White Horse, Dark Rider

by Nels Hanson

More bountiful than Texas or the Nile or Mekong or Mississippi deltas, more fruitful than emerald Babylon and the Fertile Crescent of ancient Mesopotamia, the San Joaquin Valley of California is the richest farmland in the world.
…..To the east, where the sun waits and high mountains fall steeply to the foothills, reflected starlight glints from a black border of pines—
…..The alluvial white-ash soil and the San Joaquin’s wide aquifer of pure groundwater fed by rain and abundant runoff from the Sierra snows, and the temperate unvarying sub-desert climate—cold, foggy winters, early springs, hot, stormless summers May through September—grow 250 different crops worth $12 billion a year.
…..The white stallion in sparkling bridle bursts from the trees, and a rider with a stripe of silver dollars heel to hip—
…..A complex system of reservoirs and canals, modern chemicals and farm techniques and equipment, high-interest, high-debt financing, and employment of the large pool of cheap human labor from Mexico produce the record yields on the verdant flatlands stretching from Arvin to Lodi.
…..From a cord a sombrero blows straight out with the horse’s mane and tail. An ivory pistol grip flashes at his thigh, above the star-wheel spur running through the grass.
…..A New World Garden of Eden, a farmer’s paradise and “Food Basket of the Earth,” the Valley’s ideal natural habitat has been well exploited by man’s resourcefulness—Drop a seed in the dust and watch it sprout and bear:
…..Fresno, Tulare, Kings, Merced, Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Madera, Kern—An overflowing fountain of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, fodder and fiber pours from the ground, across seven counties named for timeless rivers and Indian tribes—
…..“Momento, Rey Blanco (“A moment, White King”),” the horseman murmurs, lightly pulling at the rein. They stop short at the crest of oaks and wild wheat, staring out across the Valley scattered with pioneers’ late candles and kerosene lamps that flare suddenly into a million electric lights dimming the stars—
…..The San Joaquin Valley is immense, 220 miles long, bordered on the north by the Delta, where the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers converge and empty into San Francisco Bay, and on the south by the Grapevine, the steep pass to Los Angeles that climbs the arid mountains beyond Bakersfield.
…..Summoned by the secret scent of the dry, breathing grasses and the resins of bay and laurel from a hidden creek, remembered star jasmine and blooming four o’clock, the Flower of Peru—
…..Dividing Nevada from California, standing in a great solid wall above the Valley floor, the Sierra Nevada ascend 14,000 feet with glacier-streaked granite scarps whose vast watersheds supply the San Joaquin River and its tributaries. Parallel with the Sierras and 80 miles to the west, the lower, smoother, more feminine Coast Range, the ancient Sierra Madre, separates the Valley from the ocean, the rain-making Pacific.
…..The perfume of a black-veiled woman wafts through the late-summer night, delaying the heart of the urgent rider—
…..Before the white American settlers arrived after the Gold Rush and the Civil War, the San Joaquin Valley resembled the Serengeti Plain of Africa. Myriad herds of pronghorn antelope, black-tailed deer and Tule elk swept like clouds across the lush savanna, grazing ten million acres of wild oats and grasses. Grizzly bear stalked with bobcat and cougar, the San Joaquin kit fox chased the hopping kangaroo rat, coyotes in the thousands wandered a moving sea of jackrabbits. The rivers ran thick with rainbow trout and Chinook salmon and networks of tule ponds teemed with catfish and darting sun perch, otter and mink and the hovering sapphire kingfisher.
…..He shivers with her sweetness and recalls a vanished Valley April, an evening among pungent blossoms of lemon and orange, quick shining eyes, and waist-length raven hair—
…..Autumn and spring the air turned black with sky-long flocks of passenger pigeon and mourning dove, white swan and half-mile V’s of Canadian geese, canvasback, mallard and blue and cinnamon teal, and waves of migratory songbirds—Bullock’s oriole, meadow lark and redwing blackbird, goldfinch, the Western bluebird and tanager.
…..California condors with a wingspan of ten feet circled high above the ground nests of burrowing owls, there were golden eagles and grass-skimming marsh hawks, white egrets, the great blue heron and sandhill crane.
…..Orange poppies and purple lupine and ghostly native wildflowers now extinct bloomed from Coast Range to Sierra in an unbroken ocean after the winter rains.
