“Shoo,” Hetty Thompson cried, waving her battered old felt hat at the clucking cluster of hens eddying around her legs as she plowed through the flock towards the chicken house. “Scat. You, Solomon,” she called out, directing her words at the bobbing comb of the big rooster strutting at the edge of the mob. “Don’t just stand there like a satisfied cowhand after a night in Reno. Get these noisy females outta my way.” She batted at the hens and they scattered with angry squawks of protest.
Hetty paused in the doorway of the chicken house to allow her eyes to become accustomed to the cool gloom after the bright glare of the ranch yard. She could feel the first trickles of sweat forming under the man’s shirt she was wearing as the hot, early morning Nevada sun beat down on her back in the doorway.
Moving carefully but quickly through the nests, she reached and groped for the eggs she knew would be found in the scattered straw. As she placed each find carefully in the bucket she carried, her lips moved in a soundless count. When she had finished, she straightened up and left the chicken house, her face reflecting minor irritation.
Again the hens swirled about her, hoping for the handfuls of cracked corn she usually tossed to them. On the other side of the yard Solomon stepped majestically along the edge of the vegetable garden, never crossing the hoed line separating garden from yard.
“You’d better stay over there, you no-account Lothario,” Hetty growled. “Five eggs short this morning and all you do is act like you were just the business agent for this bunch of fugitives from a dumpling pot.” Solomon cocked his head and stared Hetty down. She paused at the foot of the backporch steps and threw the rooster a final remark. “You don’t do any better than this you’re liable to wind up in that pot yourself.” Solomon gave a scornful cluck. “Better still, I’ll get me a young rooster in here and take over your job.” Solomon let out a squawk and took out at a dead run, herding three hens before him towards the chicken house.
With a satisfied smile of triumph, Hetty climbed the steps and crossed to the kitchen door. She turned and looked back across the yard towards the barn and corrals.
“Barneeeeey,” Hetty yelled. “Ain’t you finished with that milking yet?”
“Comin’ now, Miz Thompson,” came the reply from the barn. Hetty let the screen door slam behind her as she walked into the kitchen and placed the bucket of eggs on the big work table. She had her arm up to wipe her moist forehead on the sleeve of her shirt when she spotted the golden egg lying in the middle of the others in the galvanized bucket.
She froze in the arm-lifted position for several seconds, staring at the dully glowing egg. Then she slowly reached out and picked it up. It was slightly heavier than a regular egg, but for the dull, gold-bronze metallic appearance of the shell, looked just like any of the other twenty-odd eggs in the bucket. She was still holding it in the palm of her hand when the kitchen door again slammed and the handy man limped into the room. He carried two pails of milk across the kitchen and set them down near the sink.
“Whatcha lookin’ at, Miz Thompson?” Barney Hatfield asked.
Hetty frowned at the egg in her hand without answering. Barney limped around the side of the table for a closer look. Sunlight streaming through the kitchen windows glinted on the shell of the odd egg. Barney’s eyes grew round. “Now ain’t that something,” he whispered in awe.
Hetty started as though someone had snapped their fingers in front of her staring eyes. Her normal look of practical dubiousness returned.
“Huh,” she snorted. “Even had me fooled for a second. Something wrong with this egg but it sure is shootin’ ain’t gold. One of them fool hens must of been pecking in the fertilizer storeroom and got herself an overdose of some of them minerals in that stuff.
“What are you staring at, you old fool,” she glared at Barney. “It ain’t gold.” Hetty laid the egg at one side of the table. She walked to the sink and took a clean, two-gallon milk can from the drainboard and set it in the sink to fill it from the pails of rich, frothy milk Barney had brought in the pails.
“Sally come fresh this morning, Miz Thompson,” he said. “Got herself a real fine little bull calf.”
Hetty looked at the two pails of milk. “Well, where’s the rest of the milk, then?”
“That’s Queenie’s milk,” Barney said. “Sally’s is still out on the porch.”
“Well bring it in before the sun clabbers it.”
“Can’t,” Barney said.
Hetty swung around and glared at him. “What do you mean, you can’t? You suddenly come down with the glanders?”
“No’m, it’s just that Sally’s milk ain’t no good,” he replied.
