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Wide Place in the Road
A Great Generation Love Story
By Richard C. Kirkland
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Richard C. Kirkland
All rights reserved.
It was called "the Grapevine."
In California's early days, it was an Indian trail that wound up the slopes of the Tehachapi Mountains from the San Joaquin Valley, through the Tejon Pass and down into the San Fernando Valley. In the late eighteen hundreds, they made it into a bona fide road with teams of men and mules. Then came automobiles and it was paved with cement using chain-driven Ford and Mack trucks.
The Mono Company got the cement contract because their plant was right there in the mountains. After it dried, Mono cement had a chalky-white cast to it. If you climbed a Tehachapi Mountain and looked down on the ridges and canyons where the road ran, it would appear as a narrow, convoluted vine, winding its way through the patterns of earthly greens and browns. They say that was how it came to be called the Grapevine.
The road reached its highest elevation at Gorman in the Tejon Pass. The pass was named after the Tejon Indians as was old Fort Tejon. It was originally located there to keep an eye on the Indians and protect the old California Overland Stage when it traveled through the pass. If you climbed one of the mountains and looked down at the road, most everything else you would see would be on Tejon Ranch property, including the mountain.
The Ranch grazed thousands of white-faced, red-coated Herefords over its vast stretches of prime land in the green valleys and rolling mountains of the Tehachapi. That required a lot of cowboys in the early days since quite a bit of cattle rustling was going on then. But shortly after the Grapevine Road was paved, Prohibition became the law of the land, and most of the cattle rustlers turned to bootlegging.
After that they didn't need as many cowboys, but the Grapevine road did cut through a big chunk of the ranch, so to discourage trespassers, they put up a barbed-wire fence with "Keep Off" signs- and assigned one of their cowboys, Juan Martinez as sort of a watchdog.
Juan was called a breed because his mother was Indian and his father Spanish. Juan's father came from Old Monterey to work as a cowboy on the ranch. One day, while trailing cattle rustlers high in the Tehachapi Mountains, he got caught in a winter blizzard and took refuge in an Indian village. As the story goes, he fell in love with one of the Indian maidens and traded his horse for her. When he finally showed up back at the ranch with his bride but no horse, the foreman docked his pay ten pesos. However, he got his job back as a rider, and he and his Indian bride took up housekeeping in a tepee alongside Grapevine Creek. That's where Juan Junior was born.
By the time President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal had repealed Prohibition, the cattle rustlers-turned-bootleggers were too fat to return to their old profession, so cattle rustling sort of died out. Other than an occasional automobile traveler who stopped and crawled through the fence to pick wild flowers, trespassers weren't much of a problem either so Juan's watchdog duty, which he now performed in a pickup truck, was a far cry from the old days when his father chased rustlers on a stiff-legged horse down a dusty trail.
These days, there was only one fly in Juan's ointment. It had to do with a group of young boys whose families lived along the Grapevine. They ignored Juan's keep off signs, crawled through his barbed-wire fences, climbed his mountains, and swam in his cattle watering troughs.
"Hey look, guys, our watchdog just drove up to the store in his truck," exclaimed one of those boys, standing on a rock outcropping on the side of a Tehachapi mountain and jabbing his index finger toward the canyon below.
The boy was tall for his age, which made the bib overalls he wore appear to hang on his thin frame. A mop of disheveled, sun-bleached hair fell across his forehead just above a set of intense green eyes, which were focused on the object of his attention: Juan Martinez's pickup truck. It appeared as a toy on the Grapevine road far below.
"You sure it's him, Jess?" asked one of four other boys who lay on their backs in a carpet of grass and wildflowers. All wore bib overalls and "Monkey Ward" (Montgomery Ward) tennis shoes. Some of the overalls had holes; others had patches over the holes. None wore socks or shirts, and their arms and faces were a golden brown.
"Yeah, it's him all right, Alvin. I can tell his truck." Alvin, the same age as Jessie, thirteen, scrambled to his feet and climbed up on the rock beside his friend. He was a head shorter but stocky, with broad shoulders and a shock of raven- black hair that shrouded his face. He stood for a moment squinting his eyes, which were as black as his hair. "Yep, yer right it's our injun watchdog."
The two boys looked at each other. "Wanna take a dip?" asked Jessie with a grin.
"Yah-Hoo! You bet I do!" replied Alvin, returning the grin. "Come on, guys, let's go swimmin'."
The other three boys raised to sitting positions, looking skeptical. "I dunno. I'm still in big trouble from the last time he caught us at the trough," worried one, a tall, freckled boy with bushy red hair that jutted in all directions.
"Aw, come on, Gerald, don't be a scardy cat. He ain't going to catch us," assured Alvin, jumping off the rock.
"How you know he ain't?" asked another of the three skeptics, a chunky boy with a round face, close cropped sandy hair, and protruding front teeth. "That breed is a sneaky one- I'll tell ya."
