We walked downhill in the beginning. Every step reinforced the reality that it must be retraced uphill in two days. But that bridge would be crossed later. If one or all of us dwelt on the difficult climb ahead of us we wouldn’t have taken another quick step. Would fear plunge its knife into our resolve? At the present time our trail descended easily and it wasn’t an hour before we paused on a switch-back to gawk at our progress.
After encouraging our spirits with our early and easy success we turned to face the future. Backs to the canyon and eyes surveying the wildness–roaming over the peaks, and through the gorges and rock–making innumerable calculations of distance and depth. How long would it take to reach the dead cottonwood grove? What if there’s a crevasse we can’t see from here? I know in my mind our late victory shrank in its scope when put into the perspective of the North Rim. But we had a date with fate in time and space. All we had to do was put one foot in front of the other and it would be upon us.
In this difficulty of effort and monotony we fell back on our other strengths. The little things of the experience grow and become pertinent and meaningful. Jonathan’s dog-like energy and excitement against the odds became an encouragement where previously it was annoying. He was the reason I forgot about the scorching sun. His nature endeared itself to me. I hadn’t appreciated him before. Beside his youth, his child-likeness in serious matters was a compliment to our party. His quality of being guided by unpredictable impulses kept me focused and always wary for his next move or statement. Whether walking much too near the edge or commenting on every unique rock or dried plant, his energy ricocheted off the red canyon and gave me reason to remain alert and aware of things other than my own thoughts.
Dawson on the other hand lent the party its de-fact leader. Not only was he bigger than me and certainly Jonathan, he seemed wizened and accustomed to mountains and trails. And so we looked to him to make the difficult decisions. He also was the only member at the time who grew a beard with any degree of respect. In addition to that badge of manly authority he was our elder by six years.
Setting off down the canyon his his blue shirt he posed a direct contradiction to Jonathan in red. Calm, dignified, comfortable, if not wholly aware of his given role. His fire-roasted pepper beard parted when he deigned to smile. His easygoing character endeared him to Jonathan and myself. So we named him after a buffalo. I have no idea why, it struck us as natural. I still don’t know if he liked his new moniker but he put up with it, probably with a little dash of pride.
Later that day when we could sense the end of our descent the excitement expounded on itself. We stepped lively and instead of looking at each step we cast our eyes on the next bend or dip in the trail impatiently–eager for what would be next.
In the end though the journey is most of any adventure. I wouldn’t have missed the descent for anything. Not the rocks, the burro feces, the heat. To have given them up would mean to have missed the pack mules and the burning canyon walls and magnificent shimmering vistas. We wouldn’t have passed through the damp tunnel or scampered over the Colorado on a swinging bridge. The destination’s reward wouldn’t have been half its value without them.
12 January, 1940
Ilya sat against the bank, his chest heaving against the scratchy wool tunic tugging at his neck; a thin barrier against the frigid air. His trouser seat was sticking to the snow and the cold began to rise up through his body by degrees. He shifted every few moments and curled his fingers in their mittens, tapped his boots together to knock life back into his toes. It wasn’t working. Every minute he lingered a little warmth would flee him. His nose ran but it froze just below his nostril. He was like a scrappy child with a dirty face. He wondered if his constant shaking was from the creeping hypothermia or the violence.
The still and peaceful silence of the waning evening belied what had recently occurred. Ilya had been sitting here for nearly an hour and soon the sun would set and he would be alone among the dead. And if he remained here when night fell he would soon join them in sleep.
I feel as though I am in the dock, standing before some accusation, unsure whether to deny or accept the charge. I have waited so many weeks for this moment. So much planning and preparation, so much pent-up apprehension and excitement for the unknown, that now I am ashamed that I yearned for this day. A soldier is only a soldier when he is called upon to perform his work. Until then he is simply a man who plays with rifles and stomps around like a fool. In the barracks being a soldier is serious stuff. It requires firmness, morale, and dedication to duty. We train and propose scenarios, attack and defeat the enemy, but all in our heads. What rubbish it all is. It is rhetoric, a farce of emotion to mask what it is we prepare for. For what are we preparing? To defend our hearth and home? Democracy? The Republic? For our brother next to us? Maybe, but that is not what the battlefield is made of. It is made of death, of hurling missiles and men at each other for no high purpose of Democracy, or freedom, but to hurl missiles and men at each other—to destroy another. That is what it comes down to. There are no thoughts of democracy when one is holding the shattered body of a friend.
None of us pretended it would be easy. We knew some of us would die, but it was glorious in our heads. We were nearly jealous of those we imagined killed by the enemy. Dignity, honor, sacrifice, they would be remembered in stone. But we expected it to be a competition, not a one-sided slaughter. And slaughter it was, for the ones who fell were killed like sheep—without fanfare or hardly notice. I didn’t know Pelotte or Volcy were killed. No one saw them die. They didn’t run when the rest of us did. They just never got up.
Short stories intrigue me. They allow the reader to see a snapshot of a time and place, of a person and character–even if that dim picture is incomplete. This particular one is perhaps a wee bit long for a blog post, but it’s appropriate. I’m off to the Colorado Plateau, a place desperately different, so I suppose it’s fitting to share a story set in the desert with those of you who cannot walk the edge of it with me.
Private Rowley took a long draw from his metallic canteen, the lukewarm water running down the wool cover and over his dirt-caked fingers. He leaned back and wiped his sweaty brow. Below him were four bodies; two Mexican, one Gringo and an Apache. Private Rowley hadn’t killed them all, the Apaches had, and he was just waiting it out, hoping they didn’t jump him too. He was far outnumbered in both numbers and firepower. The dozen or so braves carried Henry repeating rifles, each holding eleven cartridges. Private Rowley, he had his model 1871 Springfield breach-loading rifle. One shot, and he would have to spend half a minute preparing and loading another. In that time, twelve braves could unload six shots each, which added up to a pretty slim chance for Rowley. Read on!