A frown spread over Hetty’s face as she hoisted one of the milk pails and began pouring into the can in the sink. “What’s wrong with it, Barney? Sally seem sick or something?” she asked.
Barney scratched his head. “I don’t rightly know, Miz Thompson. That milk looks all right, or at least, almost all right. It’s kinda thin and don’t have no foam like you’d expect milk to have. But mostly, it sure don’t smell right and it danged well don’t taste right.
“Phooey.“ He made a face at the memory of the taste. “I stuck my finger in it when it looked kinda queer, and took a taste. It shore tasted lousy.”
“You probably been currying that mangey old horse of yours before you went to milking,” Hetty snorted, “and tasted his cancerous old hide on your fingers. I’ve told you for the last time to wash your hands before you go to milking them cows. I didn’t pay no eighteen hundred dollars for that prize, registered Guernsey just to have you give her bag fever with your dirty hands.”
“That ain’t so, Miz Thompson,” Barney cried indignantly. “I did too, wash my hands. Good, too. I wuzn’t near my horse this morning. That milk just weren’t no good.”
Hetty finished pouring the milk into the cans and after putting the cans in the refrigerator, wiped her hands on her jeans and went out onto the porch, Barney trailing behind her. She bent over and sniffed at the two milk pails setting beside the door. “Whew,” she exclaimed, “it sure does smell funny. Hand me that dipper, Barney.”
Barney reached for a dipper hanging on a nail beside the kitchen door. Hetty dipped out a small quantity of the milk, sipped, straightened up with a jerk and spewed the milk out into the yard. “Yaawwwk,” she spluttered, “that tastes worse ‘n Diesel oil.”
She stirred distastefully at the swirling, flat-looking liquid in the pails and then turned back to the kitchen. “I never saw the like of it,” she exclaimed. “Chickens come out with some kind of sorry-looking egg and now, in the same morning, an eighteen hundred dollar registered, fresh Guernsey gives out hogwash instead of milk.” She stared thoughtfully across the yard at the distant mountains, now shimmering in the hot, midmorning sun. “Guess we could swill the hogs with that milk, rather’n throw it out, Barney. I never seen anything them Durocs wouldn’t eat. When you get ready to put the other swill in the cooker, toss that milk in with it and cook it up for the hogs.”
Hetty went back into her kitchen and Barney turned and limped across the yard to the tractor shed. He pulled the brim of his sweat-stained Stetson over his eyes and squinted south over the heat-dancing sage and sparse grasslands of Circle T range. Dust devils were pirouetting in the hazy distance towards the mountains forming a corridor leading to the ranch. A dirt road led out of the yard and crossed an oiled county road about five miles south of the ranch. The county road was now the only link the Circle T had to the cattle shipping pens at Carson City. The dirt road arrowed south across the range but fifteen miles from the ranch, a six-strand, new, barbed-wire fence cut the road. A white metal sign with raised letters proclaimed “Road Closed. U.S. Government Military Reservation. Restricted Area. Danger--Peligre. Keep Out.”
The taut bands of wire stretched east and west of the road for more than twenty miles in each direction, with duplicates of the metal sign hung on the fence every five hundred yards. Then the wires turned south for nearly a hundred miles, etching in skin-blistering, sun-heated strands, the outlines of the Nevada atomic testing grounds at Frenchman’s Flat.
When the wire first went up, Hetty and her ranching neighbors had screamed to high heaven and high congressmen about the loss of the road and range. The fence stayed up. Now they had gotten used to the idea and had even grown blasé about the frequent nuclear blasts that rattled the desert floor sixty miles from ground zero.
Barney built a fire under the big, smoke-blackened cauldron Hetty used for cooking the hog swill. Dale Hamilton, the county agent, had given Hetty a long talk on the dangers of feeding the pigs, raw, uncooked and possibly contaminated, garbage. When Hamilton got graphic about what happened to people who ate pork from such hogs, Hetty turned politely green and had Barney set up the cooking cauldron.
After dumping the kitchen slops into the pot, Barney hiked back across the yard to get the two pails of bad milk.
