Next morning it was raining. Enroute back to Grand Canyon, we headed for Payson, home of a noted rodeo.
Payson’s affair is not like the ones at Pendleton or at Bozeman, where the riders are mainly professionals who travel the circuit. These Payson riders — at least the majority of them — are genuine cowhands vying with one another in saddle and roping skills. It is for real. We had long wanted to film the event. Now we found ourselves in Payson at just the right time. By laying over one day we could film the rodeo, if the rain would stop. All five of us showed our excitement as we went into the town’s hotel for a room.
“Got a reservation?” asked the man in charge.
“Do we need one?”
“Need one? Hell, our rooms are reserved a year ahead at rodeo time.”
If it wasn’t ration-weary travelers letting off steam after years of war, it was backwoods cowboys, in off the range for the rodeo, crowding the town until it was ready to split open. As the rain intensified Helen declared: “I don’t think I can sleep another night — five in a car.”
Until suppertime we searched for a place to stay. The town was so crowded with cowboys and sightseers that it seemed like a madhouse.
After supper, almost aimlessly, we continued searching. At about 8 o’clock, in a heavy, increasing downpour, we headed north out of town, through the pines — why, none of us really knew. No motels. No campgrounds. Not even any place to keep dry. I swung into a rancher’s gateway to turn around. The drive was at the back of the old ranch house, and a light shown from inside.
“That’s a big house. Maybe they’d put us up.” By her tone, I could see that Helen had really meant that one more night in the car was not for her.
I knocked at the back door. “Who is it?” came a woman’s voice.
Luckily the rain was making too much noise for her to hear me, because my explanation wasn’t very convincing. How do you explain to a woman, through a locked door, that you want to spend the night in her house?
Helen had come up, and she joined my shouts. The woman inside — bless her soul for a courageous individual — unlocked and opened the door. The kids had tagged behind Helen. All five of us crowded into the kitchen.
Three weeks before, that woman’s husband had died. In the nighttime emptiness of the big old ranch house, with the rain tattooing a dirge of loneliness against every window pane, the woman almost took us into her arms in welcome.
Yes, there was a bed for Helen and me. And she could fix a place somewhere for the children.
“This is real Arizona hospitality,” beamed Helen in thanks. “I was born in Arizona — on a ranch, too, and I know.”
“You were born here? Where?,” our benefactor wanted to know.
“Globe,” said Helen.
“Globe? Why, that’s our county seat.”
This was a fact, although we hadn’t realized it. Arizona’s counties are large; Globe was nearly a hundred miles away, over a wicked dirt road.
“Yes,” Helen continued, “I moved away from Globe when I was a little girl, but I still have relatives there. My uncle, Mark Hicks, has a large ranch near there.”
Helen could not have spoken a more magic name if she had entoned the title for God.
“Mark Hicks! Why, he’s my supervisor. Finest man in Gila County. Mark Hicks is your uncle? I just can’t believe it.”
Although we had had a rush-up supper in a jammed cafe in Payson, we were — at this dear lady’s insistence — soon downing sandwiches and milk at her kitchen table. As we prepared for bed, she gave Helen a hug and tears came to her eyes. “I just can’t believe it!” she almost sang.
We slept in ranch-ready beds. Next morning we had a true ranch breakfast as our hostess and Helen talked Arizona until a beam of morning sun sprinkled into the windows through the pines, and we realized the rain had ceased.
Apparently we had done this gracious widow of Payson a real favor by staying with her and easing the pain of her loneliness. But she had done us a greater one.
Almost forgetting the nights we had spent in the car without sleep, we filmed the rodeo that day and headed back to the North Rim. The hummingbird, bless its soul, was still guarding its royal domain. As I filmed anew, Helen wrote a long letter to her Uncle Mark — Supervisor Mark Hicks, if you please — asking him to be certain, on his next trip up to Payson, to stop in and meet one of his great admirers, the widow who had taken us in out of the rain and turned our discomfort into sunshine.
Twice more, before winter completely seized North Rim in its frozen grip, we returned to Cape Royal from our home in California. The thistle blooms had metamorphosed into fluffy seed-laden delicate globes, which floated out over the Canyon as they hitchhiked with the wind. On our last visit, some snow was falling. The hummingbird was still there.