Read CHAPTER I - A Man Named Smith of Two Thousand Miles Below , free online book, by Charles Willard Diffin, on ReadCentral.com.

Heat! Heat of a white-hot sun only two hours old. Heat of blazing sands where shimmering, gassy waves made the sparse sagebrush seem about to burst into flames. Heat of a wind that might have come out of the fire-box of a Mogul on an upgrade pull.

A highway twisted among black masses of outcropping lava rock or tightened into a straightaway for miles across the desert that swept up to the mountain’s base. The asphalt surface of the pavement was almost liquid; it clung stickily to the tires of a big car, letting go with a continuous, ripping sound.

Behind the wheel of the weatherbeaten, sunburned car, Dean Rawson squinted his eyes against the glare. His lean, tanned face was almost as brown as his hair. The sun had done its work there; it had set crinkly lines about the man’s eyes of darker brown. But the deeper lines in that young face had been etched by responsibility; they made the man seem older than his twenty-three years, until the steady eyes, flashing into quick amusement, gave them the lie.

And now Rawson’s lips twisted into a little grin at his own discomfort but he knew the desert driver’s trick.

“A hundred plus in the shade,” he reasoned silently. “That’s hot any way you take it. But taking it in the face at forty-five an hour is too much like looking into a Bessemer converter!”

He closed the windows of his old coupe to within an inch of the top, then opened the windshield a scant half inch. The blast that had been drawing the moisture from his body became a gently circulating current of hot air.

He had gone only another ten miles after these preparations for fast driving, when he eased the big weatherbeaten car to a stop.

On his right, reaching up to the cool heights under a cloudless blue sky, the gray peaks of the Sierras gave promise of relief from the furnace breath of the desert floor. There were even valleys of snow glistening whitely where the mountains held them high. A watcher, had there been one to observe in the empty land, might have understood another traveler’s pausing to admire the serene majesty of those heights but he would have wondered could he have seen Rawson’s eyes turned in longing away from the mountains while he stared across the forbidding sands.

There were other mountains, lavender and gray, in the distance. And nearer by, a matter of twenty or thirty elusive miles through the dancing waves of hot air, were other barren slopes. Across the rolling sand-hills wheel marks, faint and wind-blown, led straight from the highway toward the parched peaks.

“Tonah Basin!” Rawson was thinking. “It’s there inside these hills. It’s hotter than this is by twenty degrees right this minute but I wish I could see it. I’d like to have one more look before I face that hard-boiled bunch in the city!”

He looked at his watch and shook his head. “Not a chance,” he admitted. “I’m due up in Erickson’s office in five hours. I wonder if I’ve got a chance with them....”

Five hours of driving, and Rawson walked into the office of Erickson, Incorporated, with a steady step. Another hour, and his tanned face had gone a trifle pale; his lips were set grimly in a straight line that would not relax under the verdict he felt certain he was about to hear.

For an hour he had faced the steely-eyed man across the long table in the Directors Room faced him and replied to questions from this man and the half-dozen others seated there. Skeptical questions, tricky questions; and now the man was speaking:

“Rawson, six months ago you laid your Tonah Basin plans before us plans to get power from the center of the Earth, to utilize that energy, and to control the power situation in this whole Southwest. It looked like a wild gamble then, but we investigated. It still looks like a gamble.”

“Yes,” said Rawson, “it is a gamble. Did I ever call it anything else?”

“The Ehrmann oscillator,” the man continued imperturbably, “invented in 1940, two years ago, solves the wireless transmission problem, but the success of your plan depends upon your own invention upon your straight-line drills that you say will not wander off at a tangent when they get down a few miles. And more than that, it depends upon you.

“Even that does not damn the scheme; but, Rawson, there’s only one factor we gamble on. No wild plans, no matter how many hundreds of millions they promise: no machines, no matter what they are designed to do, get a dollar of our backing. It’s men we back with our money!”