Hetty was sitting at the kitchen table, putting the eggs into plastic refrigerator dishes when the hog slop exploded in a whooshing roar, followed a split second later by an even louder blast that rocked the ranch buildings. The eggs flew across the room as the lid of the slop cauldron came whistling through the kitchen window in a blizzard of flying glass and buried itself, edgewise, in the wall over the stove. Hetty slammed backwards headfirst into a heap of shattered eggs. A torrent of broken plaster, and crockery fragments rained on her stunned figure. Through dazed eyes, she saw a column of purple-reddish fire rising from the yard.
A woman who has been thrown twenty-three times from a pitching bronco and kicked five times in the process, doesn’t stay dazed long. Pawing dripping egg yokes and plaster from her face, Hetty Thompson struggled to her feet and staggered to the kitchen door.
“Barneeey,” she bawled, “you all right?”
The column of weird-colored flame had quickly died and only a few flickering pieces of wood from the cauldron fire burned in scattered spots about the yard. Of the cauldron, there wasn’t a sign.
“Barney,” she cried anxiously, “where are you?”
“Here I am, Miz Thompson.” Barney’s blackened face peered around the corner of the tractor shed. “You O.K., Miz Thompson?”
“What in thunderation happened?” Hetty called out. “You try to build a fire with dynamite for kindling?”
Shaken but otherwise unharmed, Barney painfully limped over to the ranch house porch.
“Don’t ask me what happened, m’am,” he said. “I just poured that milk into the slop pot and then put the lid back on and walked off. I heered this big ‘whoosh‘ and turned around in time to see the lid fly off and the kettle begin to tip into the fire and then there was one helluva blast. It knocked me clean under the tractor shed.” He fumbled in his pocket for a cigarette and shakily lighted it.
Hetty peered out over the yard and then looking up, gasped. Perched like a rakish derby hat on the arm of the towering pump windmill was the slop cauldron. “Well I’ll be...” Hetty Thompson said.
“You sure you didn’t pour gas on that fire to make it burn faster, Barney Hatfield?” she barked at the handy man.
“No siree,” Barney declaimed loudly, “there weren’t no gas anywhere near that fire. Only thing I poured out was that there bad milk.” He paused and scratched his head. “Reckon that funny milk coulda done that, Miz Thompson? There ain’t no gas made what’ll blow up nor burn so funny as that did.”
Hetty snorted. “Whoever heard of milk blowing up, you old idiot?” A look of doubt spread. “You put all that milk in there?”
“No’m, just the one bucket.” Barney pointed to the other pail beside the kitchen door, now half-empty and standing in a pool of liquid sloshed out by the blast wave. Hetty studied the milk pail for a minute and then resolutely picked it up and walked out into the yard.
“Only one way to find out,” she said. “Get me a tin can, Barney.”
She poured about two tablespoons of the milk into the bottom of the can while Barney collected a small pile of kindling. Removing the milk pail to a safe distance, Hetty lighted the little pile of kindling, set the tin can atop the burning wood and scooted several yards away to join Barney who had been watching from afar. In less than a minute a booming whoosh sent a miniature column of purple, gaseous flame spouting from the can. “Well whadda you know about that?” Hetty exclaimed wonderingly.
The can had flown off the fire a few feet but didn’t explode. Hetty went back to the milk pail and collecting less than a teaspoon full in the water dipper, walked to the fire. Standing as far back as she could and still reach over the flames, she carefully sprinkled a few drops of the liquid directly into the fire and then jumped back. Miniature balls of purple flame erupted from the fire before she could move. Pieces of flaming kindling flew in all directions and one slammed Barney across the back of the neck and sent a shower of sparks down his back.
The handy man let out a yowl of pain and leaped for the watering trough beside the corral, smoke trailing behind him. Hetty thoughtfully surveyed the scene of her experiment from beneath raised eyebrows. Then she grunted with satisfaction, picked up the remaining milk in the pail and went back to the ranch house. Barney climbed drippingly from the horse trough.
The kitchen was a mess. Splattered eggs were over everything and broken glass, crockery and plaster covered the floor, table and counters. Only one egg remained unbroken. That was the golden egg. Hetty picked it up and shook it. There was a faint sensation of something moving inside the tough, metallic-looking shell. It shook almost as a normal egg might, but not quite. Hetty set the strange object on a shelf and turned to the task of cleaning up.
