When Tom stepped off the train in California, he saw that times were pretty much the same all across the country. There were soup-kitchens here and there, many of the men in line returning veterans. The Treaty of Versailles had made no provision for these men, so the ex-doughboys waited their turn in line with the others. But Tom was not much affected by hard times. He knew what it took to make a dollar: you looked for a job until you found one and then worked hard at it. Back home on the farm he had had nothing; he could only do better. And, starting at scratch, you might say, he thought that he and the country might just come out all right together. He would do his part and he expected nothing less from the government.
He had looked around and, despite having recently escaped from the family farm and not wishing to return, discovered that employment, even in California, was mostly to be gained by working on a farm or ranch or, getting down to it, by picking fruit.
To Tom, picking fruit was not farming. Farming in the Arkansas bottomland had meant hitching up a team of obnoxious mules in the dark and straining through the long, hot, stifling day, slapping flies, picking ticks, scratching chiggers, and working for the wages determined by his father. Tom figured working for anyone else had to be a step up. If the wages were better then it followed that he would have an absolute improvement of life by being away from the rule of two older sisters. He was in the unenviable situation of being the youngest of seven children, two sisters being the next up the chain of command.
His days back on the farm began looking at the backsides of a surly team and it ended with the same view, it seemed to him: the mules in the morning and his sisters in the evening. One day it occurred to him that enough was enough. What point in asking for clemency somewhere up the chain of command when he was at the bottom link? At sixteen, the least senior person was himself.
He heard about a circus that was passing near Mulberry, on its way to Fort Smith. He packed a small satchel and sneaked away to join the traveling show. He had the thought that if the circus-boss needed anyone to drive a team, perhaps a team of splendid white horses his imagination dissolved. He didn't care what the job was. He would happily walk behind the lordly elephants with a bucket and broom. He would not be here, on the farm, behind the mules, grim sisters waiting.
Tom enjoyed his liberty for two days until two big unsmiling uncles arrived in Fort Smith and gave the circus-boss two black eyes and a message from the Lord reminding the man how blessed he was to be allowed a chance to serve the Almighty, and to mind his own business. Tom was taken back to the farm.
Once again he faced the least attractive end of a pair of mules and viewed, he feared, his future. The view he had now would be repeated when the day ended and he was home again. He needed a new plan, an escape plan. On his last trip to town he had seen a recruiting poster tacked up next to an advertisement for chewing tobacco.
The fellow on the poster wore a dark blue uniform and starched white cap and had a big smile on his handsome face while he walked up the ramp to a huge ship. The poster left no doubt that the Navy would provide journeys to exotic lands, the ultimate adventure for a restless farm boy. He tucked his few belongings into his satchel and slipped through the blackjack pines and away into the dark country night.
His uncles turned out to be Holmesian in their tracking abilities, downright bloodhounds. He was apprehended within a week of his departure. He had indeed reached the naval establishment and had nearly been inducted into that fraternity. He was certainly big enough to pass for an adult, being tall like all the men in his family, but had not the identification.
While the Navy was waiting for the boy to produce proof of his age and origin, the uncles infiltrated that installation and made their mission known. After threatening the military with mayhem and hellfire they were presented with their sheepish nephew and escorted off the facility. So Tom missed World War I. But he continued making plans.
He now knew for certain that patience and time would be required before he could make his move. So he worked the fields and suffered the female domination. When there was free time, whenever precious privacy was available, he read. He wanted to be ready when he finally entered the world, the one outside, to move among the people he had read about. He didn't want to be just a country boy.
He spent very little of his meager wages. He kept his money secreted away, as well as the satchel, which he could find and pack quickly. Six months passed, slowly, so slowly, one uneventful and humdrum day after another. Then, one warm and beautiful evening, breathing in the perfume of the pines, and for no reason other than it was time, he decided. He had already written the note of goodbye so he put together his little grubstake and sneaked through the quiet old house. He was outside and walked quickly through the dark Arkansas morning, memorizing the aromas of the farm.
So many quotations came to him, so many beautiful words that seemed now not quite appropriate. He didn't want to hurt his parents' feelings, but he figured there were others to take his place. He grinned when he thought of his sisters behind the plow; that thought often gave him pleasure. Maybe one of them in the front, in the traces! His smile spread wide with the vision.
During the previous months he had acquainted himself with the ways of travel. He had spoken with truck drivers, train workers; he had sought the advice of hoboes until he was satisfied he could travel cross-country with a minimum of expense. He had even given some cornbread to the hoboes in exchange for the rules of the road. His mother had noticed the missing food, but had said nothing.