Rawson’s face was set to show no emotion, but within his mind were insistent, clamoring thoughts:

“Why can’t he say it and get it over with? I’ve lost what a hard-boiled bunch they are! but he doesn’t need to drag out the agony.” But but what was the man saying?

“Men, Rawson!” the emotionless voice continued. “And we’ve checked up on you from the time you took your nourishment out of a bottle; it’s you we’re backing. That’s why we have organized the little company of Thermal Explorations, Limited. That’s why we’ve put a million of hard coin into it. That’s why we’ve put you in charge of operations.”

He was extending a hand that Dean Rawson had to reach for blindly.

“I’d drill through to hell,” Dean said and fought to keep his voice steady, “with backing like that!”

He allowed his emotion to express itself in a shaky laugh. “Perhaps I will at that,” he added: “I’ll certainly be heading in the right direction.”

Under another day’s sun the hot asphalt was again taking the print of the tires of Rawson’s old car. But this time, when he came to the almost obliterated marks that led through the sand toward distant mountains, he stopped, partially deflated the tires to give them a grip on the sand, and swung off.

“A fool, kid trick,” he admitted to himself, “but I want to see the place. I’ll see plenty of it before I’m through, but right now I’ve got to have a look; then I’ll buckle down to work.

“Thermal Explorations, Limited!” The name rang triumphantly in his mind. “A million things to do men, crews for the drills, derricks.... We’ll have to truck in over this road; I’ll lay a plank road over the sand. And water we’ll have to haul that, too, until we can sink a well. We’ll find water under there somewhere. I’ve got to see the place....”

The black sides of the mountains were nearer: every outcropping rock was plainly volcanic, and great sweeping slopes were beds of ash and pumice; the wheel marks, where they showed at all, wound off and into a canyon hidden in the tremendous hills that thrust themselves abruptly from the desert floor.

The mountains themselves towered hugely at closer range, but the road that Rawson followed climbed through them without traversing the highest slopes. It was scarcely more than a trail, barely wide enough for the car at times, but boulder-filled gullies showed where the hands of men had worked to build it.

He came at last into the open where a shoulder of rock bent the road outward above a sea of sand far below. And now the mountains showed their circular arrangement a great ring, twenty miles across. At one side were three conical peaks, unmistakable craters, whose scarred sides were smothered under ash and sand that had rained down from their shattered tops in ages past. Yet, so hot they were, so clear-cut the irregularly rimmed cups at their tops, that they seemed to have pushed themselves up through the earth in that very instant. At their bases were signs of human habitation broken walls, scattered stone buildings whose empty windows gaped blackly. This was all that remained of New Rhyolite.

Rawson looked at the “ghost town” which had never failed to interest him, but he gave no thought now to the hardy prospectors who had built it or to the vein of gold that had failed them. His searching eyes came back to the fiery pit, the Tonah Basin, a vast cauldron of sand and ash great sweeps of yellow and gray and darker brown into which the sun was pouring its rays with burning-glass fierceness.

But to Rawson, there was more than the eye could see. He was picturing a great powerhouse, steel derricks, capped pipes that led off to whirring turbines, generators, strings of cables stretching out on steel supports into the distance, a wireless transmitter and all of this the result of his own vision, of the stream he would bring from deep in the earth!

Then, abruptly, the pictures faded. Far below him on the yellow, sun-blasted floor, a fleck of shadow had moved. It appeared suddenly from the sand, moved erratically, staggeringly, for a hundred feet, then vanished as if something had blotted it out and Dean Rawson knew that it was the shadow of a man.

The road widened beyond the turn. He had intended to swing around; he had wanted only to take a clear picture of the place with him. But now the big car’s gears wailed as he took the downgrade in second, and the brakes, jammed on at the sharp curves, added their voice to the chorus of haste.

“Confounded desert rats!” Rawson was saying under his breath. “They’ll chance anything but imagine crossing country like that! And he hasn’t a burro he’s got only the water he can carry in a canteen!”

