one well-tanned son of Arizona.
"Glad to have your company," I assured them.
We jogged along lazily after that, swapping yarns of our favorite stamping grounds and some of our experiences on the trail. The sun climbed the horizon and steadily increased in its intensity so that we needs must take the trail easy.
Long before we arrived at its hospitable door we saw the low adobe ranch house in the distance, its windmill standing high up over the well, a landmark of that necessity which has often proved a life saver in the desert.
“I bet Bill’ll be some surprised to see Miss Wyomin’,” drawled one of my cavaliers. “Course this yer trail’s pretty well traveled, and most people stops at Bill’s fer water, but there ain’t many women goin’ over it.”
And Bill was surprised, but his welcome was none the less sincere as he watered and fed my pony and then went into the kitchen to scrub his hands carefully before proceeding to "stir up some bakin' powder biscuit, seein' there's company fer dinner."
The pleasant meal over, I saddled up, and saying good-bye, started out on the trail again,--a somewhat lonesome trail after the gay morning ride, but it wasn't long before nature gained my attention. Constantly the lizards shot across the sand, leaving tiny tracks; the desert seemed to be filled with them. The wonder of the sand-dunes set me to thinking of how the wind for ages long have been fashioning those wonderful scallops and patterns and changing them as it willed. And so the day rolled on and the only travellers I met were two Mexicans in a "buggy," driving a big sorrel horse.
There was the customary greeting, exchanged by all travellers west of the Missouri River, and, "like ships that pass in the night," we had "passed each other in speaking" and gone on our way. What a contrast between that and the protecting walls of a home with its ever-present sense of safety, yet I knew I wouldn't trade that infinite space and freedom for any conventional life.
Night was quietly stealing into the desert,--the purple shadows predominating,--and I had still to find a camping place, or, in other words, "water"; for, while I was carrying "a feed" for both Bud and myself, I hated to make a "dry" camp; and then in the distance I saw a windmill and the smoke of a camp fire.
Very soon I saw the campers. Three men they were, wearing faded shirts that once might have been almost any color; corduroy trousers tucked into heavy boots; and battered Stetsons, discolored by the merciless desert sun. Three horses and two mules, hobbled, grazed off the mesquite bush nearby; Bud whinnied and a horse answered.
"Damn me if it ain't a gal," said a voice.
"Hell!" (in a most disgusted tone) was the only comment. They are careless of speech, those men of the wide open places of the earth; taking a woman absolutely at her own valuation. Discretion cautioned me to ignore their seeming distaste for a member of my sex in camp, so I smiled and said, "Good evening," as I rode past them and dismounted at the far side of the windmill.
They watched me unsaddle, then water my pony and picket him, slipping his nose bag full of oats over his head, but curiosity could wait no longer.
"Whar's the rest a your party, gal?" called a voice. "There isn't any 'rest.' My pony and I are all of this party," I answered.
There was a short, low-toned conversation, and one fellow walked over to me saying, "If yer all by yer lonesome yuh better come over an' share our chuck, we ain't et yet."
I accepted the invitation, and it was as a guest at the men's camp that darkness found me when it settled over the land so that the desert seemed tied into tight black knots, until the stars’ tiny lamps began to light and bring a sort of steel-colored glow into the night, thru which the sleeping men, the horses, mesquite and cactus, all stood out with a clear distinctness, and a silence like unto a benediction reigned over all. Under such circumstances who would worry about a roof? Who wouldn't a thousand times rather lie and look up at that wonderful sky and breathe that air, so full of health-giving purity? And there I lay, rolled in a blanket, my saddle for a pillow, my six-shooter cuddled under it, my fingers touching the cool butt of it.
The next thing I knew night was "hitting the trail" out of the desert and day was quietly filling the East. Throwing off my blanket I sat up and watched one big fellow build a camp fire, while off in the distance the other two trailed their stock.
"Mornin'," he greeted. "Sleep good?"
"Fine," I smiled, starting towards Bud.
“I watered yer horse," he called.
"Thanks," I answered, as I got the oats for Bud's breakfast that were left from the night before. Then I proceeded to make my toilet for the day.
The man watched me as I opened the little canvas pack and took out brush and comb, a small mirror and a few such things that are necessary to a woman. I smiled to myself (tho to all outward appearances I was quite unconscious of his keen eyes)--and continued operations. He was deeply interested; evidently it never entered his head that, according to the code of good manners, he shouldn't watch me.
