SPRING had come early to the sage country that year. First the chinook breathed soft out of the South, and the ice jam rumbled and stirred, and at last went out. The jammed pack ice rose from the depths of the river dark with mud and gravel — the stream ran free again. The last ice was barely gone from the black winter waters of the inlet before the apricot buds were showing white at the tips. By the time the alfalfa fields were green down on the flat the hillside was aflame with the Carman blossoms.
Peter worked in the middle orchard, putting a concrete jacket around an irrigation main cracked by the spray wagon. About him the air was full of the music of the bees among the blossoms. The great pink flowers of the Carmans seemed to be floating in clouds among the bare limbs of the trees. It seemed impossible that these gnarled stiff branches could bear such delicate blossoms. But Peter loved the gray old trees. The trees were there always; they had been there since he could remember. The blossoms came in the spring and were gone again as quickly as they came — shrinking back on their little green knobs of peaches which would in the summer have a flame of their own. But not always. Sometimes the frosted grass would sparkle in the morning sun and the petals would droop and blacken; then Peter had seen his father tear apart flower after flower, and in each lay a tiny shriveled pistil. And in the winters which followed these frost springs Peter had learned the meaning of the tight lines in his father’s face when he peered at the frost-stricken blossoms. He had learned with the other children of the village what a barren year may mean to a fruit valley and he had already acquired a little of the hardness of agrarian peoples whose lives are more than anything else a struggle against elemental forces and a ruthless exploitation of life itself.
Peter and Wyman had set out hundreds of orchard heaters with the team and stoneboat. These are tapered cylinders of sheet steel, punched with several draft holes. They stood charged with coal and tinder ready to fire. The heaters never had anything like a reassuring effect on the people of the valley. A hard frost could cut through any little warmth a man might make among the trees. To Peter the rows of steel cylinders were a symbol of that bitter game of chance which he must play in spite of himself, where the won stakes are meagre, and the loss is read in the shabby clothing of children and the lined faces of women. He wondered if it must always be that the frost would come and bring with it deepened poverty; but he was young, fourteen years and just a man as the country reckons, and life seemed wide to him, not closed in by winterkill and frost springs and codling moth as it was for the older men.
There came an evening when the sunset etched a golden line along the rim of the western mountains — so very clear the air was. Peter, even as he watched the incredible purple shadows deepen in the mountain canyons, felt the chill of the still air, and knew the frost was coming. At supper he said little. On the porch he struck a match and looked at the thermometer. Forty degrees. He had never seen it so cold at nightfall during the season. He walked up the hill under the peach blossoms. The orchard was very different at night, — no hum of bees, only dead quiet, — and the pollen smell was fainter. He could not see the blossoms, but he could sense the white masses of bloom overhead. Above, the great bell of the sky seemed to glow faintly. Not a fleck of cloud marred the intensity of the blue. The great stars glowed like lamps, yet the heavens did not seem near. Instead they seemed infinitely removed and cold. Again his eyes swept the western sky for a cloud, but not a rag of mist was visible. He thought how many anxious eyes were praying for a cloud; but the sky did not care.
When he returned to the house, the temperature had fallen to thirty-five. By the time Kirk and Wyman arrived it was thirty-three. Peter was in a quandary. The heaters held coal for about three hours’ fire and no one had imagined more might be necessary. Yet the coldest hour was always the one before sunrise, and sunrise was seven hours away. On the other hand, the temperature was falling rapidly, and he was afraid delay might mean damage to the fruit before heat was fully up. At ten it was freezing and Peter gave the word. He ran from heater to heater, dumping a pint of kerosene in each, and Wyman followed with a flare which he plunged for a second into the mouth of the heater. After them a lengthening trail of flame lit up the orchard, bright just behind them as the kerosene shot a plume of fire out of the top of the heaters, softer where the kerosene had burned low, and bright again where the fuel had caught.
Back and forth they wove, a halting rhythm in their movements, and in a few minutes the whole hillside glowed with fire. Kirk meanwhile had restarted the halfdozen duds and had capped those heaters which threatened to scorch the low branches.
Peter looked out along the ridge and across the flat. In the length of the valley he could see thousands of pin points of light, and he suddenly felt a warm fellowship with the men who were fighting the same fight with him. There Wells is firing up, he said, and there Tomlins, and there Nillson. He hurried to the packing shed. Outside temperature, twenty-seven degrees. Bad, very bad. No clouds. Eleven-thirty. Within the orchard Peter hung a thermometer on a limb. Thirty-one degrees. A feeling of exultation swept him. He was heating all outdoors!