After three miles he reached the road to Mulberry. He walked quickly through the sleeping little hamlet. A few dogs barked in the distance. Another few miles and he found the tracks. He heard the whistle of the west-bound train and smelled the tar of the ties and warm steel of the rails. He reached down and touched his path to freedom. It was slick and fine and as hard as the blacksmith's anvil.
The boy knew that no one was behind him now, and he felt the anxious newborn feeling that he was on his own. This time they would not find him; he was going too far. He had broken the tie, and the thought choked him momentarily; he realized he would not be coming back, at least not for a very long time.
The black, massive engine was close, slowing, gushing steam and promises; in the moment he remembered the hoboes' teaching and was running when the train was moving at the right speed. He ran and he ran, then grabbed an open door and pulled himself aboard. He felt the straw-laden floor and became part of the moving beast.
Looking through the door he saw and felt the strange sensation of change; of his life becoming something different. Very suddenly, seeing the little village from another perspective, it was not the same place. Of course he would never again be the same boy. He had run away from that life and looked now toward whatever was down the tracks. He burrowed down into the familiar straw and slept soundly; when he awoke he would be in another world.
The movement of the boxcar changed to a slow lurch and the chain of cars banged together, end to end like a concertina, separating and slamming back again. Tom woke up. He saw through the partially opened door that the train was slowing as it approached the freight-yard. Beyond the yard he saw the mass of many buildings, some very tall. He knew this must be Oklahoma City. He slid the heavy door open and picked up his satchel. He was smiling as he jumped from the boxcar.
He hurried across the many tracks before any train employees saw him. The train 'bulls' were paid to discourage non-paying riders, even though many war veterans were now hopping the freights. There had been many bad and bloody incidents between the bulls and returning veterans, as well as other vagrants. Tom didn't want to waste any time languishing in an Oklahoma jail.
He dusted himself off and found an alley where he hid his satchel. As he neared the mainstream he saw the bustle of activity he had heretofore only heard about. The rush of people and trucks and automobiles were incredible to him. Most of the makes of cars were unfamiliar. The Model T's he knew; his uncles had picked him up and delivered him home from the Navy in the back of their Model T truck. Whenever he saw that model Ford he experienced unpleasant memories, but those visions were dimming.
He passed barbershops and saloons and pool-halls. In front of many businesses young men lounged, hard-eyed and sullen. He didn't meet their stares. It was obvious they viewed him as alien to their neighborhood. Occasionally he heard a rebel yell or "Hey, Country, ain't y'all a'ways from home?" or "Looky, ma, I see a yokel!" Several times he was invited to take part in a shell-game. He paused briefly to see how the pea was shifted about under the walnut-shell, or, as he had been warned by his hobo mentors, hidden between the hustler's fingers. Men flashed decks of cards and rattled dice in a can, beckoning the greenhorn. Tom wandered on until he found the store he had been looking for.
As he drifted through the city he became more aware of his appearance. He saw very few bib-overalls; in the city only old men, long-time locals, wore this symbol of the farmer. Finally he saw a shabby building with a sign announcing "Used Clothing," and he stepped inside. The prices were within his means, so he bought several pairs of trousers, a belt, and a slouch cap. He left the store and circled around, missing the hucksters, until he found the alley and his satchel, tucked away his change of identity, and made his way back to the train-yards.
He had seen enough of the smart young men of Oklahoma City, so he bought a few simple groceries and waited in a little green park near the tracks. Several small groups of Indians waited under a tree nearby. Everyone rose and arranged their parcels as an engine approached. They hung back until the engine was well past. Tom joined them as they trotted along and jumped and tumbled into an empty car. They jostled each other until they found their apparent usual places. Tom smiled at them from his corner and they smiled back.
The trip through the Panhandle went quickly and the Indians, who were Navajo, told Tom that Amarillo was the next stop. They were not getting off there, but were going on to Albuquerque. Tom jumped off when the freight was slow enough and he and the Navajos waved at each other. Once again, he hurried across the tracks and slipped into an alley before any trainmen saw him.
Amarillo was smaller than Oklahoma City, but still a huge and sprawling city to a country boy. He kept his satchel with him, as he didn't see a likely place to hide it. He was on a fairly quiet street and there didn't seem to be any idlers about, so he entered Sunrise's Billiard Emporium. It was cool and dark inside and he sat on a stool at the marble counter. A man who had been playing pool by himself in the back put down his stick and went behind the counter.
"Do for ya, boy?"
"I'd like a root-beer," said Tom.
