From The Orchard Stories
Travis Cunningham sat on the side of the highway like a dusty wraith in the noonday sun. Tangled hair the color of straw stabbed out from under his battered hat. His weathered skin like old wood aged him beyond his scant twenty years. Hunger was on him like plague. Hunger was loose and ranging the landscape, following the wind that howled out of the plains, whirling everything into a maelstrom of hopelessness. The wind had blown Travis from Oklahoma like so many of his ilk and set him adrift into the parched wild west. So he found himself hungry and frightened on the road to Seligman, Arizona, begging and hitchhiking his solitary way across the high desert to the Promised Land.
Yesterday, he’d drawn a bead on the prominence of the San Francisco Peaks of Flagstaff, using it like the pilgrims of the century past to mark his slow progress west. Its broken peaks shone white in the cobalt blue of the weird Arizona sky, so blue it made him dizzy. His hunger angled on him like a cunning opponent, gnawing at his belly like an eternal question. The road was lousy with the dispossessed; broken people with a cast of grey and a pall of dust about them, their jaws set, their teeth gritted in an unnatural determination borne of desperation and fear and Travis had sickened of them.
Route 66 was the way west, the only way west, and it was crawling with poverty and want. So when the road T’d at Ash Fork before he ever made it to Seligman he lit south to lose the crowd. He liked the sound of the word “Prescott” painted on a weathered sign and had decided then to head south and shake the losers.
But the road from Ash Fork south to Prescott was as empty as 66 was full and he questioned the wisdom of his decision as he sat on the side of the road in the weeds. The air was tinder dry and suffused with pinon and juniper. Flagstaff had been heavy with Ponderosa forest growing thick on the shoulders of the uplift that was the big mountain. The town had smelled of woodsmoke and locomotives and everywhere the warm and homey aroma of the pines. Like honey and butterscotch. Here on the high desert road down to Prescott, the forest had given to scrub and the land was dry. The air cracked his nostrils and the cold sun, unstunted by clouds, beat on his battered hat pulled low over his eyes.
He shifted his gaze up the road and in the unbroken distance saw a solitary stranger walking slowly his way. The wind freshened and coursing through the gnarled pinon made a muted whisper. He watched the stranger intently, fixed, as he seemed, in the shimmering distance that made him look like a quivering haint on the horizon, weirdly like he was looking at him through water. Travis betrayed no interest and felt the steady rising of blood in his head as he tracked his slow pace up the desolate road.
“Hello, stranger,” he said flatly to the man when he came close.
The stranger stopped and fixed Travis’ gaze for a few seconds. The stranger finally said, “Hello,” vacantly as if he had been startled dumbly out of a trance. He was gaunt as the land through which he walked. The man looked a long time at Travis and said absently, “I been walking quite a spell, I frankly didn’t even see you there. My name’s Barney McCabe.” McCabe reached out his hand. Travis stood and shook it.
Together they traveled south along the lonely highway, walking and hitch-hiking through Drake, then Paulden, where the road crossed over the Big Chino Wash, a big gash in the broken tumble country that spilled down from the height of the Mogollon Rim country from which they had come. From there they hitched a ride into Chino Valley which was dotted with small farms and horses winnowing in high grasslands pastures.
“Citrus orchards,” McCabe said to Travis suddenly, “that’s where you ought to be. In the citrus orchards around Phoenix. Shit, everybody’n their brother’s heading for California. There’s work in the citrus orchards. Course, you’ve gotta be able to work with the Mexicans, but that don’t bother me. A stiff can find work in the orchards.”
Travis walked beside McCabe and pondered. He wasn’t afraid of work. He knew how to farm, especially when the ground stayed put and didn’t blow to hell and gone on the wind.
“I’m telling you, Travis, there ain’t no dust bowl in the orchards,” McCabe said, as if reading Travis’s thoughts. “And it’s warm in Phoenix. Goddamn hot in the summer. But warm today, I’ll reckon. Not like this thin cold that eats through to your bones.” McCabe gathered his desolate coat around his shoulders against the steady wind of the valley.