The bacon sent out appetizing whiffs and the coffee pot on the camp fire boiled over. Suddenly he awoke to his duties and confidentially told the skillet, as he rescued it from the fire, "There ain't nothing like a woman fer giving a touch a color to a camp."
By this time his two companions had returned with the stock so breakfast around the camp fire came next. This finished, preparations for the trail followed. The much talked-of safety of civilization lay behind – and ahead. While I was out in the desert, my only companions were these three men of whom I knew nothing; yet somehow the strangeness of it didn't strike me till we had clasped hands and wished each other, "Goodbye, good health and good luck,” at the point where the trail forked and our ways parted.
It was still early when I saw Florence in the distance, the single street of the adobe village leading to the stone bridge which spanned the Gila River. At the livery stable I left Bud for a feed and rest; for ahead of me lay a long stretch of hard trail and the desert heat was getting more intense every minute.
In an hour I was back on the trail again, and away out in the distance I could see the shadows of the hills dancing in the heat shimmers. An automobile overtook me and its owner stopped for a few minutes conversation, because,--so he said--he really hadn't believed I'd ride the desert trails alone; he and his three companions were headed for Tucson; they knew I, too, had started for that city, but the betting ran five to one (as usual) that they would neither see nor hear of me along the way.
"Why?" I asked.
"We had a hunch you'd take the train, horse and all," they said.
"How foolish," I told them," don't you know that I'm making this trip because I want to, because I love the out-of-doors, and every minute of it interests me? I guess I'm marked with 'the permanent brand’ of the West. I'm not oppressed by any fear of the hardships and inconvenience, instead I'm enjoying the novel experiences, for each forms another unique phase of my story."
"I believe you now," he said, and with friendly good wishes we parted and the big machine whirled ahead, into the desert space, kicking up the sand as it went.
(A year afterwards I met that man again, in Washington, D. C. Though at first I didn't remember him, I found he hadn't forgotten the girl and the pony he saw in the desert.)
I passed two or three adobe huts during the afternoon, stopping to water the pony once. At each place I found only Mexicans, one of whom informed me with a stolid countenance and a shrug of the shoulders: "Americano no savvey," so as my Spanish is not fluent enough for conversational purposes, I merely passed over a dime for the water, smiled a good-bye, and rode on.
The trail came back to the railroad, crossed it and followed along beside. Off to my right, in the jagged hills that set like sleeping watch dogs in the soft sand, was the Silver Bell mine, and ahead, in the distance, was Red Rock, where I had been told I'd find accommodations for the night.
The sun was back in the west, coloring the sky with a gorgeous sunset, when I rode into the tiny railroad settlement. A few shacks and one or two houses surrounded the station, opposite which set a combination hotel, saloon, and general store, the latter, one of those tail-end-of-commerce-on-the-edge-of-the-wilderness kind.
As I rode up to the door over which the "Hotel" sign hung, a man came out, smiling and rubbing his hands. He greeted me with a long-lost-sister-just-returned manner, and I noticed he had a weak looking face, startled, shifty eyes nervous manner, while some inner sense kept telling me: "He's no good, no good, watch out."
All day the mercury in the thermometer had climbed and climbed. My blue riding skirt was stained with the pony's sweat, and the blood throbbed in my temples. My temper was like an edged tool from the severe strain. It only needed the man's, "Come along in girlie; just tie your horse: the boys'll see to him after a while," with the accompanying familiar leer, to make me say, in a sharp voice: "I'll care for my own horse. Where's the feed?"
Not a particle repulsed, he caught my arm as I dismounted, and with an insolent laugh pulled me towards him. He positively oozed the odor of alcohol.
"Drunk!" I exclaimed, as I darted out of his grasp and raised my heavily loaded quirt. "You get inside there and send out a man, if there is one around here, you filthy cur!" I lashed out, "and you remember to keep your distance; don't dare put your hands on me!"
He backed away from the quirt and his shifty eyes took on a look of cunning, while his weak mouth drew down into a straight, cruel line.
"Buck!" he fairly snarled it, "Come yer! An' burn up the wind a-comin, 'fore I break yer damn neck!"
A tall lanky boy came out of the house. The man threw a bunch of keys at his head, growling, "Feed her horse and bring them keys back."