"Comin' up," said the man. He had a toothpick tucked into the corner of his lips, and he seemed to talk around it, not much louder than a whisper. He drew the soda from a tap, next to the beer-tap, and served it in a beer mug. "One nickel, if ya please."
Tom put the coin on the marble counter. The man took a rag from behind the counter and began wiping the blurred surface, looking out the door. The rag was not clean and the marble top was worse when he finished. He looked bored. "Ya not from here, are ya?"
"No," said Tom. "How'd you know?"
"Ya wanna know how I know ya not from here?"
The toothpick moved up and down and around in circles and the man grinned. "Well, it's my nose that tells me. Now I don't mean you stink or anything, so don't go flyin' off the handle. But my nose says there's somethin' like tar in the air and there's nobody around here havin' their roof fixed. So that means somebody's been on the train and I don't mean sittin' in the Pullman. Ya been in a boxcar and ya set your bag down under the stool, so ya been travelin'. So ya not from here, are ya?" The man grinned and the toothpick moved up and down.
"No, sir," said Tom. "I'm not from around here. But I can't smell any tar."
"No, ya wouldn't," said the man, "'cause ya nose is used to it by now. People pick it up on their shoes from walkin' along the ties. Ya don't get that if ya board a train from the platform. But there's tar on the ties and in the rocks on the roadbed. Anyhow, my nose says tar, so ya not from here. What's ya name, boy?"
"Well, Tom, they call me Sunrise. I guess 'cause I always get up early. This is my place. How about a game?" Sunrise nodded his head toward the tables.
"I never learned how," said Tom. The man left the counter and walked to the nearest table.
"Come on, Tom. It's not like I'm ignoring the other customers. My treat. I'll teach ya. Every boy's got to know how to play pool. That's how ya learn things, Tom. Spend time in the barbershop, spend time in the pool-hall, ya never need a newspaper. I'll break."
So Sunrise led the young man through the art of racking, breaking, banking, blocking, but not betting. "Tom, ya remember this. Don't ever gamble on a game of pool. I used to be a damn good player, one of the best around. And I still am damn good. But when ya play for money, the game goes sour. It's not the fun it was. When ya do anything for money, then it's work. And people come from all over lookin' for ya, like you was a gunfighter in the old days. They want to beat ya! And the fun's gone."
Sunrise put the cue-stick on the table and motioned for Tom to follow him. They walked out the door and stood on the board sidewalk in front of Sunrise's Pool Emporium. As they were walking out three men turned off the sidewalk and entered the building. They walked to the back of the room and removed their coats, rolling up their sleeves. A game was soon in progress. Sunrise looked up at the flawless blue Texas sky. He looked up and down the street. A few cars sputtered about and a few pedestrians looked in early shop windows.
Sunrise took a great red bandanna from his rear pocket. "Tom," he said, pausing to blow his nose, "if ya not in a great hurry to get back on that freight, how about hangin' around here for a spell? I can't pay ya a good deal, but a dollar here an' there and ya can sleep in the back. There's a cot, and a toilet down the hall, runnin' water and everything. Ya just sweep up, keep the balls racked, draw the beer oh, I'll show ya, don't look so anxious! My old woman will bring some food around for ya. What do ya think?"
Tom also looked at the boundless blue sky and up and down the asphalt street. An instant flash of thought, the backward vision of cold, dark mornings and stupid mules and sunburned fields and thirsty, endless acres and relentless, harping sisters "Mr. Sunrise, I'd be much obliged. Can we try it for a while?"
Sunrise slapped the tall youth on the shoulder. "Well, don't just stand there, then! Go on in and get to work! And don't be callin' me Mister. That's what people called my daddy! Well, hop to it!" And for the first time Tom went to work and did not regret the going or the doing.
The floor was swept and mopped, the pool tables dusted and covered and the balls racked; the marble counter glowed after being washed and buffed, the mugs and glasses were arranged in sparkling rows. The large mirrors behind the glasses now reflected images, clear and true reproductions of those looking in. Down the hall the toilet and sink could be seen as actual porcelain, and the former lip-curling odor had vanished. Tom had been busy, happily employed.
He never had to unlock the front doors because Sunrise always lived up to his name. But when the doors opened Tom was somewhere nearby, bringing coffee to the boil, dusting things already clean, folding sheets removed from the tables. The spittoons were polished and in their places. This process had become a routine, both parties being pleased.