“You worked in the orchards yourself?” Travis asked.
“Not yet, but I aim to,” McCabe said.
They spent the night in a church in Prescott near Whiskey Row off the Courthouse Square. Travis stayed warm enough to sleep and was able to get something to eat for listening to the god sermon. The preacher was a curiosity, more cowboy than parson, short on emasculated meekness and long on hard living in Arizona. This was cowboy country and the preacher looked like he could ride a horse.
But Travis slept fitfully even after the long hard miles he’d logged and the dinner he’d eaten. He was haunted by pesky memories of home and the injustice of having to make tracks for parts unknown. He was scared. Scared to death. The god sermon was about man’s duty to his fellow man in this period of hard times and it was about work, hard honest work. Work that perfected a man and which was his duty to God. The preacher was long on work and seemed to have missed the news that there just wasn’t enough of it to go around. For Travis it was not a lack of willingness but a lack of availability. Hell, if there’d been work, he’d still be at home, not in this god-forsaken god-fearing flophouse in the middle of nowhere, Arizona. This place had just barely been wrenched from the hands of the Indians who had lived here since God created the place. He felt like he had been dropped into the middle of the wild frontier.
“Work perfects a man,” the preacher had said, “like fire tempers glass and steel, making a finer and more useful a tool for His work.” No, Travis wasn’t afraid of work, he was afraid of not having any and he was afraid of starvation. Starvation works a powerful robbery on a man’s dignity and the end was about as inglorious as it got. He was not above work, but he was not above stealing if he had to. Or worse. If he had to. But he’d rather do the former than resort to the latter, no matter how grim things got.
The hard work of stealing this very land from its rightful occupants had been the business of theft and plunder on a grand scale, the likes of which had never been equaled in human history. The sheer number of millions of acres that were taken from the Indians trumped any grand plundering from time immemorial. That had been real work. And the plunder went on. The Cunningham home place in the hills outside of Norman had gone the way of the holdings of the Pawnee and the Apache and the Cherokee. Though no Indian blood ran in his veins he felt in his the icy chill they did when the soil within which his roots were sunk was ripped out from under him by the churning of the sky and the wind and by the treachery of the banks. Eviction papers issued like so much confetti on the infernal wind, causing a shuddering foreboding to murmur about the countryside. The Oklahoma hills groaned with the terror born of the certainty of injustice, defying calculation and remedy. It was not the mere land and the crops and the livestock that withered under this furious blast, it was the people too who withered and began to die. The ice in his veins was born from the fury of that injustice and from the dying that began to take place when the Cunninghams were ripped from the soil as by an enormous conscienceless spade that glinted in the dust covered sun like a sickle in the hand of some ferocious pitiless god.
McCabe woke Travis from his tormented sleep and they went to see the cowboy preacher and the rest of the dispossessed as they sat down for hotcakes and coffee. McCabe put his mouth to Travis’ ear and whispered, “I don’t mind this guy’s hospitality, but if he were in my house telling me this shit, I tell him to go fuck himself while I was throwing him into the street.” McCabe stared hard and straight at Travis after he said this, making Travis guess his sense, then gave the suggestion of a grin. He watched Travis steadily as he had on the road the day before and took a pull from his coffee cup. “Finish your chow, and get plenty of it in you, then we’re bound for Phoenix,” McCabe said, at last releasing Travis’ gaze, “No grass growing under these stiffs’ feets. No, sir.”
The Courthouse in Prescott was an imposing gentlemanly building; towering four stories and dominating the center of town like an enormous lion lying regally on its square shoulders. It was whitewashed and Georgian with ample and grand columned portals facing each of the points of the compass. It was girdled about by a fair green shaded by enormous cottonwoods that cozied the park and made one forget that important matters of the law were being disputed within the chambers of the mansion at its center. McCabe and Travis sauntered slowly out of town, watching sullenly the careful eyes of the law who watched them back in turn. Travis took in the Courthouse passively, acquiescing to it as he would to a church, giving deference to its solemnity and tacitly acknowledging with his grudging respect it righteous propriety in the grand scheme.
