The Valley of Vengeance
The late afternoon sun shines brightly on the horizon, glowing with such splendour that an almost blinding haze fills the dry landscape of the San Joaquin Valley. A small river twinkles in the sunlight as it gently flows, meandering its way through the valley bringing much needed refreshment to the life that surrounds it. Colonies of brush rabbits leap along the water’s edge whilst flocks of birds gather to bathe in the shallows by the sandy bays, splashing and flicking their feathers in the warm water, content in their moment. Two kit foxes suddenly appear through the brush and tirelessly wander down to the river as the rabbits dart off in a panic, with birds fleeing from the shallows back into the tree tops from where they came. The foxes stand in the shallows with their heads lowered lapping up the refreshing water, and then look around with water dripping from their mouths as they watch the rabbits disappear off into the undergrowth. They plod along the shallows and onto the warm sandy bays to investigate the burnt out remnants of campfires and rusty tin cans, left by passing travellers resting for the night under the canopy of the overhanging trees. They sniff around at the remnants, poking their thin pointy snouts with their ears folded back into the odd tin can, scavenging what morsels they can find. They look up for a moment at a slight distraction, and then slowly wander away, disappearing off into the thick undergrowth along beaten tracks made by the travellers. The slightly overgrown tracks twist and turn weaving between the willows and sycamores, leading up to a narrow dusty road where the overhanging trees boldly cover half of the road with small pockets of sunlight twinkling through the gaps in the rustling leaves. Beyond the road, there is nothing but the vast open landscape all smothered in sun, where groves of fruit trees cast dark shadows across the fertile soil.
In the far distance of the road through the bright shimmering ripples of heat, a silhouette of two men wandering along the road gradually appear on the horizon, slowly becoming visible until becoming completely recognisable; one man is of medium height and of medium build, the other is slightly shorter but somewhat chubby looking with curly sweat soaked hair showing just beneath his hat. Both men are dressed in clothes that look as though they have not been changed in days or even weeks. Their denim trousers are grubby, especially around their ankles, their shirts hang loose and are unbuttoned which displays their sweat stained vests beneath; evident of a long and tiresome journey in the sweltering heat. Their faces are tanned, dirty and soaked with beads of sweat. They both wear fedora hats that are a little tattered and out of shape, and tilted forward slightly to help shade the glaring sun from their eyes. Over their shoulders they both carry bags with nothing but their sparse belongings inside, whilst tucked through the shoulder straps are their tightly rolled blankets. The chubbier looking man holds a willow branch that has been de-barked exposing the smooth wood beneath it, which he occasionally whips and scrapes along the ground as he walks.
As they steadily make their way along the road, not knowing exactly where they are heading, they avoid the harsh heat of the afternoon sun by walking through the shade of the trees along the roadside. Their only form of entertainment whilst walking is to kick the odd stone on the road as far up ahead as possible. With each kick they make, a small cloud of dust appears and then disperses gradually with the subtle breeze; they look at each other and smile. “We should find ourselves a place to camp for the night, don’t ya think?” comments the chubby looking man.
“Yeah, perhaps down by the river there? It sure looks nice and cool. Plenty of shade an’all.” His friend replies.
They both leave the road and start making their way down to the river. The man with the stick whips and thrashes at the undergrowth until they arrive at the sandy bay by the water’s edge. The other man wanders around inspecting the area as he kicks a rusty tin can into the river, watching it slowly sink to the bottom in the crystal clear water. Seeing the blackened and charred remains of an old camp fire, he stands in the cool shade next to it and looks around, looking at the fresh flowing water and the canopy of braches above him. “This ought to be a good spot right here, Eddie.” He remarks, dropping his things to the ground.
Eddie walks over placing his bag and blanket down too. “Yeah, nice and cool ain’t it?” He responds.
The other man kicks at the remnants of a camp fire. “I s’pose we best get this here fire started?” He comments as he heads off to gather deadwood with Eddie following behind.
Sometime later, whilst lying on their sides on the soft sand in front of the fire, which gently burns in the low light popping and crackling as it does so, they tuck into warm beans straight from tin cans. “It ain’t too bad this...ya know, out in the open under the stars.” Eddie comments whilst filling his mouth with beans using his dirty fingers, spilling a few as he does so.
“Yeah, sure beats that hell hole of a shanty we was sharin’ back at that other ranch we was on.” His friend replies as he eats with an old fork.
“Still, it would be nice to have a decent bunk to lie on though. I just hope the next ranch is a lot more comfortable. That other ranch made me so stiff and achy it made the work even harder than it already was. I sure hope we find a better ranch soon, this is much harder than I thought it was gonna be, Charlie.”