And the customers had now accepted the tall, fresh-faced and aproned boy, and applauded the clean restroom. The newly discovered porcelain and shiny spittoons were reason enough to feel that an improvement had come to Sunrise's Billiard Emporium. Tom didn't talk unless encouraged and the customers did occasionally ask him about the small events of the day. The atmosphere was clearly relaxed and the calm pleasant days drifted by.
One morning it happened that Sunrise was late, so Tom opened the doors and looked up and down the quiet street. He saw his employer and another man walking, stopping, talking, so Tom went back inside and poured himself a cup of coffee and waited. The men walked in and Sunrise stopped and faced Tom. The other man walked on behind the counter, slammed a mug down, and drew himself a beer. He didn't say anything, but moved his head up and down, nodding. There were blue scars on the side of the man's head, high on his temple. He wandered around the end of the counter, nodding and shuffling.
Sunrise looked at the marble counter and up into Tom's eyes and back at the counter again. "Tom," he said, "this is my wife's brother, my brother-in-law. He's been, uh, gone for a while. He was going to work for me, a long time ago, ya know. He went off to oh, hell, Tom! They let him out of the hospital and sent him home! He was all shot up in France and well, I got to take him in."
Sunrise looked at his brother-in-law. "Martin! Go on in back and look around. Go on, now. I'll be with ya in a minute." The man shuffled about, sipping his beer, and stopped at a table. He began rolling the balls about; he seemed to like watching the balls move silently across the green felt until they clicked together.
"Tom, I don't know what to say. We didn't know they was going to let him go. He was in a trench back there, in France, when a shell got in and blew up. They don't know if he'll get better. He What can I say, Tom?"
Tom looked at the man wandering about the Emporium, gently nudging pool-balls and poking them about the table. "Sunrise," said Tom, "you've got to take care of him. He went over and fought for us, didn't he? He got hurt, for us, and now he's back. Don't be worrying about me, Sunrise. You've got to take care of your folks." Tom and his boss couldn't look at each other, but watched the veteran as he moved from table to table, herding the balls aimlessly with his finger.
Sunrise stood in the door as Tom put his satchel together. While the man looked sad, Tom felt a sort of relief. He had stayed in Amarillo much longer than he thought he would. It had been like a friendly school, run by a friendly and understanding teacher. It would be difficult to say goodbye to Sunrise, especially since the man thought he was doing Tom wrong. When Tom was packed he put on his cap.
"Would you give my old overalls to the church, Sunrise? They're all washed and folded. That's them on the chair, yonder. Don't want to look like a country-boy, huh!" Sunrise rolled his toothpick around and glanced at the chair.
"Sure," he said. "Here, let me carry that satchel. Ya know, Tom, I taught ya how to tend bar, and any day now the Eighteenth Amendment is going to shut down my serving beer. But at least ya know how to change a keg. They can't keep people from wantin' a drink now and then. Ya might be a bartender yet. At least ya know how." They left the little room and walked to the front door.
Sunrise gave instructions to his brother-in-law and joined Tom on the sidewalk. They walked along without speaking until they were in sight of the train-yard. Sunrise handed the satchel to Tom and gripped him hard on the shoulder. "Send me a card sometime and no gambling on pool!" The man turned sharply and walked away. Tom watched him until he rounded a corner. The locomotive hissed and lumbered along in about ten minutes, pulling its line of creaking boxcars.
New Mexico appeared in the hazy morning light like a watercolor painting, dull-orange and faded, unreachable. Albuquerque was crowded, even in the early morning. The general murmur among the boxcar riders was that it would be a long layover. The ride had been a slow one and the floor had seemed unusually hard. The railroad had many crews working along the line, shoring up the road-bed and replacing sections of track. There had been many delays.
Tom stretched his muscles and thought a long walk might bring his bones back to their accustomed positions. He could see that the paying crowd around the distant station was mostly white. The folks he rode with were Mexicans and Indians, a few Negroes. He picked up his satchel and walked into town.
He decided to treat himself to breakfast and stepped into a small café. He had saved most of the money Sunrise had given him, and it was time for a small luxury. The little café was busy, like the rest of the town, but he saw a vacant chair at a table. He sat down and put his satchel between his feet. The man seated across from him had bright red hair and a little sandy mustache. He was reading a folded newspaper while he ate, but glanced up when Tom sat down. "Howdy," the man said. "You can have the paper in a minute. I'm about done with it."
"That's all right," said Tom. He studied the large menu tacked on the wall. A waitress came and took Tom's order and left him a glass of water. He looked around the small room and saw several Mexican people he had ridden with. They saw him and nodded. The man across the table saw the exchange.
"You live around here?" he asked.
