From the Relief Society Magazine, 1943-44 –
By Anna Prince Redd
It was a golden day at El Toro, the first of a delayed spring. Janet stood at the window, her thoughts as far from the day as this Indian trading post home of hers was from civilization. The sun tinted her eyelids and glowed warm against her face. But, though she was nerve-cold, she pushed its small comfort aside and gazed again, rebelliously, into the blue-gold distance. distance that piled up and up into ships and spires and temples in the Monument Valley; into mountains a hundred miles away, yet vividly near and distinct in the sunlight. Not a living thing in sight. Not a sound to echo against the cliffs.
“Is this all there is for me?” she questioned desperately. “This – awful emptiness?” Her hands gripped the stone window ledge and her eyes swam with tears. Why had she ever thought she could be happy in such a place? Even with a husband as dashing and satisfying as Paul it was unendurable. How could a country so vast close in on one so? For three years she had fought it with all her strength, yet it had yielded not an inch. If only she hadn’t met Paul and fallen in love with him! It had seemed so unimportant, then, where she would live. She’d reasoned that husbands could be lured away later. Paul was brilliant, educated, and resourceful; he could make his way in any country. It had taken so little to quiet her fears. Now they confronted her with terrifying insistence.
“Why do I fear it so?” she cried, knowing as always that there was no one to hear. Her father loved every foot of it. Every mound, every cliff, every ancient dwelling. They only frightened her.Tto him they were open books of the past; to her they were walls of a prison. She wished she’d never listened to his glowing tales, then she’d never have come to this country at all. She’d have stayed in Washington, D.C. where she belonged. She’d have stayed and married a nice respectable congressman, or someone, and not have had a thing to worry about.
Summer after summer her father had brought back wonderful tales. Following each archeological expedition he’d say: “Janet, I must take you with me next time,” until he’d finally won out. She’d thrown prudence aside, left Washington in “Cherry Tree Time” – and – and longed for it ever since!
She had felt so sure of herself there in Washington – with Paul as their guest, the center of attraction, telling his tall tales of grandeur and of the empire he and Janet meant to build up – sure of Paul. Once they were married it would be easy to make him see that he belonged in her sphere. And so she had gone to San Juan. now, after three years, she was no nearer leaving it than on the day she had entered it.
“Oh, what’s the use!” she cried, her thoughts suddenly becoming intolerable. “Paul is gone. Juanee is gone. Only Taos and I remain, to wait and wait.” The Indian woman – faithful as a shadow – would have been some company. But she had gone, leaving Janet in the blackest mood she’d ever experienced. If there was a single human sound she could stand it. If, even, the dog would wake up and bark. But Taos was asleep in the sun, like everything else, and oblivious to her misery.
“Taos,” she spoke his name tentatively. “Taos, wake up.”
Taos yawned, stretched, cocked a brown ear and opened one eye, but saw nothing to get excited about.
“See? I may as well be in the Sahara Desert!” Why had she let Juanee go back to camp? she, at least, would have grunted when spoken to. Juanee’s man had gone to the spring roundup with Paul, and Juanee was homesick for her mother’s hogan, so she had gone home. Well, that was something Janet could understand. She was homesick too. Not only homesick for Paul – life without him was intolerable – but homesick for her home. Sick for the sight of green things in the spring. Not just desert green – sharply defined against red rocks that got redder and hotter with every hour of sun – but rain and lawn green. Lawns banked with sunlight on the Potomac; and the white pillars of homes.
Water! Streaming from faucets, instead of standing stagnant, in wooden barrels, or in gritty pockets in the rocks. Water to swim in. Water to waste! Here, in the desert, the sand dyed and stained; swirled and drifted with the wind. Never an hour the same, until you wearied of looking at it. And the first thing you knew you began to drift with it, shriveling up and rolling along until you struck a snag; there you clung until a stronger force dislodged you and sent you reeling again. Nowhere. Everywhere, looking for water!
Janet sighed and turned back into the spacious living room. There at least was familiarity, if not contentment. Her own books and pictures; her own chairs. Outside, the more you looked the more unfamiliar things became. Every day you saw something for the first time and it wearied you. Inside, a fire smouldered; for, though spring was well on its way, the air from the river came in damp and cold. Cold and withholding, like the country it traversed yet failed to nourish. it was this river – the San Juan – that Janet hated more than all the rest.
The house itself was a luxurious den of a place, low and inviting. Broad windows, framing sage and rust flooded the room with light. Chairs stood beside the fireplace, or were placed where they would lure one to the windows; floors, rubbed to show the grain, stained to enhance the knots of pine, gleamed in the firelight. The rooms wandered comfortably in and out of each other, just as El Toro wandered among its outer buildings – the store, the warehouses, the barns, and the corral. These quarreled for an importance they could never achieve. Only El Toro – against a fifty-foot cliff flaming at noon, purpling to shadows at night – could claim that. and sometimes, in the heat, the cliff alone, caught the eye. Isolated from the world by sand, by canyons, by distance, and by God’s design, man’s puny contrivances faded into insignificance – to glow again, as a flicker of candlelight in the darkness following the lurid day.