Johnny Culpepper, the ranch’s other full-time hand and Hetty’s assistant manager, drove the pickup into the yard just before noon. He parked in the shade of the huge cottonwood tree beside the house and bounced out with an armload of mail and newspapers. Inside the kitchen door, he dumped the mail on the sideboard and started to toss his hat on a wall hook when he noticed the condition of the room. Hetty was dishing out fragrant, warmed-over stew into three lunch dishes on the table. She had cleaned up the worst of the mess and changed into a fresh shirt and jeans. Her iron-gray hair was pulled back in a still-damp knot at the back after a hasty scrubbing to get out the gooey mixture of eggs and plaster.
“Holy smoke, Hetty,” Johnny said. “What happened here? Your pressure kettle blow up?” His eyes widened when he saw the lid of the slop cauldron still embedded in the wall over the stove. His gaze tracked back and took in the shattered window.
“Had an accident,” Hetty said matter-of-factly, putting the last dishes on the table. “Tell you about it when we eat. Now you go wash up and call Barney. I want you to put some new glass in that window this afternoon and get that danged lid outta the wall.”
Curious and puzzled, Johnny washed at the kitchen sink and then walked to the door to shout for Barney. On the other side of the yard, Barney released the pump windmill clutch. While Johnny watched from the porch, the weight of the heavy slop cauldron slowly turned the big windmill and as the arm adorned by the kettle rotated downward, the cast-iron pot slipped off and fell to the hard-packed ground with a booming clang.
“Well, for the luvva Pete,” Johnny said in amazement. “Hey, Barney, time to eat. C’mon in.”
Barney trudged across the yard and limped into the kitchen to wash. They sat down to the table. “Now just what have you two been up to,” Johnny demanded as they attacked the food-laden dishes.
Between mouthfuls, the two older people gave him a rundown on the morning’s mishaps. The more Johnny heard, the wilder it sounded. Johnny had been a part of the Circle T since he was ten years old. That was the year Hetty jerked him out of the hands of a Carson City policeman who had been in the process of hauling the ragged and dirty youngster to the station house for swiping a box of cookies from a grocery store. Johnny’s mother was dead and his father, once the town’s best mechanic, had turned into the town’s best drunk.
During the times his father slept one off, either in the shack the man and boy occupied at the edge of town, or in the local lockup, Johnny ran wild.
Hetty took the boy to the ranch for two reasons. Mainly it was the empty ache in her heart since the death of Big Jim Thompson a year earlier following a ranch tractor accident that had crushed his chest. The other was her well-hidden disappointment that she had been childless. Hetty’s bluff, weathered features would never admit to loneliness or heartache. Beneath the surface, all the warmth and love she had went out to the scared but belligerent youngster. But she never let much affection show through until Johnny had become part of her life. Johnny’s father died the following winter after pneumonia brought on by a night of lying drunk in the cold shack during a blizzard. It was accepted without legal formality around the county that Johnny automatically became Hetty’s boy.
She cuffed and comforted him into a gawky-happy adolescence, pushed him through high school and then, at eighteen, sent him off to the University of California at Davis to learn what the pundits of the United States Department of Agriculture had to say about animal husbandry and ranch management.
When Hetty and Barney had finished their recitation, Johnny wore a look of frank disbelief. “If I didn’t know you two better, I’d say you both been belting the bourbon bottle while I was gone. But this I’ve got to see.”
They finished lunch and, after Hetty stacked the dishes in the sink, trooped out to the porch where Johnny went through the same examination of the milk. Again, a little fire was built in the open safety of the yard and a few drops of the liquid used to produce the same technicolored, combustive effects.
“Well, what do you know,” Johnny exclaimed, “a four hundred octane Guernsey cow!”
Johnny kicked out the fire and carried the milk pail to the tractor shed. He parked the milk on a workbench and gathered up an armful of tools to repair the blast-torn kitchen. He started to leave but when the milk bucket caught his eye, he unloaded the tools and fished around under the workbench for an empty five-gallon gasoline can. He poured the remaining milk into the closed gasoline can and replaced the cap. Then he took his tools and a pane of glass from an overhead rack and headed for the house.