"No," Tom said.
"People think I'm nosy. I guess I am. I'm a drummer salesman, you know, so I'm always talking to people. If I bother you, I'll shut up." The man smiled while he spoke, and showed white teeth.
"I don't mind," said Tom.
"Sometimes people think I'm going to try to sell them something, but I just like to talk, even when I'm not selling anything."
"That's all right, sir. I don't mind listening."
"You see, I watch a lot of things that go on - maybe I am nosy! I don't mean any harm by it. Like, I watch you sit down with your bag, so I figure you're coming or going. Then I watch you nodding to people like they're friends of yours and I figure you've been someplace and now you're home. See what I mean?" The red-haired man looked like he had solved a little puzzle and was pleased with himself.
"I just saw some folks I was on the train with. I think they live here. I'm just passing through." The man looked a little disappointed, but shook his head and chuckled.
"Well, I can't get 'em right all the time, I guess. How far you going, if you don't mind my being nosy again?" The waitress came with Tom's plate and went away.
"Oh, California, I guess," Tom said. The red-haired man watched Tom while he ate. He had more coffee and read his paper until Tom had finished eating. They got up and paid the woman at the register.
As he was eating, Tom had watched the other customers. He had not been in a café before, and the procedure was further education for him. After he had paid the woman he walked to the table and left a nickel tip next to his plate. It made him feel that he had truly entered a new and exciting life. The red-haired man walked over and left a dime.
When they were outside, the man pointed at a car parked across the street. "That's my car," he said. "I want to offer you a business deal. It came to me while you were eating. See what you think. My wife used to travel with me and we shared the driving, so one of us could catch some sleep and we would still be on the move. Well, now we've got a couple kids, boy and a girl. I've got to do all the driving, and I need some rest. Come on and look at the car." They crossed the pavement and walked around the automobile while the man continued to talk.
"She's a T-Model, as you can see, twenty-horse and a mother-in-law seat behind. That's where I get a nap when I can. O.K, so what's your name, by the way? Mine's Henry." He put out a freckled hand and Tom shook it.
"O.K, Tom, here goes. Oh, you know how to drive, don't you?"
"No, sir, I never learned." Henry merely waved his hands, like he was shooing a fly away.
"That's nothing, that's nothing. We can take care of that. The deal is, Tom, I'm going west, which is where California is. If you'll come along and share the driving, the trip won't cost you a cent. We can trade off driving and sleeping and keep moving right along; won't have to stop except for food and water and gasoline. What do you say, Tom?" Henry looked up hopefully at the tall young man.
Tom weighed things in his mind. The back seat of the car had to be softer than the floor of a boxcar, even the ones with straw. And he would still be traveling for free. Plus he would learn to drive an automobile, and he was confident that he would need this knowledge in his new life.
"Let's give it a try, Mister uh, Henry." They shook hands again.
"Get in over there, Tom. Let's get 'er out on the road and I'll show you what to do, nothing to it!"
So the man got the car started and turned off the asphalt street and onto the dirt road that headed west. Tom looked at sage and cactus and wildflowers and smelled the fragrant air. This wasn't going to be at all like traveling on a train. The wind was in his face and he was moving west.
"All right, Tom. O.K. Let me start over. I guess if you've never been around automobiles much this stuff is pretty confusing." Tom's brow was furrowed and his eyes were narrowed. His mouth was a little open. Henry had pulled over at a wide place in the road and tried to explain the workings of a Model T Ford. He tried again. "O.K, have you ever been around machinery at all?" Tom's brow smoothed a little.
"Well, my pa's baler gets tangled once in a while and I take it apart and get it working. The seeder has plates and gears that I have to tear into to get it going again. The " Henry waved his hands.
"Good, good! Then you know something about mechanical things. Now, let me try again. O.K, wait! Here, now. I know what to do. Let's start 'er up." Tom was behind the wheel. Henry reached over and turned on the ignition and jerked the handbrake on. "Always, always have the handbrake on! Now, retard the spark. O.K, follow me!"
The man jumped out of the car and ran around to the front. Tom stood next to him. Henry put the crank handle in the hole under the radiator. There was a wire sticking through the lower part of the radiator, with a loop in it. He pulled the wire forward and gripped the crank handle. With the thumb of his hand pointed outward he gave a sudden upward jerk of the crank and the engine coughed roughly and spluttered to life. While the engine struggled Henry ran around to the driver's side and pulled the spark lever down. The little engine smoothed to a ticketing purr.