McCabe gave it little notice, and tersely snapped, “Last place you’ll find me is in a goddamn courthouse at the mercy of fancy talking lawyers sucking up to drunken judges on the take. None of that for me. They’d have to kill me before they got me into Court.” He laughed quietly to himself after he said it, walking steadily out of town with Travis at his side, vaguely perplexed.
The tortured road from Prescott down to Phoenix led them through the Bradshaw Mountains by way of Crown King. The mountains had been pocked by miners who’d staked claims helter-skelter throughout the forested canyons, working claims that paid and some that didn’t. The claims became squatters camps for vagabonds who holed up here in the on the outskirts of civility and civilization. Life here was hard and brutish. The road devoured automobiles that drove it infrequently, bouncing and groaning over the ruts and washouts. Travis and McCabe spent the day walking and hatching plans for Phoenix. McCabe was confident of work, not Travis. The six weeks since the banks took his home had made him hard and bitter. He expected the worst.
“I can see myself in them groves, with the fruit just hanging down to the ground, yes sir. You’ll see,” said McCabe as he sauntered along the road, his hands swinging at his sides. “It’ll be damn near impossible to starve even if they don’t pay for shit. Hell, we can just eat off the trees.”
“What are you talking about, Barney?” Travis said. “First of all, those orchards is owned by somebody and they’re damn sure not going to let stiffs come along and rob them. You can’t live on oranges alone anyhow, the more you eat the hungrier you get. And another thing, it ain’t even spring yet, there won’t be a ripe lemon in the whole valley, unless I don’t know nothing about how things grow. You weren’t raised on no farm, that’s for damn sure. Where’d you get all these silly notions about citrus orchards, anyway?”
McCabe ignored Travis and walked along the road feigning nonchalance, looking at the sun streaming through the trees on the forested hills and up the valley through which the little creek was running high with the early run-off. The wind was still here in the woods, which was good; his tattered coat was no proof against it. But the trees kept the sun from his shoulders and he shivered in the morning shade. They hadn’t made very good time, walking all the way. The two automobiles that passed showed no inclination to stop. Instead, the drivers gave the two young men the look of faint disapproval; the way comfort looks at disadvantage, through the prism of twisted guilt, imputing to these less fortunate a measure of blame for their sad circumstance. Sometimes it rose to the level of outright hostility. It were as if the folks with privilege were angry at the spectacle of so much want, preferring if they could, to obliterate altogether from their sight the stern reality of inequity. When that failed they reacted by despising the poor for making them feel the discomfort born of unfairness. For it caused them to think things they did not want to think. Like did they really deserve their good fortune and if so, for what? The honest ones, and few could hide from their true selves, knew that it was dumb luck who was down and out and who was not. To think too long on it made them worry for the day when the tables would be turned.
Along the road were the squatters camps, for they were little more than that, hiding behind the facade of mining claims, taking space from Uncle Sam on the Great Public Domain. Feigning, too, compliance with the law that held that if a man located a claim and improved it and could show that the mine paid, he could patent the land, take it to himself for his labors. Take it for free, in exchange for the costs of extraction. But these men were miners in no way, the ones who lived in little hobo camps along the road, who made their meager living by poaching and stealing and doing odd jobs when they could. Hard time hunger was ravaging the land. It was 1935.
“The hell I don’t know about farming,” McCabe said, after a long time during which the two had walked in silence. “It don’t take no genius to know that the desert where the orchards are has an early spring the likes of you would never know about. Show what you know, the fruit ripens in the winter. In the winter, you dumb Oakie, and they harvest from December to March. Why, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit, there’s still a lot of picking work for the two of us if we could just get down off this mountain.”
