Sample N20 from T. C. McClary, "The Flooded Desert," Argosy, 352: 4 (April, 1961) 27, 104-106. A part of the XML version of the Brown Corpus2,016 words 327 (16.2%) quotesN20

Used by permission of Argosy. 0010-1720

T. C. McClary, "The Flooded Desert," Argosy, 352: 4 (April, 1961) 27, 104-106.

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They were west of the Sabine , but only God knew where .

For three days , their stolid oxen had plodded up a blazing valley as flat and featureless as a dead sea . Molten glare singed their eyelids an angry crimson ; ; suffocating air sapped their strength and strained their nerves to snapping ; ; dust choked their throats and lay like acid in their lungs . And the valley stretched endlessly out ahead , scorched and baked and writhing in its heat , until it vanished into the throbbing wall of fiery orange brown haze .

Ben Prime extended his high-stepped stride until he could lay his goad across the noses of the oxen . `` Hoa-whup '' ! ! He commanded from his raw throat , and felt the pain of movement in his cracked , black burned lips .

He removed his hat to let the trapped sweat cut rivulets through the dust film upon his gaunt face . He spat . The dust-thick saliva came from his mouth like balled cotton . He moved back to the wheel and stood there blowing , grasping the top of a spoke to still the trembling of his played-out limbs . The burning air dried his sweat-soaked clothes in salt-edged patches .

He cleared his throat and wet his lips . As cheerfully as possible , he said , `` Well , I guess we could all do with a little drink '' .

He unlashed the dipper and drew water from a barrel . They could no longer afford the luxury of the canvas sweat bag that cooled it by evaporation . The water was warm and stale and had a brackish taste . But it was water . Thank the Lord , they still had water ! !

He cleansed his mouth with a small quantity . He took a long but carefully controlled draught . He replenished the dipper and handed it to his young wife riding the hurricane deck . She took it grudgingly , her dark eyes baleful as they met his .

She drank and pushed back her gingham bonnet to wet a kerchief and wipe her face . She set the dipper on the edge of the deck , leaving it for him to stretch after it while she looked on scornfully .

`` What happens when there's no more water '' ? ? She asked smolderingly .

She was like charcoal , he thought -- dark , opaque , explosive . Her thick hair was the color and texture of charcoal . Her temper sparked like charcoal when it first lights up . And all the time , she had the heat of hatred in her , like charcoal that is burning on its under side , but not visibly .

A ripple ran through the muscles of his jaws , but he kept control upon his voice .

`` There must be some water under there '' . He tilted his homely face toward the dry bed of the river . `` We can get it if we dig '' , he said patiently .

`` And add fever to our troubles '' ? ? She scoffed . `` Or do you want to see if I can stand fever , too '' ? ?

`` We can boil it '' , he said .

Her chin sharpened . `` We're lost and burning up already '' , she bit out tensely . `` The tires are rattling on the wheels now . They'll roll off in another day . There was no valley like this on your map . You don't even know where we're headed '' .

`` Hettie '' , he said as gently as he could , `` we're still headed west . Somewhere , we'll hit a trail '' .

`` Somewhere ! ! '' She repeated . `` Maybe in time to make a cross and dig our graves '' .

His wide mouth compressed . In a way , he couldn't blame her . He had picked out this pathless trail , instead of the common one , in a moment of romantic fancy , to give them privacy on their honeymoon .

It had been a mistake , but anything would have been a mistake , as it turned out . It wasn't the roughness and crudity and discomfort of the trip that had frightened her . She had hated the whole idea before they started . Actually , she had hated him before she ever saw him . It had been five days too late before he learned that she'd gone through the wedding ceremony in a semitrance of laudanum , administered by her mother .

The bitterness of their wedding night still ripped within him like an open wound . She had jumped away from his shy touch like a cat confronted by a sidewinder . He had left her inviolate , thinking familiarity would gentle her in time . But each mile westward , she had hated him the deeper .

He stared at the dipper , turning it over and over in his wide , calloused hands . `` I suppose '' , he muttered , `` I can sell the outfit for enough to send you home to your folks , once we find a settlement '' .

`` Don't try to be noble '' ! ! Her laugh was hard . `` They wouldn't have sold me in the first place if there'd been food enough to go around '' .

He winced . `` Hettie , they didn't sell you '' , he said miserably . `` They knew I was a good sharecrop farmer back in Carolina , but out West was a chance to build a real farm of our own . They thought it would be a chance for you to make a life out where nobody will be thought any better than the next except for just what's inside of them . Without money or property , what would you have had at Baton Rouge '' ? ?

`` I might have starved , but at least I wouldn't be fried to a crisp and soaked with dirt '' ! !

He darkened under his heavy burn . His blue eyes sought the shimmering sea of haze ahead .

To his puzzlement , there suddenly was no haze . The valley lay clear , and open to the eye , right up to the sharp-limbed line of gaunt , scoured hills that formed the horizon twenty miles ahead .