Buck dodged, picked up the keys, said "Yep" in a patient voice, and started towards the barn while I followed leading Bud. When we were safely out of hearing Buck eyed me critically then ventured:
"Yuh must a handed it to the Boss pretty strong. He sure was mad."
No answer – I was too angry to talk, and when a woman reaches that stage of the game she can match a wild cat for a fight!
Buck swung open the corral gate while I led the pony in and unsaddled, refusing his offers for help with: "You get the feed!" The pony's comfort assured I watched him fasten the big gate, then walked on toward the house. He pointed out the entrance to the dining room, saying, "Supper's ‘bout ready, I guess."
I pushed open the screen door, but before I got fairly inside a grip like iron caught my arm and I was swung around to face the man of the shifty eyes and nervous manner. My six gun was snatched from its holster and I was flung with unnecessary force against the wall.
"Don't you know the law of Arizona don't allow yuh to pack no gun in town?" he growled.
Gradually I got the grip on my senses and said, "I know the law of Arizona allows me thirty minutes after I arrive at my destination to remove my gun; and I also know that I shall make you sorry for yourself within the next two hours or find out why."
The scene that followed would have suited the fight fans., for I'm an athletic young person, and when the loaded end of my quirt landed, with all my force behind it, across his ear, he staggered for a second. I pulled the little .32 automatic I always had handy and backed to the phone hanging on the wall.
“Get over here where I can see you while I talk,” I ordered, “And do some of that ‘burning the wind’ you’re so fond of.”
“What yuh think yer goin’ to do?” he asked. “I’ll get yuh fer pullin’ that gun on me.”
“You go ahead and ‘get.’ I don’t scare worth a darn,” I bluffed, but thoroughly determined to make it good.
By that time central was on the wire and I was saying “Get me the sheriff at Tucson quick. It’s life or death. I’m the Wyoming girl and I’m out at Red Rock. Hurry now.”
"Why the hell didn't yuh say who yuh was when yuh first got yer?" asked the apology for a man.
"You shut up before I do some target practicing with you for the target," I yelled with rage, while two loafers from the bar stood in the doorway and gleefully watched the bully get a taste of his own medicine.
Next I was talking to the sheriff, and my manager, at Tucson, and telling the story.
"Put him on the wire!" was the request after I had finished talking. He listened for a while and meekly answered when he had to, then handed the receiver back to me and told his friends, "I'd like to know where in hell she got her pull."
Before I hung up the receiver Buck came towards me very reluctantly, with my six gun held at arm's length, "Yer's yer gun, lady," he stuttered, "bu -- but don't take it out on me."
I took the gun, stuck it down in the holster and said: "Now I'll get out of this place. I'd sooner sleep in the corral with my horse, I'd know I was in decent company."
A voice behind me invited, "Senorita, my wife say you come to our house." I turned to face a friendly appearing Mexican and promptly accepted his invitation, going with him to his little adobe house. He led the way into a small, neat kitchen and by way of introductory, said, "My wife, Senorita."
She was bending over the stove cooking something which gave out a warm and appetizing smell and I suddenly found I was hungry.
She looked up and smiled with a flash of big, black eyes and white teeth. "Your supper's most ready," she said, "Have a seat."
Not till then had I quite realized the strain of the last half hour and the woman's friendly greeting was almost too much for my self control. I always live at a high nervous tension; I suppose we who do so get more out of life than the average human being, but we pay so dearly out of ourselves for it all.
She proved to be the proverbial "friend in need," and when next morning I said goodbye, I was rested and happy again and quite ready for the trail. Yesterday's grievance had faded into the beyond. It was only another incident to make me appreciate more all the good people. After all it's all in the game of life. "If you can't get peaches, take prunes," as some home-spun philosopher has said. And so I thought as Bud swung along over the trail into Tucson, the Southwest's oldest city,--so they say.
I could see it setting up on the mesa long before I arrived. As I got into the suburbs there were many fine residences built in Mission style. A great many bungalows too. Most of the buildings were adobe. At that time those of the business section were unpretentious, but they have probably improved by this time for picturesque Tucson is alive and hustling.
The Long Riders' Guild would like to thank Pat Holscher of the Society of the Military Horse for drawing our attention to this amazing Historical Long Rider.