As if suggesting a play of social protest, the action begins with a conversation between two telegraph linemen about freedom and socialism. The two are sitting in the Black Mesa Bar-B-Q, a filling station and café on the edge of the Arizona desert. Listening is Gramp Maple, the father of the proprietor; he tells the men of his pioneering days, especially of the time he was shot at by Billy the Kid. The talk thus leads to the subject of law and order, or the lack thereof, as evinced by Duke Mantee and his gang, who have massacred six people in an Oklahoma shoot-out and are now reported to be somewhere in the area. Jason Maple, the proprietor, is contemptuous of the gang and vows that he and his American Legion fellows will deal with them. Jason’s daughter, Gabby, has come in from the kitchen. Restless, impatient with her shallow father, she seems the controlling force of the place; she is a sensitive young woman who reads romantic poetry that Boze Hertzlinger, a gas-jockey and former college athlete, belittles with the self-assured cockiness of the failure. He is attracted to Gabby, but she curtly parries his advances.
Meanwhile, Alan Squier enters the eatery. Dressed in shabby elegance, shouldering a rucksack, and carrying a walking stick, Squier is a drifter, a sort of noble vagrant, a status that may be better understood in the context of the Depression. Gentle, soft-spoken, almost knightly, he takes a liking to the bluff innocence of Gabby, while she is vaguely attracted to his quiet urbanity. Finding a sympathetic ear, she tells Squier about her French mother, who married her father during World War I but who could not acclimatize to the desert and so returned to France, where Gabby hopes to go someday to visit her. Every year for her birthday her mother sends Gabby books of poems, and it is one of these books that she was just reading. At Squier’s request, Gabby recites a love poem by François Villon and expresses again her dream of going to France. Squier is touched by her innocence and sensitivity. He tells her of his own life: He wrote a self-consciously stark novel at age twenty-two; married his publisher’s wife, who ran off with him to the Mediterranean; lived as a frustrated, “inarticulate” writer for eight years, then left his wife and came to America to find “something to believe in.”
Convinced that she has found a kindred spirit and attracted by his knowledge of the world beyond the petrified forest of Arizona, Gabby shows Squier one of her paintings. He is impressed but bewildered, sensing Gabby’s restless, creative energy. He...
(The entire section is 1056 words.)