Janet appraised the house with trained eyes; it was just as it should be, fitting into its surroundings as a hand into a long-used glove. Hate the outside as she would, this was home and she’d hate to leave it.
She looked guiltily around as if her thought had been overheard. It was the first time she had expressed it openly to herself; and daring to think it gave her strength. She would endure this a few months longer because she would not let it dwarf her. But now she had an incentive stronger than herself. An incentive that even Paul would recognize. She would not bring a child up in such a place. When Paul knew she was going to have a baby, then, of course, he’d know they would have to leave El Toro.
A flare of wind brought an acrid odor to Janet’s nostrils. She wrinkled her nose against it from force of habit and went to the door to look out. All the willow an campfire smells in the world, all the odors of wet wool and hair, were baled into the baskets and blankets and hides that were piled to the ceilings in El Toro’s warehouse. Janet surveyed them disdainfully. All this represented the dollars Paul was daily pouring into the banks. it was so ridiculously easy to make money here where there was nothing to spend it for! Paul should be matching wits with his equals, not with savages in a savage country.
All at once Taos began to bark as if he couldn’t contain himself. The sound was so sudden that Janet almost screamed. She spoke to him sharply, but he refused to be quieted. She had never seen him act like that except at Paul’s approach, and Paul was fifty miles away. He and all the other men on the desert, whites and Indians alike, were at the roundup. There was no need to even keep the store open for there was no one to buy. Yet Taos was announcing someone. It wasn’t a warning bark; it was more a puzzled, uneasy delight.
Suddenly there came a sliding, scrambling sound against the cliff back of the house. Taos dashed for it. Janet followed cautiously. When she reached the corner of the house there was Paul, scruffing Taos with both hands and warding off the dog’s too affectionate tongue, stretching his neck to keep his face out of reach, turning laughingly from side to side, enjoying the dog’s greeting.
“Paul!” Janet could hardly speak from surprise.
“Janet!” Paul threw Taos from him and came to Janet with outstretched arms. “Blame the dog anyway!” he laughed. “I nearly break my neck trying to surprise you and he yelps out the whole story!”
“Paul, you scared me. How did you – You didn’t slide down that cliff?”
Even before she asked the question, Janet had taken in the significance of the dangling rope that hung suspended from the top of the cliff nearly down to Paul’s head.
“Sure I slid down the cliff,” Paul answered. “Slid down like a thief. A man has to drop out of the skies to surprise you. You’re so calm and undisturbable.”
Janet looked away. It was hard to meet Paul’s frank, admiring eyes. Calm! Undisturbable! Only a minute ago, alone, afraid, she had wanted to rock the desert out of its eternal complacency. Now, with Paul home again, El Toro was a wonderful place.
She held Paul off to look at him. Brown and lean, he was the essence of masculine attraction. He had the tenderest eyes and the most challenging grin in the world. But, as always, his hold over her was a little annoying. She couldn’t resist a good natured jibe.
“The roundup, Paul?” she said. “You didn’t, by any chance, find that they could get along without you?”
“Without me? I’ll say they couldn’t! Any more than I could get along without you.”
“You win by sheer gallantry! Why, then, are you home? Two full weeks ahead of time.”
“I came for you.”
“Me?” Janet’s monosyllable was equal to Juanee’s clipped speech.
“Yah. Me come. Takum off to mountains. steal squaw. No come back one week. heap like um squaw. All time lonesome –”
“Paul, stop talking Navajo and tell me why you’re home. Is anything wrong?”
“Plenty. I lost some cows on the mesa. That means they’ll have to get along without their top hand for one whole week.”
“Never, we’re going to camp right among them. It’s the Whackies I’m talking about. You’ll love camping for a week.”
“But Paul – ”
“Don’t object, girl, Juanee is on her way home to look after the place.”
Janet wasn’t thinking of the place, but of herself. Would horseback riding be good for her? For the baby?
She slipped out of Paul’s arms. Taos had waited for that and he bounded into them. Paul shoved him aside with his boot. “You’re as big a nuisance as a kid,” he grinned. “Darned if you’re not!”
Janet looked at him quickly, suspiciously. Did Paul know already? Evidently not, for he was blissfully launching into plans for the camping trip. Janet sighed with relief. Paul was such a whirlwind.
“Get some grub together, Jane,” he said affectionately. “We’ve got to pull our stuff up the cliff with the rope. I’ll get some panniers from the store. I couldn’t take time to go twenty miles around the road so I just slid down.” His jaw fell. “And, my north star, how’m I going to get you up!”