"Yeah, but when he goes to the store, he always gets a bottle, goes back to his cabin, and gets drunk. You know that, Bobbie," said Jessie, climbing down off the rock and walking over to where a homemade knapsack lay in a bed of blue and purple lupines. "An' that means he'll be out of it for the rest of the day," he added, picking up the knapsack.
"I know, but just what if he don't?" worried Bobbie, shaking his head and climbing to his feet.
The last of the skeptics, a gangly youth with large, smoky- grey eyes and the same color hair that hung down over his face, reached up and pulled a sticker burr from his hair. "My dad says the next time I get caught on the ranch, I'm getten' the razor strap."
"Well, yer on it now, so what's the difference if yer on it here or over at the water trough?" said Alvin, unsnapping the metal fasteners and pulling down his overalls.
"The difference is that he ain't gonna catch me up here cause he can't drive that pickup truck up the side of the mountain. But he sure as heck can drive it over to the Rose Station trough."
"Aw, he don't know we're up here," replied Alvin.,
"He always knows when we go to the trough. That breed got some kind'a secret way of knowing stuff," declared Gerald.
"Aw, he'll be down there for hours. We got plenty'a time to hike over and take a swim. Whatta ya say?" pleaded Jessie, pulling on his knapsack.
"Just think how good that water is gonna feel," encouraged Alvin.
"Tell ya what. Let's flip for it, okay?" suggested Jessie. He was the unofficial gang leader but always managed to make it seem as though all members of the group were involved in a democratic decision making process. Jessie didn't do it because he wanted to be boss. It was just natural that he could make things come out to the benefit of all and more importantly, the most fun.
The three skeptics Bobbie, Jack and Gerald, looked at each other for an indication of the other's resolve. Someone blinked, and all three heads nodded in agreement.
Jessie dug into his overall pocket and pulled out a coin. "Okay, if Injun head comes up, we go." He flipped the coin, caught it, and covered it with his other hand. When everyone had gathered in close, he jerked the covering hand off the silver nickel. Although worn thin, the Indian head was plainly visible. Jessie was pleased because he wanted to go swimming, and he knew Alvin did. So he was gambling the coin would come up heads.
"Yea! Let's go!" shrieked Alvin, pulling up his coveralls as he started off down the trail in a fast walk. With reservations relegated to history, at least for the moment, the others fell in line.
There were numerous watering troughs on the Tejon Ranch, any one of which was acceptable for a dip on a hot summer day. But the only one big enough for a little swimming and splashing around was over at the old Rose Station stage stop. It was a circular, galvanized iron tank almost three feet deep and fifteen feet in diameter. The only problem being that it was a pretty good hike over there. And it was down off the mountain where Juan Martinez could drive his pickup.
Old Rose Station had been the last stop before entering Tejon Pass on the overland stage route back in the 1800s. The route started at Sacramento, and went south through the San Joaquin Valley to Bakersfield and over the Tehachapi Mountains to Los Angeles. Time and the elements had taken their toll, but the old adobe stage house, minus its roof, still stood beside the water trough. The water was piped down to the trough from a spring on the ridge just above the station. Where it overflowed and seeped into the ground alongside the old stage house ruins, a vine of wild roses grew, which was why they called it Rose Station.
There was a romantic tragedy told by the Grapevine folks about Old Rose Station. It involved a dashing young rider who stopped there one day to water his horse and was smitten with the station keeper's daughter. He saw her standing beside the rose bush, and when they looked into each other's eyes, it was love at first sight. The stranger stayed at the station that night, and in the moonlight beside the rose bush, he and the girl kissed passionately and professed their love.
The next morning, a posse arrived on the trail of the notorious California outlaw, Joaquin Murieta. His description fit that of the handsome stranger, but before they could capture him, he escaped on his black stallion. A few nights later, he slipped back to the station and met his love at the rose bush. The station keeper overheard their plans to elope, and not wanting his daughter to be involved with an outlaw, he tipped off the posse.
That night when the lovers met at the rose bush, the posse was waiting. After a gun battle, the stranger escaped, but the girl was killed by a stray bullet. There were rumors that Joaquin Murieta was later gunned down by the posse. Another version held that he escaped, and sometimes on a moonlit night, he could be seen standing beside the wild rose bush at Old Rose Station with tears in his eyes.
On this afternoon, the good part of a century after the tragedy, about a dozen white faced Herefords were in the yard of Old Rose Station. Some were drinking from the trough or licking the yellow salt licks, while others just stood switching their tails contentedly; and rightly so, since it was their water trough and their salt licks. But on occasion in the summer, they were forced to relinquish their rights to a strange group of trespassers who always came charging down the trail screaming like banshees.
When they heard the first screech, on this hot summer afternoon, their white faces jerked up as they wheeled pretty much in unison, and scrambled off to a safe distance, turned, and watched the invaders leave a trail of overalls and tennis shoes along their route to the trough.
A few of the Herefords flinched at a new series of shrieks and whoops that came from the intruders when their naked bodies hit the cold spring water. But other than an occasional bawl of protest, they stood switching their tails and watching as the five boys laughed and romped in the water trough.