Hetty came into the kitchen as he was prying at the cauldron lid in the wall.
“You’re going to make a worse mess before you’re through,” she said, “so I’ll just let you finish and then clean up the whole mess afterwards. I got other things to do anyway.”
She jammed a man’s old felt hat on her head and left the house. Barney was unloading the last of the supplies Johnny had brought from Carson in the truck. Hetty shielded her eyes against the metallic glare of the afternoon sun. “Gettin’ pretty dry, Barney. Throw some salt blocks in the pickup and I’ll run them down to the south pasture and see if the pumps need to be turned on.
“And you might get that wind pump going in case we get a little breeze later this afternoon. But in any case, better run the yard pump for an hour or so and get some water up into the tank. I’ll be back as soon as I take a ride through the pasture. I want to see how that Angus yearling is coming that I picked out for house beef.”
A few minutes later, Hetty in the pickup disappeared behind a hot swirl of yellow dust. Barney ambled to the cool pump house beneath the towering windmill. An electric motor, powered either from the REA line or from direct current stored in a bank of wet cell batteries, bulked large in the small shed. To the left, a small, gasoline-driven generator supplied standby power if no wind was blowing to turn the arm-driven generator or if the lines happened to be down, as was often the case in the winter.
Barney threw the switch to start the pump motor. Nothing happened. He reached for the light switch to test the single bulb hanging from a cord to the ceiling. Same nothing. Muttering darkly to himself, he changed the pump engine leads to DC current and closed the switch to the battery bank. The engine squeaked and whined slowly but when Barney threw in the clutch to drive the pump, it stopped and just hummed faintly. Then he opened the AC fuse box.
Johnny had freed the cauldron lid and was knocking out bits of broken glass from the kitchen window frame before putting in the new glass when Barney limped into the room.
“That pot busted the pump house ‘lectric line, Johnny, when it went sailing,” he said. “Miz Thompson wants to pump up some water and on top of that, the batteries are down. You got time to fix the line?”
Johnny paused and surveyed the kitchen. “I’m going to be working here for another hour anyway so Hetty can clean up when she gets back. Why don’t you fire up the gasoline kicker for now and I’ll fix the line when I get through here,” he said.
“O.K.,” Barney nodded and turned to leave. “Oh, forgot to ask you. Miz Thompson tell you about the egg?”
“What egg?” Johnny asked.
“The gold one.”
Johnny grinned. “Sure, and I saw the goose when I came in. And you’re Jack and the windmill is your beanstalk. Go climb it, Barney and cut out the fairy tales.”
“Naw, Johnny,” Barney protested, “I ain’t kidding. Miz Thompson got a gold egg from the hens this morning. At least, it looks kinda like gold but she says it ain’t. See, here it is.” He reached into the cupboard where Hetty had placed the odd egg. He walked over and handed it to Johnny who was sitting on the sink drain counter to work on the shattered window.
The younger man turned the egg over in his hand. “It sure feels funny. Wonder what the inside looks like?” He banged the egg gently against the edge of the drain board. When it didn’t crack, he slammed it harder, but then realizing that if it did break suddenly, it would squish onto the floor, he put the egg on the counter and tapped it with his hammer.
The shell split and a clear liquid poured out on to the drain board, thin and clear, not glutenous like a normal egg white. A small, reddish ball, obviously the yolk, rolled across the board, fell into the sink and broke into powdery fragments. A faint etherlike odor arose from the mess.
“I guess Miz Thompson was right,” Barney said. “She said that hen musta been pecking in the fertilizer chemicals. Never seen no egg like that before.”
“Yeh,” Johnny said puzzledly. “Well, so much for that.” He tossed the golden shell to one side and turned back to his glass work. Barney left for the pumphouse.
Inside the pumphouse, Barney opened the gasoline engine tank and poked a stick down to test the fuel level. The stick came out almost dry. With another string of mutterings, he limped across the yard to the tractor shed for a gas can. Back in the pumphouse, he poured the engine tank full, set the gas can aside and then, after priming the carburetor, yanked on the starter pull rope. The engine caught with a spluttering roar and began racing madly. Barney lunged for the throttle and cut it back to idle, but even then, the engine was running at near full speed. Then Barney noticed the white fluid running down the side of the engine tank and dripping from the spout of the gasoline can. He grinned broadly, cut in the pump clutch and hurriedly limped across the yard to the kitchen.