But even the canteen was empty, he found, when he stopped the car in a whirl of loose sand beside a prone figure whose khaki clothes were almost indistinguishable against the desert soil.

Before Rawson could get his own lanky six feet of wiry length from the car, the man had struggled to his feet. Again the little blot of shadow began its wavering, uncertain, forward movement.

He was a little shorter than Rawson, a little heavier of build, and younger by a year or two, although his flushed face and a two days’ stubble of black beard might have been misleading. Rawson caught the staggering man and half carried him to the shadow of the car, the only shelter in that whole vast cauldron of the sun.

From a mouth where a swollen tongue protruded thickly came an agonized sound that was a cry for, “Water water!” Rawson gave it to him as rapidly as he dared, until he allowed the man to drink from the desert bag at the last. And his keen eyes were taking in all the significant details as he worked.

The khaki clothes earned a nod of silent approval. The compact roll that had been slung from the younger man’s shoulders, even the broad shoulders themselves, and the square jaw, unshaved and grimy, got Rawson’s inaudible, “O. K.!” But the face was more burned than tanned.

He introduced himself when the stranger was able to stand. “I’m Rawson, Dean Rawson, mining engineer when I’m working at it,” he explained. “I’m bound north. I’ll take you out of this. You can travel with me as far as you please.”

The dark-haired youngster was plainly youthful now, as he stood erect. His voice was recovering what must have been its usual hearty ring.

“I’m not trying to say ‘thank you,’” he said, as he took Rawson’s hand. “I was sure sunk going down for the last time taps all that sort of thing! You pulled me out the good old helping hand. Can’t thank a fellow for that just return the favor or pass it on to someone else. And, by the way you won’t believe it but my name is Smith.”

Rawson smiled good-naturedly. “No,” he agreed, “I don’t believe it. But it’s a good, handy name. All right, Smithy, jump in! Here, let me give you a lift; you’re still woozy.”

Rawson found his passenger uncommunicative. Not but what Smithy talked freely of everything but himself, but it was of himself that Rawson wanted to know.

“Drop me at the first town,” said Smithy. “You’re going north: I’m south-bound looking for a job down in Los. I won’t take any more short cuts; I was two days on this last one. I’ll stick to the road.”

They were through the mountains that ringed in the fiery pit of Tonah Basin. Smooth sand lay ahead; only the shallow marks that his own tires had ploughed needed to be followed. Dean Rawson turned and looked with fair appraisal at the man he had saved.

“Drifter?” he asked himself silently. “Road bum? He doesn’t look the part; there’s something about him....”

Aloud he inquired: “What’s your line? What do you know?”

And the young man answered frankly: “Not a thing!”

Dean sensed failure, inefficiency. He resented it in this youngster who had fought so gamely with death. His voice was harsh with a curious sense of his own disappointment as he asked:

“Found the going too hard for you up north, did you? Well, it won’t be any easier ” But Smithy had interrupted with a weak movement of his hand.

“Not too hard,” he said laconically; “too damn soft! I don’t know what I’m looking for pretty dumb: got a lot to learn! but it’ll be a job that needs to take a good licking!”

“‘Too damn soft!’” Dean was thinking. “And he tackled the desert alone!” There was a lot here he did not understand. But the look in the eyes of Smithy that met his own searching gaze and returned it squarely if a bit whimsically that was something he could understand. Dean Rawson was a judge of men. The sudden impulse that moved him was founded upon certainty.

“You’ve found that job,” he said. “The desert almost got you a little while ago now it’s due to take that licking you were talking about. I’m going to teach it to lie down and roll over and jump through hoops. Fact is, my job is to get it into harness and put it to work. I’ll be working right out there in the Basin where I found you. It will be only about two degrees cooler than hell. If that sounds good to you, Smithy, stick around.”

He warmed oddly to the look in the younger man’s deep-set, dark eyes, as Smithy replied:

“Try to put me out, Rawson just try to put me out!”