The man stopped momentarily and wiped the perspiration from his forehead. Then he motioned for Tom to get behind the wheel. "Now," he said, back in the passenger's seat, "hold onto the handbrake, let it go, just a bit. Now, push down on the left pedal, all the way down. Do you feel anything in the handbrake?" Tom, eyes wide, nodded vigorously. "O.K, that means she's in low gear. I'm going to give 'er a little gas." He reached for the right-hand lever on the steering column and moved it slightly. The engine accelerated accordingly. "O.K, let go the handbrake, easy!" The car moved forward smoothly.
"Now take your foot off all the way." The momentum increased greatly and Tom's eyes grew wider. "Just watch where we're going and steer this thing! Grab the wheel, boy!" Tom steered anxiously and the car veered wildly for a few yards until the action and reaction became clear to him. He braked the car and stopped. After a few more starts and stops, he just kept going.
Tom began breathing normally and moved about in the seat to a more comfortable position. He could feel that his face was smiling, and the smile broadened. The normal redness returned to Henry's face and he began, calmly, to explain what further adjustments Tom might need to make as the trip progressed. After a while he told Tom to stop.
They got out and walked about, stretching and grunting. They untied the top and unfurled it, pulling it forward until they could attach it to the windshield. Henry removed the front seat, exposing the fuel tank. He twisted off the cap and lowered a stick into the tank to measure the content. "Still got about half," he said. "Gallup is not too far now. They have a couple of filling stations. We're going to start climbing pretty soon. Hope the wind stays down; lots of wind in this country."
After the rest break they cranked the car to life and soon passed a sign that announced they were crossing the Continental Divide. Not long after that the wind began buffeting them as they climbed the rutted road into Gallup. After Henry filled the fuel tank they found a small grocery store and purchased a few snacks to eat along the way. Tom was again at the wheel and Henry had climbed into the back.
"Henry?" Tom called over his shoulder. "What is it that you sell?" The man reached down and patted a canvas-covered bundle on the floor.
"Two things, really; I sell mostly the Homemakers Friend. It's a carpet sweeper. It's got wheels and a roller with bristles on it that picks up dirt. I'll show you later. When I take it in a house I also carry a stack of carpet samples. They call them swatches. I put a swatch down on the lady's floor and pour dirt or sand on it and then clean it with the sweeper.
"I don't say anything about the swatch, but just keep talking about what a good job the sweeper is doing. Then I'll lay the other swatches around and go through the procedure again. Usually the little piece of carpet is so much nicer and brighter than the woman's carpet that she has to ask me where I got my samples. I give her all the information. Usually she just buys the sweeper. Once in a while, though, I hit the jackpot and get an order for a house-full of carpet, too." After a few minutes Tom looked over his shoulder and saw the man was asleep.
The light was beginning to pale in the western sky and the diminishing wind brought the warm, friendly smell of pine trees. As he was enjoying the coming evening Tom noticed the steering wheel was becoming harder to turn. He pulled to the side of the road and turned the engine off. He walked around the car and found both front tires nearly flat.
"What did you do now, Tom?" Henry was sitting up in back, yawning and smiling. "O.K, you're always going on about new experiences. Well, here's another one for you. You're going to learn how to patch a tire!" Henry jumped out of the car and opened the trunk that was strapped to the rear of the car. He brought out a box and a lantern. "Come on!"
The lantern was lit and set on the bank next to the car. By the time the car was jacked and the tires off it was dark, mountain dark. Henry and Tom dismounted, patched, inflated and remounted the tires. "Tell you what, Tom. We're getting close to Winslow. Let's get on in there and have a meal. We'll sleep in the car and tomorrow we'll take a swim in the Little Colorado. It's right near there. Get an early start and make the climb to Flagstaff. After that, it's downhill to California. Get in, I'll crank. Retard the spark. Remember the brake!"
In the fresh mountain morning air the men shivered next to the car as they dried off and dressed. Tom dug into the satchel for a clean pair of socks. He saw the top of one and pulled at it. It resisted, as though caught on something. When he pulled it free it was heavy. Something was in the toe of the sock and Tom emptied it onto the seat of the car. Twenty silver dollars tumbled out. While Henry muttered in the background, Tom stared at the money. Sunrise! He had carried the satchel, and had lingered inside the Emporium to speak to his brother-in-law. Sunrise had walked him to the tracks and said goodbye, quickly. He had wanted Tom to send him a card sometime.
Tom stood looking at the silver dollars when Henry spoke. "Damn, kid! Put that away somewhere! In times like these there's a whole bunch of people who'd knock you in the head for less than that! Damn!" Henry was rubbing his bright red hair with a towel. "Pack that away!"