His blood pounded as he ran from heater to heater, felt with his palm the hot blast of gases from each chimney. The heat flushed his face as he watched the rainbow flames licking the coal. As he ran down the tree row it seemed to him there were infinite steel cylinders about him glowing dull red. From the mouth of each shot a steady stream of heat; the smoke eddied through the upper branches, caught the red glow of the fires below, and cast a murky light over the soil. The red glow would beat back the cold, Peter thought. He would win, would win!
At the packing shed, the outside temperature stood at twenty degrees. He spun and dashed for the orchard thermometer, caught its glint at twenty-nine. Nine degrees difference — not enough, not enough. With more coal he would win.
He dashed down the hillside; it seemed his feet barely touched the ground left rough from the disk, but as he left the orchard the outside air swept over him chill as the river in June. He panted as he slipped through the bars of the corral. The horses stood at the feed rack, and Peter felt once again the strange peace that came to him with the sound of stock munching hay. The unfailing grace and serenity of animals, how he envied them! His pulse hammered as he fumbled in the dark with the harness, his fingers knowing the old feel of the straps and buckles. With quick hands he hooked the trace links in the doubletrees, and stepped on the stoneboat as the team leaned into their collars. He brought the end of the lines stinging across their rumps, and sent them at a gallop up the hill. More coal! He could do it with more coal!
It was chill, bitter chill, but the heaters glowed bright red now, beat back the frost, sent the smoke eddying dark among the treetops. He must beat the frost. The weight of the mortgage on the farm pressed on him, the sense of vast debts for lead arsenate and for irrigation power. The thought of these commercial transactions sickened him. He hated the business men of the town who plundered the farmers of anything left by the fruit brokers. The frost was clean and he did not mind fighting it, but the town was unclean, the tradesmen were like a pack of jackals. The steel-shod sled runner screamed over a rock, sending a violent shudder through the sled and up Peter’s spine, whipping the sled askew.
At the shed he looked at the thermometer. Nineteen degrees! The grass glittered under his feet, the chill earth stole the heat from his toes. The others came in from livening the fires to help load. Two shovels bit harshly into the coal. They worked at furious speed without slackening until the sled was loaded. Peter drove among the heaters, swinging wide back and forth to clear them, and the others refueled. When the load was out he drove wildly back to the shed, leaning against the reins, his muscles alive to the swerve of the sled and the pull of the bits. Once more the cold freshness of the outside air swept over him, chilling the sweat on his forehead.
The thermometer stood at eighteen. Not falling fast, Peter thought; maybe the worst is over. God knows it’s cold enough in the bloom now, — twenty-seven degrees, — and it will be a wonder if there is half a crop. Still, we have pulled through twentyseven before — if we can hold it up there, we may be all right.
One more load filled the heaters and there was nothing to do but sit on apple boxes and keep one eye on the thermometers. They talked restlessly of the red spider which threatened every leafed thing with destruction, of the insidious spread of the San José scale, of the irresistible march of the codling moth. And they talked of the outer world of cities and factories and markets and many peoples. Kirk and Wyman longed for the life and movement and excitement of the big towns, but Peter hated them for their filth and hypocrisy and the enslavement of their working people. ‘Besides,’ he said, ‘they are full of tradesmen. I will look at the outside thermometer.’
At the shed he held the glass in the light of a match. Sixteen above zero. No, impossible. He struck another match, and once again caught the glint of the silvery column in the match light. Sixteen degrees above zero. Sixteen degrees of frost. He returned to the orchard thermometer. Twenty-four degrees. Well, he had lost — no doubt about it. He told Kirk and Wyman they might as well go home. With the point of his knife he split the ovule of a peach blossom, and in the firelight he saw the tiny sparkle of an ice crystal.
Still the valley glowed with ten thousand fire points, and still the remote stars burned cold in a cloudless sky above him. Peter sat staring into the fire he knew not how long, but when the morning light crept across the sky he found himself stiff with cold. He turned the horses into the pasture, and returned to work in the orchard. He had dropped a score of piles of mouldy straw about the orchard, and now he went from one to another firing them. This was smudging to protect the frozen blossoms from the direct rays of the sun, and to allow them to thaw in the shade. Peter knew it was of no use in case of a hard frost; but he went about his work mechanically and had the orchard layered with a thick white smoke when the sun rose.
Over all the valley hung a level pall of black smoke through which the sun poured a murky warmth, but it did not take all the chill from Peter’s bones, nor from the men of the valley. For the blossoms drooped blackened and withered on every branch, and there was not to be a peach, or cherry, or apricot, or apple that year.