This is a short story about a silent young man.
The grey overcast loomed over the ostensibly endless and unpredictable terrain of spruce trees, dormant shrubs, and mountainous earth. A strong scent of creosote bushes, caused by many heavy rains, swept through the windy mountain air. Dusk had crept in and the wild animals of the isolated forest began to warmup for their nighttime routines with bouts of hoots, howls, and even some occasional roars. Yet in remarkably random and concordant manners, periods of absolute silence presided over the dark wilderness–with exception of a mighty river that flowed loud and free.
Then the dusk became night and the night was very cold. It was a place called the Gila, an isolated wilderness in New Mexico. Not a semblance of civilization was nearby, but someone did live there and his name was Thomas– a rugged man of seventeen compelled by books and personal accounts to live where survival was very difficult. After growing up, he decided to conduct his own rite of passage, perhaps to prove his manhood. His curiosity and independence were inherent in his nature, and thus he was not suited for a monotonous town life. Many mistook him for a rebel, yet all he wanted was simple solitude to reflect on the nature of things. And so he sat on a log close to the crackling campfire and gazed with boredom at the sky’s constellations. Since he couldn’t remember their names, he pulled out his harmonica. He was quite musical for someone who never took lessons. As he stared at the bright blue and silver features, he wanted to play a folk tune that he learned during childhood. But he knew it best to call it a night.
And then Thomas slid into his sleeping bag to sleep warm. He felt many painfully sharp sensations throughout his back, and realized he forgot to clear the mountain floor of rocks and other nuisances to outdoor slumber. He got out and kicked them away as best as he could. After laying back down, he quickly fell into a deep slumber wherein he dreamt vividly of life back home with his parents and the family dog. Off in a very small distance, hobbled at the hooves, the young and obedient Buckskin mare stood quiet and attentive to the sounds of the forest. A great-horned owl announced her presence nearby. And the campfire slowly disappeared throughout the night, eventually reducing to ashes.
It is said that a man will find his true circadian rhythm in nature. Thomas knew this all well, as he was a night owl back home. In the wild, however, he woke up at seven-o-clock every morning. His sleep cycle was so ingrained, that he forgot all of the old habits. As always, he woke up with a dry mouth and took a short walk to the Gila River. After using the water to drink and freshen up, he checked his funnel basket trap for fish–a pleasant surprise, there was a small Gila trout! But the fish was repulsive in appearance and had a dull yellow color. Not caring about such petty matters, he took the fish out and headed back to camp where he quickly filleted and cooked it for a small breakfast.
The boy finished his pathetic meal with a slight sense of despair. He grew tired of eating fish, squirrels, and nuts every day. Having gone weeks without eating anything else, he was very hungry. A man of action!– he stood up, excited to try what he could not accomplish for weeks. He grabbed his forty-five-seventy lever action rifle and saddled the Buckskin. The saddle had old brown leather and a scabbard for his rifle. It looked quite nice on the Buckskin’s tan skin. Attached to each side were some trail packs meant for carrying supplies and meat. After climbing up the horse, he rode off to hunt for anything else he could find. He hoped to come back with an elk or a deer, as such a large animal could feed his body for several weeks. Although he did not plan to be picky, what he really wanted was a bull elk. He could use the fur to protect himself from the bitter wilderness cold. It can kill a man without warm clothing.
Hunting on a horse alone in the Gila requires very close attention to one’s surroundings. Thomas switched from scoping out animals with his binoculars, to looking around in the immediate area for any threats such as predators, dangerous walking spots for the horse, and even bandits. Yet wilderness riding was always relaxing for Thomas. The environment that surrounded him every day was breathtaking and beautiful. He felt a spiritual connection to the life that surrounded him– as if he was one with it. The boy also had an incredible bond of loyalty and friendship with his horse. He counted the horse amongst his friends, because he preferred her silence and grace. Together, they looked majestic and powerful as they moved along. While he glassed the ridges and meadows that he passed, he patiently looked for a kill. He remembered reading somewhere that if an elk hunter does not cover at least eight miles per day, then he is not elk hunting.