“Hey, Johnny,” he called, “did you put that milk o’ Sally’s into a gas can?”
Johnny leaned through the open kitchen window. “Yeh, why?”
“Well, I just filled the kicker with it by accident, and man, you orter hear that engine run,” Barney exclaimed. “Come see.”
Johnny swung his legs through the window and dropped lightly to the yard. The two men were halfway across the yard from the pumphouse when a loud explosion ripped the building. Parts of the pump engine flew through the thin walls like shrapnel. A billowing cloud of purple smoke welled out of the ruptured building as Johnny and Barney flattened themselves against the hot, packed earth. Flames licked up from the pump shed. The men ran for the horse trough and grabbing pails of water, raced for the pumphouse. The fire had just started into the wooden walls of the building and a few splashes of water doused the flames.
They eyed the ruins of the gasoline engine. “Holy cow,” Johnny exclaimed, “that stuff blew the engine right apart.” He gazed up at the holes in the pumphouse roof. “Blew the cylinders and head right out the roof. Holy cow!”
Barney was pawing at the pump and electric motor. “Didn’t seem to hurt the pump none. Guess we better get that ‘lectric line fixed though, now that we ain’t got no more gas engine.”
The two men went to work on the pump motor. The broken line outside the building was spliced and twenty minutes later, Johnny threw the AC switch. The big, electric motor spun into action and settled into a workmanlike hum. The overhead light dimmed briefly when the pump load was thrown on and then the slip-slap sound of the pump filled the shed. They watched and listened for a couple of minutes. Assured that the pump was working satisfactorily, they left the wrecked pumphouse.
Johnny was carrying the gasoline can of milk. “Good thing you set this off to one side where it didn’t get hit and go off,” he said. “The way this stuff reacts, we’d be without a pump, engine, or windmill if it had.
“Barney, be a good guy and finish putting in that glass for me will you? I’ve got the frame all ready to putty. I’ve got me some fiddlin’ and figurin’ to do.”
Johnny angled off to the tractor and tool shed and disappeared inside. Barney limped into the kitchen and went to work on the window glass. From the tractor shed came the sounds of an engine spluttering, racing, backfiring and then, just idling.
When Hetty drove back into the ranch yard an hour or so later, Johnny was rodeoing the farm tractor around the yard like a teen-ager, his face split in a wide grin. She parked the truck under the tree as Johnny drove the tractor alongside and gunned the engine, still grinning.
“What in tarnation is this all about?” Hetty asked as she climbed down from the pickup.
“Know what this tractor’s running on?” Johnny shouted over the noise of the engine.
“Of course I do, you young idiot,” she exclaimed. “It’s gasoline.”
“Wrong,” Johnny yelled triumphantly. “It’s running on Sally’s milk!”
The next morning, Johnny had mixed up two hundred gallons of Sally’s Fuel and had the pickup, tractor, cattle truck and his 1958 Ford and Hetty’s ‘59 Chevrolet station wagon all purring on the mixture.
Mixing it was a simple process after he experimented and found the right proportions. One quart of pure Sally’s milk to one hundred gallons of water. He had used the two remaining quarts in the gasoline can to make the mixture but by morning, Sally had graced the ranch with five more gallons of the pure concentrate. Johnny carefully stored the concentrated milk in a scoured fifty-five gallon gasoline drum in the tool shed.
“We’ve hit a gold mine,” he told Hetty exultantly. “We’re never going to have to buy gasoline again. On top of that, at the rate Sally’s turning this stuff out, we can start selling it in a couple of weeks and make a fortune.”
That same morning, Hetty collected three more of the golden eggs.
“Set ‘em on the shelf,” Johnny said, “and when we go into town next time I’ll have Dale look at them and maybe tell us what those hens have been into. I’ll probably go into town again Saturday for the mail.”
But when Saturday came, Johnny was hobbling around the ranch on a wrenched ankle, suffered when his horse stumbled in a gopher hole and tossed him.