…..The yellow light touches softly at his belt and holster buckles, the brass cartridges asleep in his crossed bandoliers, now the cameo he slips from his short jacket and holds open to the rising August moon—
…..In the beginning Yokut Indians lived in reed houses along the rivers and streams, spearing fish and hunting deer and cottontail rabbit. They gathered crayfish and freshwater clams, berries and sweet roots and cress, wild honey and seeds, and bitter acorns from the plentiful, primordial oaks. Trading with the Coast Range Chumash, in barter for skins and sharp green-black obsidian, the Yokuts obtained jade, the abalone’s mother of pearl, scallop-shell necklaces and salt.
…..“Ah, Belle Solar . . . . (“Ah, Lovely Sun . . . .”) Tu nombre lleva luz— (“Your name carries light—”) como un ángel (“like an angel”).”
…..Occasionally, near the South Fork of the Kings River, a farmer on a tractor turns up a field where a village stood, his spinning disk blades exposing buried arrowheads and often a brave’s brown, heavy phallus stone.
…..“Adelante (“Advance”),” he says, replacing the locket, and Rey Blanco leaps forward, plunging down the hill of shoulder-high oats, his raised head like the masthead of a Viking longship parting a silver sea—
…..First came the Spanish explorers and missionaries, the Spanish ranchers, mountain men like Jedidiah Smith and later Kit Carson with “The Pathfinder,” Brevet Captain John C. Fremont, on a military expedition—before a young fiancée’s assault and murder and the desolate lover turned avenging angel and then bandit, the hawk-hearted Joaquin Murrietta.
…..Mexico lost California, to the short-lived Bear Flag Republic, and Americans assumed the royal land grants, running cattle and sheep, then farmed wheat with the arrival of the railroad. The land was virgin, never cut with a plow. The rich topsoil reached five feet deep with wildflower humus. An untapped vast subterranean lake lying just below the surface of the Valley floor allowed the roots of plants and trees to drink year round.
…..“Rio de vida o rio de muerte, quien sabe, eh, Rey Blanco? (“River of life or river of death, who knows, eh, White King?”)” the rider asks quietly, and they descend toward the white ribbon of water—
…..For a brief span of years, the time depicted in Frank Norris’ 1901 novel The Octopus, the town of Traver near the Kings River shipped more wheat than any depot in the world.
…..Past the clinging branches of manzanita and buckeye, through sycamore and cottonwood and tart-smelling willow, the horse enters the shimmering current splashing up at moon-bright hooves—
…..With immigration, the invention of the Fresno Scraper, the digging of ditches and the fights over water, the dynamiting of levees and earthen dams, the building of reservoirs and the drilling of wells, the small farms began: muscat vineyards for raisins and wine, apricot and peach orchards for drying and canning, fields of cotton and alfalfa, and citrus groves near the sheltering Sierra foothills.
…..Refrigeration brought fresh fruit and vegetables, the Delano table grape empires. On the West Side, after World War II—with 1,000-foot wells, Caterpillars, federal water, allotments, and subsidies—grew Big Cotton.
…..For over a hundred years, since Leland Stanford’s Central Pacific Railroad received ten miles on either side of its tracks from the government, the countryside has been shaped by a fierce geometry.
…..One story meeting another, the stream quickens in sudden ripples as it joins the wider water tumbling toward the Valley, and the lone Joaquin Murrietta guides the brilliant horse to the near bank of the swift and cold Kings River—
…..A perfect crosshatching of mile roads and power poles and cables divides the Valley in a rigid checkerboard. Square blocks of orchard and vineyard bloom and leaf and bear in strict rows aligned north and south, east and west, forming an unbroken emerald carpet of an even, pruned height.
…..The green land appears boundless and smooth as a tabletop—any rises or low hills have been scraped level for irrigation. All right angles and straight lines, top and bottom and side, the charted Valley carefully situates its human habitations: Houses and barns are stationed neatly as pyramids along the cardinal points, casting long parallel shadows at morning and sunset.
…..Live man or stirring ghost, under the branches of madrone, ignoring the call of great-horned owl and the night heron’s cry—broad wings beating above the constant river—Joaquin turns sharply to the north, out of the willows, onto the open grassland to race the sun—
…..At the heart of the Valley, 200 miles equidistant from San Francisco and Los Angeles, is Fresno—ash tree, in Spanish—the sprawling banking and agribusiness center, county seat, and this year, 1984, the fastest growing city in America.
…..Once the tranquil Garden City, Fresno was proud of its white, stately courthouse with the high dome and grounds with trees and benches, and the fountain, a stone boy holding up a leaky boot from which an arc of water ceaselessly poured. A demolition team dynamited the courthouse, a picture of the explosion appeared in Life, and a new, angular fortress took its place.