Then he noticed the clouds racing upon them -- heavy , ominous , leaden clouds that formed even as they sliced over the crests of the surrounding hills . He had never seen clouds like them before , but he had the primitive feel of danger that gripped a man before a hurricane in Carolina .

He hollered hoarsely , `` Hang on '' ! ! And goaded the oxen as he yelled . He wanted to turn them , putting the wagon against the storm . Too late , he realized that in turning , he had wheeled them onto a patch of sandy ground , instead of atop a grade or ridge .

He swung up over the wheel . `` You had better get inside '' , he warned her .

But she sat on in stubborn silence .

The clouds bulged downward and burst suddenly into a great black funnel . Frozen , they stared at it whirling down the valley , gouging and spitting out boulders and chunks of earth like a starving hound dog cracking marrowbones . The six-ton Conestoga began to whip and shake .

Their world turned black . It was filled with dust and wind and sound and violence . The heavens opened , pelting them with hail the size of walnuts . And then came the water -- not rain , but solid sheets that sluiced down like water slopping from a bucket . Walls of water rushed down the slopes and filled the hollows like the crests of flash floods . Through the splash of the rising waters , they could hear the roar of the river as it raged through its canyon , gnashing big chunks out of the banks .

The jetting , frothing surface of the river reached the level of the runoff . The dangerous current upon the prairie ceased , but the water stood and kept on rising . They cringed under sodden covers , listening to the waves slop against the bottom .

The cloudburst cut off abruptly . They were engulfed by the weird silence , broken only by the low , angry murmur of the river . Then the darkness thinned , and there was light again , and then bright sunlight .

Beaten with fear and sound and wet and chill , they crawled to the hurricane deck and looked out haggardly at a world of water that reached clear to the surrounding hills . The water level was higher than their hubs . Only the heavy bones of the oxen kept them anchored .

There was no real sign of the river now , just a roiling , oily ribbon of liquid movement through muddy waters that reached everywhere . Clumps of brush rode down the ribbon . Now and then , the glistening side of a half-swamped object showed as it swept past .

The girl crawled out into the renewing warmth of the sunshine , hugging her shoulders and still trembling . Her face was pale but set and her dark eyes smoldered with blame for Ben .

Out of compulsion to say something cheery , Ben Prime blurted , `` Well , we were lucky to be on soft ground when the first floodheads hit . At least , the wheels dug in . The soaking will put life back in the wagon , too '' .

His wife didn't give a sign she'd heard . She was watching a tree ride wildly down that roiling current . Somebody was riding the tree . It raced closer and they could see a woman with white hair , sitting astride an upright branch .

She did not call out . But as the tree passed , she lifted an arm in gesture of better luck and farewell . They watched the tree until it twisted sharply on a bend . It speared up into the air , then sinking back , the up-jutting branch turned slowly . The pale blob of the woman disappeared .

`` There's the one who's lucky '' ! ! The girl murmured harshly .

Ben's eyes strained with the bitter hurt , his homely face slashed with gray and crimson . Then he took off his wet boots and dropped down into the water to talk with the beasts , needing their comfort more than they needed his .

It was nearly sundown and he went to the back of the wagon , half-swimming his way , for he was not a tall man . He let down the tailgate and was knocked over by the sluice of water .

He sputtered back to his feet and scrambled madly to pull his bags of seed grain forward . They were already swollen to bursting . Of all their worldly belongings , next to the oxen and his gun , the seed grain had been the most treasured . It was spoiled now for seed , and it would sour and mold in three days if they failed to find a place and fuel to dry it . The oxen might as well enjoy it .

He examined the water marks on the iron tires when the animals were finished . The waters lay muddy but placid , without a ripple of movement against the wheels ; ; there was not a match-width of damp mark to show they were receding .

He doubted if a man could wade as far as the desolate , dry hills that rimmed the valley . A terrible , numbing sense of futility swept over him .

He gripped the wheel hard to fight the despondency of defeat . Then he noticed that the dry wood of the wheels had swollen . The spokes were tight again , the iron tires gripped onto the wheels as if of one piece .

Hope surged within him . He swung toward the front to give the news to Hettie , then stopped , barred from her by the vehemence of her blame and hate . Still , he felt better . A tight wagon meant so much .

He got a small fire started and put on bacon and coffee . He poured the water off the sourdough and off the flour , salvaging the chunky , watery messes for biscuits of a sort . Their jams and jellies had not suffered . He found a jar of preserved tomatoes and one of eggs that they had meant to save . Now he broke them open , hoping a good meal might lessen this depression crushing Hettie .

His long nose wiggled at the smells of frizzling bacon and heating java , but the fire was low , and he wanted to waste no time . He furled the slashed sides of the canvas tarpaulins , leaving the ribs and wagon open .

He looked thoughtfully at his wife's trunk , holding her meager treasures . He said hesitantly , `` Hettie , I don't figure your things got wet too much . That's a good trunk . If you want to get them aired ''

She said without turning her head , `` After that rain beating in atop the dust , there isn't a thing that won't be streaked '' .

He drew a long breath and opened the trunk and hung out her clothes and spoilables upon the wagon ribs .