So Tom told Henry about Sunrise, and leaving Texas, and how the money must have gotten into his satchel. When the Model T was packed and the water-bag on the front bumper refilled Henry drove back to the café where they had had dinner. "That Sunrise, back in Amarillo," said Henry, "sounds like a good man. Be sure you write to him." They parked in front of the café again. "They serve good breakfasts here, too."
The car made slow progress up the grade, but finally Flagstaff appeared and they stopped for gas and food. "Not too much further to Kingman," Henry said. "Beyond that and you can start looking for the river. That'll be the Colorado. And right across that is California. We'll stop in Needles."
After the lush pine forests of Arizona, Tom was not impressed with California. They were in the desert again. When they left Needles it was Tom's turn to sleep. He hoped things would look different when he awoke.
Over the next few hundred miles Henry made several business stops, but as the scenery had changed, so had Tom's impression of this land: oranges, lemons, enormous groves, pecans, figs, fields of vegetables that met the horizon.
The large white house Henry had entered this time was surrounded by a grove of orange trees. The sweet smell of blossoms could almost be tasted. Henry came back to the car, patting his coat pocket. "Good customer," he beamed, "this year carpeting for the downstairs, next year the upstairs. I'm going to buy a Pierce-Arrow, if the wife goes along with it!"
After his good mood at the farm-house, Henry was quiet for a long time. He didn't speak until he pulled the car into a big filling-station. "Well, Tom, this is the part of the trip I always look forward to. This is Fresno. I live east of town a couple of miles."
Tom smiled at the man's uneasiness. "You're home, Henry!"
"In just a few more minutes, I will be." Henry looked out the windshield and then back at Tom. "You want to come home and meet my family? Or are you on your way?"
Tom nodded. "I'd like to meet your wife and children someday, Henry. But right now, could you tell me which way to the train station? I've been studying about it, and looking at the map along the way. I'm going to buy a ticket, just for fun. I'd like to see what it's like to ride in a train-seat." Henry's red face stretched into a smile.
"I'll ride you there, Tom. Have you decided where you're going?"
"Merced. Once I get there I'll look over Modesto and Stockton. I heard they pick a lot of peaches there, and I can get a job." Henry reached in his coat pocket and gave Tom a card. He was smiling and shaking his head.
"Tom, Merced is just ten or twelve miles from here. Did you know that? Why, you'll be over for a visit before you know it. This is my business card, got my address on it. I'll have a telephone pretty soon. You write me and I'll send my number. And don't forget about writing to Sunrise!"
"I won't forget." Tom picked up his satchel and shook Henry's hand. He watched until the car was out of sight, then walked slowly to the ticket office. He had felt a little sad about saying goodbye, but when the agent handed him his first train ticket he was smiling again. He felt that an era had ended and another piece of life had begun. He was in charge of his life, and was finding his direction.
The women in the packing shed were busy sorting peaches into various bins. Some of the fruit would go for fresh-market grocery sales and some to processing plants for jams and jellies. It was nearly time for morning break and the field trucks were overdue. Mr. Bailey was the packing-shed foreman and was putting on a little show of importance for the new girl.
She was short, shorter even than the foreman. Her hair was dark and curly, her eyes light blue. She sat at the front of the shed, nearest to the dock. The man took out his watch and frowned at it. Then he stood, hands on hips, looking down the road that ran between the orchards. He stood where most of the other packers could not see him.
Three trucks finally pulled alongside the dock and parked, engines running. The drivers jumped out and began unloading the crates. Tom drove the third truck and he and the other drivers began, as a team, unloading the first truck. When they had stacked the crates of fruit close to the packing area they began unloading the second truck. They worked fast so they could return to the orchards and join the picking crew for their break.
Mr. Bailey saw they were nearly finished and approached Matthew, the driver of the first truck. The foreman still had his hands on his hips and tried to get Matthew's attention.
"When you get back you tell your boss I want these peaches here before break! You don't have to be fooling around on the road so long! There's no sense in your being late all the time!" Matthew was well into his fifties and had worked for the owner since he was a young man. He didn't like Mr. Bailey; furthermore, the little man was not his boss.
"You wanna talk to my boss, I'll go get him for you!"
"You just tell him what I said. I'm tired of waiting all day for you to get here!"
Mr. Bailey glanced quickly to see if his intended audience was watching. Many of the packers were now watching, some shaking their heads.
Matthew was not afraid of the foreman. He turned to look at the other drivers, Felipe and Tom. He jerked his thumb at Mr. Bailey.