…..A few streets west, the now abandoned downtown drew shoppers and tourists who strolled the beautiful, open-air Fulton Mall adorned with flowers and attractive modern sculptures. Girls with pinned-up hair, dressed in Japanese kimonos, held lit paper lanterns as they danced its length at night in the autumn Obon Festival, which was featured in a large color photograph on the inside back cover of National Geographic.
…..Intent as a charging cavalryman, he spares no glance at the dim barn and ranch house, the corral of swirling horses, a palomino lifting its head, whinnying at the running snowy stallion—
…..Fresno had its celebrities—swim champion and actor Jon Hall, who starred with Dorothy Lamour in “Hurricane”—Chicago Cubs’ Hall of Fame first-baseman Frank Chance of the legendary “Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance” double-play trio—and Armenian-American author William Saroyan, who wrote The Time of Your Life and “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.”
…..“Una vez amor, una vez amor, una vez amor, una vez amor (“Once love, once love, once love, once love”)” Rey Blanco’s hooves beat against the asphalt, his iron shoes striking fire.
…..Now the hungry metropolis gobbles acres of prime farmland with each new, weekly housing development. Half a million people inhabit the smoggy, paved city of shopping centers and unending tracts of homes, while night and day enormous city pumps suck the water from the ground.
…..North Fresno abounds with thousands of mansions with swimming pools and generous sprinklered lawns; in South and West Fresno, expanding ghettos of Mexican- and African-Americans, and refugees from Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War.
…..Unemployment hovers at 15 percent, old men push shopping carts full of cans and pop bottles, the young homeless sleep under overpasses, gang members cruise in low-slung cars. Sirens scream in an unbroken chorus. Scores of rapes and hold-ups and burglaries occur weekly, and shootings and stabbings claim a life or two a day as 50 ethnic groups attempt to reap the bounty of their Garden in the Sun.
…..Down the long hill, onto the main road, letting the sleeping pastures and farms sail away, faster now, racing on the flat land, Joaquin urges, “Ándele, Rey Blanco, ándele! (“Hurry, White King, hurry!”)”—
…..Twenty miles south, along the 99 Highway, lies Lemas, “Raisin Capital of the World,” as the billboard proudly proclaims above a giant’s open palm holding an Earth draped with yellow grapes—a temptation to tricksters, and at least twice a year “Raisin” requires a sign painter’s retouching.
…..Lemas boasts Sun Damsel, the world’s largest farmers’ co-operative and raisin-processing plant, a Del Monte cannery, and several modern packing houses for table grapes, peaches, nectarines and plums. Car and truck dealerships—CHEVYFORDHONDA—and crowded tractor and farm implement lots line the 99, their red and blue balloons and triangular flags flashing in the sun.
…..“Ah, Rey Blanco, si no más tuvimos alas! (“Ah, White King, if only we had wings!”)”
…..The visitor will find a shopping center and attractive residential areas, a farmworker barrio of ramshackle houses and apartments and unpaved streets, a few restaurants and many churches, a lighted high school football stadium, and an extensive pioneer park and museum displaying buggies and harrows, a World War I howitzer, a chair like Abraham Lincoln’s with arms made of buffalo horn, photographs of raisin harvests and river picnics and rabbit drives, and a horse veterinarian’s gigantic shiny tools.
…..Black scarf flying at his neck Joaquin bolts through the nighttime shuttered town the notorious Murrietta once would have robbed, beyond the hill of shining tombstones—
…..And a cemetery with iron picket fence between Italian cypresses. Many of the ornate granite memorials carved with angels and roses, sailing ships and crossed cavalry swords show birthdates well prior to the Civil War.
…..“Ahora solamente el guiño del ojo oscuro, Rey Blanco! (“Now just the wink of a dark eye, White King!”)”
…..Lemas has produced famous sons and daughters—the dedicated Armenian-American attorney for the Black Panther Party, a Mexican-American posthumous recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, Fresno County’s first woman superior and appellate court judge, and a farmer turned World War II conscientious objector, lay Franciscan monk and God-shaken poet in bear-claw necklace and trapper’s fringed buckskin—
…………………….These are the ravens of my soul
…………………….Cawing, cawing on the farthest fences of the world.
…..Its silver water tower and dark conifers stand like an island above the flat ocean of green vines, where white farmhouses and barns with tin roofs ride like ships permanently at anchor on a curveless sea.