“You stay off that leg,” Hetty ordered. “I’ll go into town for the mail. Them girls can just struggle along without your romancing this week.” Johnny made a wry face but obeyed orders.
“Barneeey,” Hetty bawled, “bring me a quarter of beef outta the cooler.” Barney stuck his head out of the barn and nodded. “I been promising some good beef to Judge Hatcher for a month of Sundays now,” Hetty said to Johnny.
“If you’re going to stop by the courthouse, how about taking those crazy eggs of yours into the county agent’s office and leave them there for analysis,” Johnny suggested. He hobbled into the kitchen to get the golden eggs.
Barney arrived with the chilled quarter of beef wrapped in burlap. He tossed it in the bed of the pickup and threw more sacks over it to keep it cool under the broiling, midmorning sun. Johnny came out with the eggs in a light cardboard box stuffed with crumpled newspapers. He wedged the box against the side of beef in the forward corner of the truck bed. “One more thing, Hetty,” he said. “I’ve got a half drum of drain oil in the tractor shed that I’ve been meaning to trade in for some gearbox lube that Willy Simons said he’d let me have. Can you drop it off at his station and pick up the grease?”
“Throw it on,” Hetty said, “while I go change into some town clothes.”
Johnny started to hobble down the porch steps when Barney stopped him. “I’ll get it boy, you stay off that ankle.” Barney climbed into the pickup and drove it around to the tractor shed. He spotted two oil drums in the gloomy shed. He tilted the nearest one and felt liquid slosh near the halfway mark, then rolled it out the door. Barney heaved it into the truck bed, stood it on end against the cab and drove the pickup back to the ranch house door as Hetty came out wearing clean jeans and a bright, flowered blouse. Her gray hair was tucked in a neat bun beneath a blocked Stetson hat.
She climbed into the truck, waved to the two men and drove out the yard. As she bumped over the cattle guard at the gate, the wooden plug that Johnny had jury-rigged to cork the gasoline drum with its twenty-gallon load of pure Sally’s milk, bounced out.
A small geyser of white fluid shot out of the drum as she hit another bump and then the pickup went jolting down the ranch road, little splashes of Sally’s milk sloshing out with each bump and forming a pool on the bottom of the truck. When Hetty cowboyed onto the county road, the drum tipped dangerously and then bounced back onto its base. This time a fountain of milk geysered out and splashed heavily into the box of golden eggs. Hetty drove on.
But not for long.
With a ranch woman’s disregard for watching the road, Hetty constantly scanned the nearby range lands where small bands of her cherished black Angus grazed. She prided herself on the fact that despite her sixty years, her eyes were still sharp enough to spot a worm-ridden cow at a thousand yards.
Two miles after she turned onto the county road, which ran through Circle T range land, her roving gaze took in a cow and calf on a hillside a few hundred yards south of the road. Hetty slowed the pickup to fifty miles an hour and squinted into the sun. She grunted with satisfaction and slammed on the brakes. The truck swerved and skidded to a halt at the left side of the deserted road. Hetty leaped from the truck and began a fast walk up the hillside for a closer look at the cow and calf.
She never heard the dull thump of the milk drum tipping onto the edge of the truck bed. Hetty topped the hill and walked slowly towards the cow and calf that were now edging away from her. As she eased down the far side of the hill out of sight of the pickup, a steady stream of Sally’s milk was engulfing the box of golden eggs. A minute later, the reduced contents caused the drum to shift and slip. It fell onto the eggs, cracking a half dozen.
The earth split open and the world around Hetty erupted in a roaring inferno of purple-red fire and ear-shattering sound. The rolling concussion swept Hetty from her feet and tumbled her into a drywash gully at the base of the hill. The gully saved her life as the sky-splitting shock wave rolled over her. Stunned and deafened, she flattened herself under a slight overhang.
The rolling blast rocked ranches and towns for more than one hundred miles and the ground wave triggered the seismographs at the University of California nearly two hundred miles away and at UCLA, four hundred miles distant. Tracking and testing instruments went wild along the entire length of the AEC atomic test grounds, a mere sixty miles south of the smoking, gaping hole that marked the end of the Circle T pickup truck.