“Through the Devil’s Corridor, silly. Had you forgotten that?”
Paul scratched his head reflectively. “I’ve not thought of that crack in more than a year. That’s the most prideful thing at El Toro.”
“You told me so the day you brought me here.” Janet looked at him queerly. “And I thought I’d be the most prideful thing at El Toro.”
“Girl, sometimes I think you don’t like El Toro!”
Paul’s answer startled Janet with its perception. She wanted to say she wished she didn’t, but the words wouldn’t come. You could think and think when you were alone, but you didn’t speak your thoughts to Paul Morgan. At least not the way you thought them. Yet, sometime, that, or something else, had to be said. Paul must be made to understand that you couldn’t bring up a child a million miles from nowhere.
Paul sensed her withdrawal. “I’ll get the panniers from the store,” he said briefly. “Sure you want to come along?”
“Of course I do.” Janet laughed shakily, and Paul grinned his relief.
In a few minutes he was back from the store with the panniers. “I’ll have to go back and empty the mouse traps and fix up a window shade that has come loose. everything in the store will fade. Injuns don’t like pale colors. You pack while I’m doing it. Huh?”
Janet nodded. “Work fast; we’ll have to get up through the Corridor before dark. That crack terrifies me.”
“Nothing scares you, Jan. You’re enough of a mustang for that. And do I like you! Any mail?”
“Nothing important.” Janet’s voice was uncertain. “It’s – it’s on your desk, Paul.”
As soon as Paul was out of sight she sat down weakly. Not afraid! “Paul, you blind idiot, can’t you see that I sleep with fear at my back?”
She got up and examined the panniers. One in each hand she weighed their possibilities. Queer things; she’d never packed one of them but she supposed she could do it. She got the food, bedding, and dishes together and stacked them on the porch, hoping Paul would be back in time to put them in the big canvas bags. But he was still in the store so she went to work on them herself, putting things in the order they would be needed. Lunch cloths, dish towels, sheets, she simply couldn’t sleep in itchy old blankets, and her personal things for one side. Canned goods, bake oven, frying pan for the other.
There, it was done. Paul would be pleased. He hated fussing over details. he liked large scale operations; that was the reason they were constantly involved in things that threatened to swamp them. Still, Paul usually won out, kept ahead of the game. She looked up, flushed and anxious to be off. Now she could get dressed. Why didn’t Paul come?
Half an hour later, slim legs encased in riding pants, a soft shirt under her jacket, Janet stood waiting. Still no Paul. The sun was getting low. Why didn’t he hurry? She ran along the board walk to the store, expecting to see Paul going about locking up. What she saw was his big boots sticking up above his desk, his nice long frame slanted back into his office chair. He was sound asleep!
For a second she was angry. how like a man! Then she saw the tired sag of his whole body. he looked years older, unmasked that way in sleep. She’d heard cowboys say that they were in for a couple of weeks in the saddle, but she hadn’t taken it literally. Paul must not have slept for days.
“Paul! Paul, wake up!” Janet touched his rough cheek gently. Paul didn’t move, and she hadn’t the heart to call again. She sat down on a sack of wool, regardless of her riding suit, and watched him sleep. Truly it was a process. How could anyone rest, and work at it so hard? In another minute she was giggling. He looked so funny!
A great snore shook, Paul from stem to stern; he shuddered and opened his eyes, still clogged with sleep. Janet laughed again. “Paul, you big goof!”
Paul sighed regretfully. “For Pete’s sake, I’ve been asleep.”
“It’s a good thing I didn’t see you for the first time while you were asleep, or you’d have been a bachelor yet. Unless –”
“Unless what?” Paul winked the sleep out of his brain.
“Unless you’d married someone else.”
That was one of the reasons she tortured herself hourly by staying in a place she hated – his utter disbelief that he could ever have married anyone else. In spite of the country it made being together worth while.
“I’m a mug to go to sleep, wasting time that I could spend with you!” He kissed her and they dashed for the house.
“I have the panniers all packed, Paul.”
“Fine! Save a lot of time.” Paul surveyed the panniers. He took one in each hand, balanced one, then the other, testing their weight.
“Good night!” The expression was loaded with amazement. Without bothering to explain, he began pulling everything out of the bags, mixing them up in his own way – canned goods here, there, and everywhere. It seemed to Janet that he was deliberately mussing things up, putting her carefully ironed towels and lunch cloths inside bake ovens; knives and forks in frying pans; everything of her own poked in where nothing else seemed to fit. Suddenly she was consumed with anger. Never in her life had she seen such ruthless disregard. She turned and went to the water barrel bolted to a juniper tree at the corner of the house. Taos came and licked her hand. She patted his head absently. “Why did he act that way, Taos? I wish I’d never seen this place!”