…..Horse and rider arch forward at a crossroads and a barrel-trunked oak, into the waning moonlight toward the beating of a third, answering heart—
…..West of Lemas and the town’s Mexican barrio and across the Hanford Highway, on the way toward Mussel Slough where the railroad’s hired guns murdered the wheat farmers a century ago—not far from the cow pasture near Lemoore and the pink adobe mausoleum of Daniel Rhodes, rescuer of the Donner Party—Linda Verde Avenue cuts a line straight as a compass needle locked on the rocky coast at Big Sur.
…..(From the center of the road, when the air clears after a rain and you look due east toward the cradle of spires above the blue mountains, you can see Mt. Whitney, highest peak in the continental United States.)
…..At his forehead Joaquin feels the sun aim through the notches of the Rockies, fall in amber shafts across Utah and Nevada, bathing the granite eastern flank of the Sierras, in a lateral line climbing the bare citadels and minarets toward the summit—
…..Every quarter mile along the waves of trellised vines higher than a car, clusters of walnut, cottonwood or oak, eucalyptus, rise to shade a farmhouse. Some trees date back a hundred years, to the days before electricity and swamp coolers or air conditioning, when only shadow gave relief from the brutal Valley summers and the first thing a farmer did was plant a tree.
…..Closer now, “Ándele, Rey Blanco!” Joaquin shouts as the sinking orange moon touches the Sierra Madre and the jagged Sierra Nevada sharpen against the brightening sky—
…..Black walnuts and towering Valley oaks dwarf unpainted board-and-batten houses with narrow, tilted windows and sinking porches, frail survivors of a world of plow horses, pump-handles, kerosene and castor oil. Sometimes two fat-trunked, lopped-limbed chinaberries—umbrella trees—still grow beside a square shack in a bare dirt yard.
…..Behind the grouped birches or twin Modesto ashes sit new stucco ranch houses, long and low, with garages and green lawns, curving sidewalks and graveled horseshoe drives.
…..At a wall of dark walnuts Joaquin nods to the right and Rey Blanco veers like a white arrow, leaves the road and jumps a levee, galloping in a crescent through the grove where the last moonlight falls in dusty rain—
…..Out Linda Verde five miles beyond Lemas—past the Reagan ’84 posters tacked to the power poles and the realtors’ signs staked at every fourth or fifth farm with pickups and cars, tractors and camping trailers for sale in the driveways—a one-story house freshly painted a too-bright pink fronts a park of English walnuts whose thick trunks are whitewashed against crown gall.
…..“Este tiempo yo vengo en tiempo— (“This time I arrive in time—”) Como te prometí— (“As I promised you—”)”
…..A white peacock struts stiffly along the open porch, dragging its tail past a grilled door and a row of barred windows. At the cement steps, a pair of chocolate Doberman pinschers wait alertly on their haunches, their narrow heads tilted as they watch the road.
…..“Gracias a Nuestra Señora— (“Thanks to Our Lady—”)”
…..Now It’s Morning in America! a brilliant red, white and blue placard announces from the yard’s sudden island of sun as the walnut leaves flame yellow, the pink porch leaps crimson and the golden peacock shrieks to its mate—
…..“Otra vez estoy demasiado tarde, siempre tarde, mi querida, mi sola amor! (“Again I’m too late, always late, my darling, my only love!”)” Joaquin cries under his breath, then whispers: “Ah, lo siento, Belle Solar, lo siento tanto— (“Ah, I’m sorry, Lovely Sun, so sorry—”)”
…..Across the street, an awakened glowing structure—Un castillo secreto en nubes verdes (A secret castle in green clouds), Joaquin thinks—peers from the branches of an enormous elm.
…..The sunlight explodes all around him on leaf and sparkling sand and the milky horse glides swiftly under the tree, into the dappled morning shadow now turning dense with the arriving late afternoon—
…..Great upward-reaching limbs spread above the white house and cast shade over half its roof and wide Bermuda lawn.
…..Shouldering a century and a half of loss like an iron cape, Joaquin yearns toward the new home of his old love, the lost Belle Solar, until midnight when he’ll wake in the Sierra Nevada above Kings River Canyon and mount Rey Blanco to race through death’s shadows toward love’s reunion, to meet in someone else’s dream cast by a book in the sleeper’s open hand, and resume at last the lovers’ interrupted story—

The End

Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz and the University of Montana and his fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award. His stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Long Story, Short Story, Starry Night Review, and other journals. “Now the River’s in You,” a 2010 story which appeared in Ruminate Magazine, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.