“Never call me a dumb Oakie, you smart-ass son of a bitch,” Travis hissed menacingly, his blood hot as he took this onslaught from McCabe. “Let me tell you something, brother, we don’t know each other well enough for me to take that kind of shit out of your mouth. So you try to be civil, and I’ll try not to tear your head off.”
“OK, you bet, partner,” McCabe said, quickly, surprised, contrite. “No disrespect. I’m just trying to keep my hopes up this ain’t just another dead-end for me. It’s too long I haven’t known how things are going to pan out and I want this plan to work. And I’d like you to buddy up with me so I don’t have to go it alone like I have been. I’m telling you, I think this is going to be alright. I’m seeing a little bit of prosperity for us, partner. I just know it’ll be a good time. I’m not telling you to stick with me and I won’t take responsibility if the whole thing turns out a bust, but I figure you and me are going the same direction, we might as well throw in together. The last thing I want to do is get you mad and to start fighting with you. Hell, I barely got enough fight in me to get to Phoenix for the work. I don’t want to be pissing it away up here in the mines, so’s I wind up with a busted head and no good to no one. I’m truly sorry if I hurt your feelings. I won’t call you a dumb Oakie anymore. What are you, anyway, a dumb Arkie?” McCabe reached over and popped Travis’ hat off his head and ran down the road laughing.
The night came down quickly on the rutted road. No one had stopped to give them a lift. Each of them had a pack with blankets and sleeping bags, but the chill in the air worried Travis. He’d spent too many cold nights on the road in the weeks since he left Oklahoma, he didn’t look forward to another here in the mountains. On the high plateau across western New Mexico and in the Indian Country of northern Arizona, the road had been thick with his people and he had always managed to find a big camp and a fire and a warm place to lay his head. Here in the Bradshaws alone with McCabe, he began to feel a disquieting heartache for all he had left, for all that had been taken from him. He didn’t cry anymore, hadn’t since he was fourteen when his father whipped him the last time. But he felt like it sometimes when he felt crippled by loss. He raged at the circumstance that brought him to this perilous place, poised for what seemed like forever on the brink of huge uncertainty, with the gaping canyon of starvation and destitution opening up on all sides.
The fancy man who came to the farm, dressed like a Saturday night out, carried with him a fancy downtown attaché case full of papers from the court and the bank and asked to see the old man. The old man wasn’t home, he’d said. He was in the fields across the valley, but his mother was home. She’d do, the fancy man said. The fancy man gave his mother the notice of eviction, Travis standing next to her, and he watched the bewilderment come across her face as if the soft handed son-of-a-bitch had taken a whip to her. Travis didn’t understand the man who spoke in slick condescending tones. His words were like pokes in the eye. His words spoke of the inevitability of eviction and what that meant. That it meant ruin and dislocation and the horror of loss. When Travis protested with respectful deference, the fancy man ridiculed him for not understanding the words’ plain meaning. The plain meaning of the words written on the eviction notice. “What’s the matter, you dumb Oakie,” the man said, “can’t you read?” That raised the blood in his ears right quickly. Where he came from those were fighting words. When the man wouldn’t stop his ridicule or have the good sense to apologize, Travis grabbed a tire iron and clipped the fancy man viciously up the side of his head. He hit him hard like he meant it, blind from the fury of his insults and deaf from the blood rushing in his own ears like a herd of crashing freight trains that drowned the wails of the man screaming for his life down on the ground. His mother, disconsolate and hysterical. It was after that that Travis had lit out. He’d told his sister and his two younger brothers that he’d find the family after he’d found work, he didn’t know where, but he’d write them at their cousins’ address in San Bernardino, California. For right now and for all time, Travis had to get away, one step ahead of the law and the banks.
That tire iron killed the fancy man dead as hell three days later.
He thought of all this as the sun westered into the mountains, casting cold shadows across the road. The trees were silhouettes in the twilight.
McCabe said, “Let’s find us a place to camp, partner. You start looking for wood. It’s going to be cold tonight, let’s get working on making the best of it while the sun shines.” Travis unloaded his pack in a little clearing off the road close to the creek and began picking up dry tinder in the woods.