In a direct line, the ranch house was about eight miles from the explosion.
Johnny was lounging in Hetty’s favorite rocking chair on the wide back verandah, lighting a cigarette and Barney was perched on the porch railing when the sky was blotted out by the dazzling violet light of the blast. They were blinking in frozen amazement when the shock wave smashed into the ranch, flattening the flimsier buildings and buckling the side and roof of the steel-braced barn. Every window on the place blew out in a storm of deadly glass shards. The rolling ground wave in the wake of the shock blast, rocked and bounced the solid, timber and adobe main house.
The concussion hit Johnny like a fist, pinwheeling him backwards in the rocker against the wall of the house. It caught Barney like a sack of sodden rags and flung him atop the dazed and semiconscious younger man.
The first frightened screams of the horses in the barns and corrals were mingling with the bawling of the heifers in the calf pens when the sound of the explosion caught up with the devastation of the shock and ground waves.
Like the reverberation of a thousand massed cannon firing at once, the soul-searing sound rumbled out of the desert and boiled with almost tangible density into the shattered ranch yard. It flattened the feebly-stirring men on the porch and then thundered on in a tidal wave of noise.
Barney moaned and rolled off the tangle of porch rocker and stunned youth beneath him. Johnny lay dazed another second or two and then began struggling to his feet.
“Hetty,” he croaked, pointing wildly to the south where a massive, dirty column of purple smoke and fire rose skyward like the stem of a monstrous and malignant toadstool. “Hetty’s out there.”
He stumbled from the porch and broke into a staggering run to the pile of broken planks that seconds ago had been the tractor shed. As he crossed the yard, a great gust of wind whipped back from the north, pumping clouds of dry, dusty earth before it. The force of the wind almost knocked the bruised and shaken Johnny from his feet once again as it swept back over the ranch, in the direction of the great pillar of purple smoke.
“Implosion,” Johnny’s mind registered.
He tore at the stack of loose boards leaning against the station wagon, flinging them fiercely aside in his frantic efforts to free the vehicle. Barney limped up to join him and a minute later they had cleared a way into the wagon. Johnny squeezed into the front seat and drove it back from under more leaning boards. Three of the side windows were smashed but the windshield was intact except for a small, starred crack in the safety glass. Clear of the debris, Barney opened the opposite door and slid in beside Johnny. Dirt spun from beneath the wheels of the car as he slammed his foot to the floor and raced towards the smoke column that now towered more than a mile and a half into the air.
Beneath her protective overhang, Hetty stirred and moaned feebly. Twin rivulets of dark blood trickled from her nostrils. Thick dust was settling on the area and she coughed and gasped for breath.
On the opposite side of the hill, a vast, torn crater, nearly a hundred feet across and six to ten feet deep, smoked like a stirring volcano and gave off a strange, pungent odor of ether.
Johnny Culpepper’s dramatic charge to the rescue was no more dramatic than the reaction in a dozen other places in Nevada and California. Particularly sixty miles south where a small army of military and scientific men were preparing for an atomic underground shot when the Circle T pickup vanished.
The shock wave rippled across the desert floor, flowed around the mountains and tunneled into Frenchman’s Flat, setting off every shock-measuring instrument. Then came the ground wave, rolling through the earth like a gopher through a garden. Ditto for ground-wave measuring devices. Lastly, the sound boomed onto the startled scientists and soldiers like the pounding of great timpani under the vaulted dome of the burning sky.
On mountain top observation posts, technicians turned unbelieving eyes north to the burgeoning pillar of smoke and dust, then yelped and swung optical and electronic instruments to bear on the fantastic column.
In less than fifteen minutes, the test under preparation had been canceled, all equipment secured and the first assault waves of scientists, soldiers, intelligence and security men were racing north behind white-suited and sealed radiation detection teams cradling Geiger counters in their arms like submachine guns. Telephone lines were jammed with calls from Atomic Energy Commission field officials reporting the phenomena to Washington and calling for aid from West Coast and New Mexico AEC bases. Jet fighters at Nellis Air Force base near Las Vegas, were scrambled and roared north over the ground vehicles to report visual conditions near the purple pillar of power.