They had been watching for almost an hour when their resident bull came plodding down the trail. He was a big curly- faced fellow with long sharp horns. Shouldering his way through their ranks, he halted and surveyed the scene before him. A couple of heifers bawled and snorted to let him know they expected him to do something about the situation.
"Hey look, big daddy's arrived and is given us the evil eye," said Jack, pulling himself up to the rim of the trough.
"Yeah an' he looks pretty darn mean," observed Gerald, edging up beside Jack and looking at the bull, who had began to snort and paw the ground.
"Well let' em look. He can't get us in here," scoffed Alvin, playing with the stream of water from the pipe that fed the trough.
"I don't know about that. He could jump right over this trough if he wanted to," worried Bobbie.
"He can't do that," assured Jessie, holding the edge of the trough and kicking the water.
"He might. Remember that bull last summer that jumped the fence and chased us up a tree?" recalled Jack.
"He didn't jump the fence. He ran right through it," corrected Jessie.
"Well, he could probably run right through this trough too."
"Sometimes you guys act like a bunch of sissies. That ole bull is just showin' off for the heifers. I could run him off easy," proclaimed Alvin, putting his hand partially over the water pipe and squirting a stream of water at Jack.
"Yeah, sure you could," challenged Bobby.
"Wanna bet?" accepted Alvin, redirecting the squirting water at Bobbie.
"I'll bet ya a nickel."
"You got a nickel?"
"I can get one."
"Sure you can."
"You got a nickel?"
Both boys glanced at Jessie. Everyone knew that he possessed the only nickel among them. Jessie shook his head. "I ain't loaning my nickel for no dumb bet like that."
"Don't matter. I'll chase him off anyway," said Alvin, standing up in the trough, with water up to his waist.
"What ya gonna do?" worried Jack.
"I'm gonna run him off just like I said," replied Alvin, moving over to the rim of the trough that faced the bull.
"Alvin, come on, don't mess with that ole bull," counseled Jessie.
"Just watch me, Jess!"
Leaping over the rim of the trough, Alvin raised his arms over his head, let out a blood-curdling yell, and ran headlong at the bull.
The bull may have hesitated a fraction longer than the heifers, but give or take a second or two, he turned in panic and scrambled off in the same cloud of dust with his harem.
"Gosh, ya gotta admit, Alvin ain't scared of nothin'," admired Gerald, as they watched the naked, grinning Alvin plod back through the scuffed turf and cow dung on his triumphant return to the water trough.
"It's probably the injun blood in him," said Bobby.
"I'd bet," agreed Jack.
"Yeah, his grammy was full-blooded Tejon injun, ya know."
When Alvin arrived back at the trough, he washed the cow dung off his feet, and then jumped over the rim into the water.
Bobbie said, "Alvin, I owe you a nickel. You really did scare that ole bull."
"Naw, you don't owe me. We didn't shake on it."
"We made a bet."
"But ya gotta shake on it ta make it official."
"Alvin's right, Bobbie. Ya gotta shake on it," confirmed Jack.
"Do you think you're brave because yer part injun?" asked Gerald from where he sat on the bottom on the trough, which brought the water up to just below his chin.
"I guess so," Alvin replied, then lowered himself into the water and let out a whoop. "The water is colder when ya get out then back in."
"Oh no, look! A rider's comin!" warned Jessie, hunching down in the water.
"Where?" asked Gerald, as the others ducked down in the water also.
Before Jessie could answer, they all saw the rider come around the old adobe stage house and into view- and they knew they were trapped. The rider was between the trough and their clothes- there was no escape. All they could do was duck down and hope that he was blind or something and wouldn't see them.
The rider was small framed and slender and wearing a wide-brimmed, black Stetson hat with a silver-studded band. He sat in the saddle in a way that marked him as an expert rider.
The boys pulled their heads down as far as possible behind the rim of the trough and watched him rein his glistening Palomino to a halt a few yards from the trough. Slipping out of the saddle in a graceful, easy movement, he reached back and pulled a thirty caliber rifle out of its scabbard.
"Okay, come on out of there," said a voice, so different from what those hunched in the water were expecting, they were speechless. It was a girl's voice!
The girl pumped a cartridge into the chamber of the rifle. It sounded like she was loading cannon. "We can't," croaked Jessie. "We don't have any clothes on."
"Well, isn't that a shame," said the girl.
She wore grey jodhpurs and a bright orange shirt with a matching kerchief around her neck. The Stetson was pulled down low on her forehead, and with the sun at her back, her face was in shadow. Raising the rifle to her shoulder, she said, "You realize that I have the right to blow your dumb heads off because you're trespassing on private property."
"Yes, uh, we know, but if you'll let us get our clothes, we'll leave real quick," promised Jessie.
"Oh, you're going to leave all right, one way or another," said the girl, now sounding like an executioner. "What I don't understand is why you people don't have any respect for the property rights of others. Why is that? Would you tell me?"
Excerpted from Wide Place in the Road by Richard C. Kirkland. Copyright © 2013 Richard C. Kirkland. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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