018 Gathering Storms

The trouble in the camp ahead is causing us to slow down, for our sheep must not catch up with theirs. So we decided to make our night camp serve as well for the noon stop.

Rosalio came in at 10:00 A.M. — having quartered his sheep in fair pasture on a juniper-clothed mountain slope some distance out — and ate lunch of dry bread and mutton stew. (We had mutton only when Rosalio discovered a sheep lost from some other herd or when one of our own animals became too sick to continue.) Then he journeyed back across the canyon and rocks to be with his sheep for the day, taking pencil and paper with him to sharpen some dull moments writing to his sister in Old Albuquerque. Of seven in his family, just Rosalio and his elder sister remain. Four times a year he sends her a letter, and goes to see her once a year.

This day started cloudy and it has steadily worsened. Now it has developed into a manner of weather such as we have not had before on the trail. There are cold, formless clouds pushing down on the Sierra Ancha, gray gusts of wind (gray in spirit if not in hue) and a melancholy rain is starting. At 3:30 P.M. — just now —Rosalio returned to leave his finished letter in camp and to take his raincoat out onto the hills as he watches the sheep. It is an old coat, worn through at the shoulders, but a shiny new slicker will be brought up to him for summer in the White Mountains, where rain is frequent.

This is the kind of day that sets one longing for shelter. I had chosen my bed — employing it also as a writing table and reading stand for the day — out by a fine slab of red sandstone in the clear some distance from camp, with unobstructed sky above and forty miles of mountains sweeping below me.

Ordinarily I do not wish the branches of any tree barring me from the stars at night. But now the thick-grown needle clusters of the pinyon close by camp have a look of warmth and shelter about them and if the rain intensifies I shall move my home up under their protection.

Toward evening the rain set in — not heavy at first, but one shower after another. Pablo groped through the pack boxes for his almanac, unused now for several days. It is printed in Spanish and quotes the weather for the Southwest and for Old Mexico. For this particular day it said for Arizona “dry, with dusty winds. “

“Well, maybe she right,” observed Pablo. “Maybe this rain blow over pretty quick. ” By now it was 5:00 P.M.

But each gust of rain became worse. Pablo had his black slicker on by this time and I had not only moved my bedroll up under the pinyon but as the rain came I used a tarp over my shoulders. The camp, even though the showers were light, even though the forecast said “dry,” obviously was getting wet. Again Pablo consulted the almanac and read me his new findings.

“I think this rain comes from the moon changing. I see it changes quarter in three days. But hell, three days one way or the other don’t make much difference to the moon. I think I put up the tent. “

A thin canvas herder’s tent, just large enough for two bedrolls, and with iron stakes and pole, were part of the equipment carried by our seven burros. It was really little more than a hanging tarpaulin.
Pablo and I set it up, though it was nearly impossible to drive the stakes. An inch under the floor of our camp — two inches beneath the soft bedded needles of the pine — was solid rock. The earth three feet from where we pounded showed movement with each blow, indicating great slabs of sandstone such as came to the surface in the ledges not far away. Tying one corner of the tent to a bush, and another to our heavy water keg, at last we got it up. With his lasso Pablo roped the projecting tent pole up above, and guyed it to a tree.

The showers steadied into continuous rain. At nightfall Rosalio came in, having driven the sheep into a gorge just below camp. But the animals would not bed down, so while Rosahio ate, Pablo made his way into the canyon and drove the herd close about our tent.

Darkness came fast, with just a whisper of sunset color in the west. Pablo and I had hauled in three great logs — two oaks and a juniper — which would have cost a day’s wages in Phoenix, and these we fed to the fire one upon the other. Even as it rained, the flames roared up and warmed us. I spread three heavy tarps over my blankets, the others laid their bedrolls in the tent, and we said “buenos noches” early. While adjusting myself to my blankets a heavy shower came and I pulled the tarp over my head. The tapping fingers of the rain, just above my ears, tattooed a nervous melody on the canvas.

The urge to see what was transpiring made it impossible to stay prisoner beneath the tarp for long. I looked out. The expensive logs were still burning briskly, though the rain on the bed of coals sent puffed swirls of smoke up into the air. It was tinted smoke —great luminous billows of it — lighted by the flames beneath, and it carried a bit of cheering glow up into the blackness.

Now the rain bashed hard and pounded into my face. For a minute the sensation was good — a cold spray pounding my cheeks in a hundred places. I removed my felt hat, for it was part of my bedclothes this night, and let the drops sting my head. I loosened my sweater and they needled my chest. The juniper log, prodded into revolt by a blast of heavy rain, blew a smoke ring of cedar incense out into the circle of the camp. Its strong tang was as tingling as the rain. I pulled the tarp back over my head, capturing a billow of the tang within my bed. It drugged me to sleep.

That was the last time I could look out during the night. When, somewhat later, I was wakened by a hard beating against my canvas prison, the storm had ceased its playing and a cloudburst had swirled into our mountain home. The tapping above my ears became an urgent violent stamping. The white flare from flashes of lightning easily penetrated my cover and the roar of thunder, following close after, to tell me that the center of the storm was near, seemed even magnified by the tarp, as though the canvas were a sounding box. Donner and Blitzen were on the march. With the lightning coming more often I wondered if I had chosen wisely to seek the tree for shelter. Rosalio had told me that thirteen sheep, of another herd, had once been killed by a single bolt of lightning.

The tarp at my feet blew away and the bed down there began sponging up water; some rain ran in by my head. But I would rather be a bit wet than to attempt fixing things, for fear of making them worse.

At some time or other I dozed off and must have slept soundly for the remaining night. For next I knew, Pablo was cutting wood. Rain was still coming down but he was up, the fire was freshened and roaring, and hot mush and coffee were nearly ready. I rolled out and slopped into my shoes.