"You boys don't have to listen to this little feller. He's just tryin' to show off for the ladies. We got tortillas and beans waitin'. ¡Vamanos!" Matthew climbed into the lead truck and pulled away, Felipe following. They rattled away from the dock. Mr. Bailey was red-faced, and felt the need to attack someone. While he glared at the trucks disappearing down the road, Tom reached into the cab of his truck. He walked by the foreman and into the shed.
Two older women smiled as he approached. One was a large black woman and next to her was a large white woman. Tom placed small paper bags in front of each of them and walked away. "Thank you, honey!" the black woman said loudly. The other woman just smiled and waved.
There were thirty-eight women in the shed, which resembled a theatre stage built atop a four-foot-high foundation. Counters ran along the walls and the packers sat on stools behind the counters. The loading dock was the open front of the shed. The oldest employees were the black woman, Mary, and her longtime friend, Ruth. Their stools were behind the center counter. They were also senior employees, having started working for the owner's father. Their work habits set the standard for the others.
It was obvious that Mr. Bailey didn't know the importance the owner placed on the opinions of these long-time employees. It was one of the first things Tom had learned. He also knew Mary liked chocolate, while Ruth was partial to jelly-beans. He had researched the important things.
As Tom walked by the new girl he slowed enough to place a tin cup in front of her. It had a red rose in it. "Mornin'," he said over his shoulder.
"Good morning," she said. Tom ran for his truck and jumped in. He pulled forward, smiling and pushing the button of the klaxon horn as he drove by the foreman. Most of the women in the shed smiled and many waved. Mr. Bailey's face was very hot; his lips were tightly compressed. He did not want to turn and face the packers, so he left the dock and walked around the building where he would stand under a tree until the break was over.
Mary and Ruth walked to the front of the shed, near the new girl. "I wonder is that young feller lookin' fer a mama to raise him?"
"Maybe," said Ruth, "if mama has a daughter that can cook!" The women shook with laughter and moved closer to the girl. "Can you cook, girl?" But the new girl just folded her arms and looked at her feet.
"Now, look here," said Mary, "we're just teasin' you, child! Don't you know that? Now, come on, come on back here with us. We got plenty of coffee, an' break is over when we want it to be!"
Mr. Bailey finally entered the shed with his hands on his hips, glowering. "We got peaches sittin' in the sun! I haven't heard this is a holiday! Let's get back to work!" The man walked up and down the dock and around to the back counter. He was breathing hard and his heart was pounding. To his thinking, it was time for a showdown with these fat old women.
"All right, you two - maybe some people think you're special, but I say it's time to start work, right now! And you, missy, get on to your place! I can have another girl here in the morning who wants to work!" The shed was quiet and the girl walked quickly to her stool. The foreman walked after her, still berating her. She stood facing him with her nose in the air, blue eyes narrowed.
The little foreman gagged as his collar was yanked backward. Mary twisted him around and poked a large finger in his chest. Ruth stood next to her, their shoulders touching, a formidable team. "Bailey, you listen! You listen to me! You been a damn fool ever since you been here! But this here is the end of the line!" Ruth had her big fists clenched in front of her and her eyes were wide.
Mary poked the man again and he winced. Mary's eyes were round and brown and the whites were slightly bloodshot. "You gone too far, little man. You ain't got just me and Ruthie to worry about; that young man, Tom, the truck-driver. I can see me a country boy right off! I see them big hands when he's carryin' them crates an' I know he's been wrasslin' mules an' skinnin' hogs an' plowin' fields his whole life! An' now you're yellin' at this girl! Can't you see nothin'? That boy might just stick you in the ground like a peg!"
Bailey's face had gone from blotchy red to a rabbit-white. He looked like he might be sick. The two old women took him by the arms and walked him to the edge of the dock, where they encouraged him to sit down.
The sounds of movement soon began and the shed was active again. The two senior women passed among the other packers, calming and soothing, tuning the operation to a steady rhythm. They spoke a few gentle words to the new girl, furthering her education, then returned to their stools. Their faces were benign and matronly. When Mr. Bailey entered the shed again he walked slowly along the sorting line. As he slowed in front of Mary and Ruth the women each gave him a piece of candy. He put his hands in his pockets and walked outside and stood under the tree.
The girl worked steadily, occasionally glancing at her rose, then down the furrowed road that led between the trees, toward the orchards. The trucks would be back before the lunch-time break. She smiled as she worked, as several of the older women noted.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Al Carty. All rights reserved.