“Well, it weren’t exactly comfortable on that other ranch I’ll give you that, I sure as hell didn’t like it one bit! But if you hadn’t been pesterin’ that girl we wouldn’t be in this mess...What did I tell you, Eddie? Anyways, it’s a good job we made a run for it when we did. Let’s jus’ see what tomorrow brings, huh? I’m sure if we stick to that road we was on we may be able to hitch a ride or something? But next time, you jus’ keep your hands to yourself, OK? We don’t need any trouble, you hear?”
“I’m sorry, Charlie. That was pretty dumb of me...Hell, she was mighty fine though. Anyways, I’m gettin’ pretty tired of all this walkin’ now. I promise...no more trouble.”
Charles looks at him for a moment and grins. “I sure hope so, Eddie. Cus’ we ain’t gonna make it out here otherwise. Let’s just keep our heads down, work hard and look out for each other, like we agreed. You remember?” Seeing Eddie eating beans with his hands, he searches around in his bag and retrieves a fork, “Here. Take this?” he comments as he tosses the fork towards him.
They both sit quietly in the light of the fire scraping at the bottom of their tin cans. “Well, yet another fine banquette under the stars.” Eddie comments as he tosses his empty tin can to one side and unrolls his blanket. He then removes his boots letting out a sigh of relief as he does so. Charles does the same after clearing out his can and throwing it into the fire. They both lie completely still with nothing but the sound of fire burning, the gentle flow of water and the sound crickets. “Goodnight, Eddie.”
The next morning, Charles awakes to the triumphant sound of birds chirping from the tree tops as the bright sunlight starts to glimmer through the rustling leaves. He sits up and looks about whilst rubbing his eyes, and then stands up and stretches, letting out an almighty yawn. Seeing the fire now reduced to smouldering ashes, for some reason he stands staring down at it with a vacant look as Eddie awakens. “Mornin’, Charlie...Are you OK?” He asks.
Charles blinks and snaps out of it, “Yeah. Morning, Eddie.” He then walks into the nearby undergrowth.
“Where ya go-in’?”
“Nature calls my friend.”
As Charles stands in the waist high undergrowth and starts to pee, Eddie walks down to the water’s edge and removes all of his clothes. Cupping his genitalia and with slight hesitation, he slowly steps into the shallows and makes his way towards the deeper water, yelling out as he goes which echoes all around. A short while later, Charles returns from the undergrowth tying the string around his waist. He stands for a moment watching Eddie, whom is now waist deep in the middle of the river splashing the cool water over his body. “How is it, Eddie?” He shouts over.
“Pretty darn good! You should come try it?” Eddie shouts back just before dipping his face into the water, completely submerging it.
“Nah, we gotta get go-in. I’ll get the fire burning so you can dry off before we hit that road.” He then turns his attention to gathering deadwood, piling it up once again, and then kneels down blowing on the hot embers as Eddie slowly starts making his way out of the river, wiping the water from his face and hair as he does so. He slips on his underwear and gathers up his clothes and then walks over to the fire with water dripping from his body, and then sits down. Charles pokes and blows at the fire enraging the glowing embers as the smoke drifts up into his face. He leans back coughing. “I think that’ll do it?” He comments.
Eddie looks on with a smile as the smoke drifts towards him. “Yup!” He simply replies with a cough.
Sometime later, whilst Charles pokes at the fire with a stick, Eddie begins to get himself dressed. “You all dry now, Eddie?” Charles asks.
“That I am, Charlie.”
“Well, I guess we best be on our way now before it gets too hot. That sun’s gettin’ much brighter now, and if we don’t get a move on, we’ll not wanna leave this place. And by the looks of it, I don’t think we’ll be on our own for very long either, it’s sure nice and cool down here, a regular campin’ spot.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Replies Eddie, as he stands up and starts rolling up his blanket with Charles doing the same.
They slowly start walking away when Eddie looks back. “What about the fire?” He asks.
Charles glances at Eddie. “It’ll burn itself out and become hot embers for the next folk.” He replies.
Eddie grins to himself as they both disappear into the undergrowth. Moments later, they immerge by the side of the dusty road. Charles glances into the distance. “Well, we got a long road ahead of us by the looks of it?”
Eddie pats him on the back. “That we have my friend. That we have. Let’s see where this ole road takes us, huh? Who knows what lies ahead?”
Charles puts his arm around Eddie’s shoulder and smiles at him as they both start walking side by side towards the bright morning sun.
After walking all day in the sweltering heat, the glowing afternoon sun slowly begins to lower behind them as they become silhouettes on the horizon. The harsh heat of the day has taken its toll on them as they walk slowly, dragging their heels on the dry dusty road. “Looks like we’ll be spendin’ another night down by the river?” Eddie remarks as he wipes the dust off his dry lips.
“Yup, I guess so, Eddie.” Replies Charles; dripping with sweat.