They ate bread and beans and sat close to the fire. They could see in the distance, through the thick trees, the fires of the outlaw squatter camps. The night was cold and thin in the mountains and the wood smoke smelled of piney pitch. The stars through the trees ice crystals in candlelight.
“I’ve got no family,” McCabe said. “I don’t know if that makes it harder or easier than for someone like you. I’ve got no one to worry about and no one to worry about me. My folks died when I was twelve years old. I stayed a while in the church orphanage in Iowa until I was sixteen, then I lit out. I’ve been on my own ever since. Haven’t stayed put long enough anywhere to call home and what with no work nowhere, I just keep moving. I been on the road for near a year and a half. From Seattle to Michigan and then California for a while, but that place is mean and crowded. So I come to Arizona and see about the citrus orchards.”
“No people at all?” Travis asked.
“None at all,” McCabe said. “No brothers, no sisters. I expect I’ve got cousins and aunts and uncles somewhere, but they never bothered to fetch me from the orphanage, so I got no feelings for them. I had a girl in Seattle for a while, and one in San Jose, where I was picking peaches, but that’s all about heart-ache and I don’t need any part of that. If I dropped off the face of the earth right now, nobody’d be the wiser or the sadder for it.”
Word came down from Oklahoma City that the law was looking for Travis and the farm was lousy with State Troopers who charged his mother and father with knowingly harboring a capital felon. Travis hid in Yarnell’s barn, old man Yarnell none the wiser for it, so when the Troopers questioned him he honestly told them he had no idea where Travis was. He’d chucked his clothes and burned them, obliterating for all time any evidence of the fancy man’s blood. Travis’ sister Molly had come to Yarnell’s barn in the night in the thick of the investigation with a change of clothes, braving the risk of discovery and bearing news of the catastrophe that had come to visit the Cunninghams.
“Daddy’s in jail and they’re talking they’re gonna take momma in too,” she said. “They’re saying he knows where you’re hiding and they’ll keep him in ‘til he rots or tells them, don’t make no never mind to them. Travis, you just gotta get out of here now. Go far away. We love you. We all know you did what you thought you had to. We’ll keep mum to protect you, but you gotta go. Leave the state, ain’t no good for anyone anymore anyway. Go west where there’s work. Write us in San Bernardino. Change your name. We’re all done here. Soon’s daddy waits ‘em out in jail, we’re all bound for California. We’re all done here.”
Travis didn’t know where the Lord had led his family, he only knew that the banks had caused all the trouble and that no one but they were to blame. He hadn’t tried his cousins yet but planned to soon. He needed to change his name, change his face.
* * *
The moon was over the wooded hill in the deepest part of the dark morning and Travis woke frozen on the ground. He looked around him in the trees and saw dimly the orange glow of the spent fires of the outlaw camps far away in the woods. He knew precisely what he had to do. It was all the banks’ fault anyway. He snaked out of his bedroll and shook from the chill in the silent darkness. McCabe was breathing heavily when he stoned him solemnly on the back of the head. “Nothin’ personal,” Travis whispered. McCabe sighed hugely when the blow struck, but that was all. Travis took the rock to his head one more time with a grunting heft and this time it sank into his mushy skull like into a cantaloupe. Travis carried McCabe into the trees and worked until the sun hinted at the eastern hills, then buried him naked. He washed his own clothes in the creek, changed into Barney McCabe’s clothes and into Barney McCabe’s name and walked down the road to Phoenix in the morning sun.
“He didn’t have no family anyway and besides, it’s all the bank’s fault.” He said to himself flatly as the sun came up over the desert mountains.
Three days later he was picking grapefruit and driving tractor in Gilbert’s orchard. Barney McCabe was a good worker. Kept to himself. Didn’t have any family he said. Raised in an orphanage in Iowa he said.
Copyright© 2010, Thomas Phalen, All rights reserved.