As they continue to walk, a distant vehicle slowly appears on the rippling horizon behind them. The vehicle gradually draws near until the whining sound from its engine suddenly becomes noticeable, grabbing their attention. They stand motionless for a moment in the road listening and looking at each other, and then move to the roadside looking to see what exactly is heading towards them. Soon enough, an old truck of some kind emerges through the quivering ripples of heat. They stand watching closely through squinted eyes to see if the truck is suitable to hitch a ride, knowing this could be their only chance of making great progress on their long and tiresome journey. The truck eventually becomes clear; a Ford model A stake truck. They look at each other, raise their eyebrows and then come to a quick decision and immediately start flagging down the vehicle.
The truck initially drives past at a speed that was very much quicker than they both anticipated, causing Eddie to stagger out of its way whilst coughing with the dust that followed. Suddenly, the truck breaks harshly with a squeak a few yards up the road creating a thick cloud of dust to roll past it from behind. They stand starring cautiously at the truck as it waits in the road, not knowing whether to approach and to ask for a ride or, just to wait for the driver to make them an offer. They both wait patiently; the only sound is that of the engine calmly ticking over, and then an old man leans out of the cab window and calls out them, “Do you fellas want a ride or not?” he yells. They look at each other as Charles replies, “Sure thing!” Without any hesitation, they quickly jog towards the rear of the truck as it jumps into gear and slowly starts moving away. They throw their bags and rolled blankets firmly onto the back and then climb aboard, making sure they get as comfortable as possible by sitting up against a couple of bales of hay. As the truck sets off and picks up pace, they notice another man slouched up against the opposite side of the truck playing a harmonica; a fairly young looking man of slight build dressed somewhat untidily with grubby denim trousers, shirt, waistcoat and with a black cap. They simply look at each other and raise their eyebrows as Charles shouts back to the driver through the open hatch of the cab, “Thanks for the ride, mister!”
The driver looks over his shoulder. “What’s that my friend?”
“Thank you! We do appreciate your kindness. It’s sure nice of you.”
“It’s no problem. No problem at all. Where are you fellas headin’, anywhere’s in particular?”
Whilst taking off his boots to empty out the loose stones and dirt, Charles replies. “Anywhere that’s offerin’ work, I suppose.”
“Any particular kinda work? Or are you not that bothered, just as long as it pays and gives you a roof over your heads?”
“Yeah, I guess so. We’re willing to do any kinda work, jus’ as long as it’s honest...Say, you wouldn’t happen to know of any ranches nearby would ya?”
“Oh, I think there’s a couple not too far from here. They’ll be sure ready for harvestin’ right about now...There’s plenty of fruit, grapes or cotton that needs pickin’ that’s for sure! But it ain’t gonna be easy gettin’ work though, there’s plenty of folk like you all wanderin’ around this here state jumpin’ from one ranch to the next, along with the Mexicans too!....You fellas Okies, I take it?”
“We are indeed, from Cimarron County, Oklahoma, sir.”
“I thought as much. Escaping the dust bowl jus’ like ever’one else, huh? Things sure look pretty bad out there. I keep pickin’ up folk like you all the time, jus’ like that other fella there; except most folk are either out here on their own or with their families shacked up somewhere. Are you like brothers or somethin’?”
Charles pauses for a moment and replaces his boots. “Well, not exactly. You see, we both met on a ranch a while back, we’re both tenant farmers from the same part of Oklahoma and suffered the same fate, and like ever’one else, we headed out West and jus’ became good friends, real good friends. I don’t know why but, we just felt kinda familiar with each other, like we knew each other already so, we jus’ started to look out for each other...like brothers, I guess. We jus’ thought it would make good sense to work together, you know, like a partnership, helping each other out along the way. It sure makes life a little easier when you have someone to talk to, someone to trust. Hopefully, we’ll make enough money between us to get ourselves out of this sorry situation and perhaps turn things around one day.”
The driver pauses for a moment. “I s’pose to have someone to trust is a good investment these days? Like I said, there are so many folk wanderin’ around this here state jumpin’ from one ranch to the next jus’ lookin’ out for themselves, it’s hard to know who to trust and who not to trust. Sounds like you fellas got some kinda plan going on then?”
Feeling a little awkward, Charles hesitates and glances at Eddie, whom answers instead. “Yeah, we got a plan. But hasn’t everybody though?”
The driver simply chuckles. “Well, some have...I guess. The rest jus’ do what they gotta do to eke a living aroun’ here. They jus’ gotta survive that’s all there is to it.” There is a brief moment of silence as the truck steadily trundles along the dusty road. “If ya don’t mind me askin’ fellas, what are your names?”
“Our names?” Replies Charles. “My name’s Charles, and my friend here is Eddie.”
“Charles and Eddie...Gotta kinda ring to it wouldn’t ya say?”
Charles simply grins.