Three hours passed since the boy and the horse left camp. Something had yet to be seen, except for a set of elk tracks. However, Thomas could tell that they were at least a day old. He knew it wasn’t worth it to pursue them, as an elk can travel dozens of miles a day. He instead wanted to stumble upon one. Perhaps he could get his kill close to camp, which would demand much less strength and endurance in the journey back. It is not easy to carry an elk anywhere– it’s especially difficult in the mountains. But as more time went on, the boy began to feel worn out–his hunger overwhelmed his focus and the ride was becoming painful in his legs due to the damaged and hardened condition of the saddle. He tugged at his reigns to bring the fast-walking horse to a stop. It was time for a water break.
As he sipped the water, he felt an intense chill run throughout his body. It was an unbelievably cold morning! Not giving it a second thought, he clicked his heels against the horse’s torso and continued down the trail of the narrow mountain ridge. He glassed a riverbed about five-hundred yards away, and tried to distinguish areas where an animal may have been camouflaged. He had a system of hunting on the move, in which he stopped every hundred yards or so and examined a new part of the riverbed. Then he gazed at his general surroundings while his horse walked. Then back to the riverbed. But as he zoned his binoculars in on one area, he heard the most wicked and all too familiar noise in the entire Gila Wilderness. It was so sudden, yet he immediately recognized the evil that was in his presence. How can this be? It’s too cold for this! The sound blared in his ears, which prompted him to kick the horse for a gallop. But it was too late.
The massive rattlesnake on the side of the trail landed a vicious bite on the Buckskin’s hind right leg. He was at least six feet long. In an instant, the horse reared and plowed uphill through the forest while Thomas hung on for life. As he clenched his saddle horn, he was slashed and thrashed by branches. He tried to find a way to leap off, but it was all too fast. In a matter of moments, the Buckskin, in agony from the rattlesnake venom, began a bucking circus. Thomas had dealt with this before–but without the disorientation of what just happened. All it took was one good leap by the horse to toss the poor boy off. However, a piece of Thomas did not leave–his boot. His foot was stuck in the stirrup and he attempted to yank it out with all of his strength. But the horse had already taken off again and dragged Thomas through the middle of the forest. His entire body was beaten like a rag doll as it banged against rocks and was sliced by dormant plants. The whole scene must have lasted twenty seconds before Thomas’s foot finally flew out of the stirrup. But the horse was galloping too fast–the inertia propelled the poor boy to roll back down the mountain again. After several seconds of colliding with everything imaginable, he received a smack ending at the trunk of a White Pine. He fell unconscious.
Dusk crept in and Thomas slowly woke up to a howling wind. The wind was loud and cold. He realized that he must have been asleep for several hours. His head was pounding and bloody from the scratches and impacts. He was dazed and confused as to what had happened. He felt delirious and his vision was blurry. After a few minutes of staring at the grey sky, he tried to sit up. But his ribs ached and his back muscles were strained. He felt the cuts on his neck, face, and torso–he could already tell he had severe bruises all over his body. Confused as to whether he broke any bones, he looked to his right and saw his canteen laying next to him. He frantically reached for it and drank what was left. Since he was able to drink a lot of water, he was no longer dehydrated. But the evening was growing cold–well below freezing. Thomas realized that if he stayed still, he would face hypothermia–a guaranteed path to death.
Thomas’s vision and mental processing began to improve after a few minutes of laying on the floor. Never one to panic, he was ready to figure out how he would make it back to camp–after all, he knew how to navigate the path by following the river at the bottom of the mountain. He grabbed his large hunting knife and stabbed it into the floor. Gripping the handle for leverage, he was able to flip over on his stomach. Agonizing pain shot through his ribs and back. But he knew he had no other choice.
He was able to climb up to a crawling position. As he rested on his knees, he felt a severe head rush and almost fainted. Pushing on the knife in the ground with all his force, he slowly propelled himself up into a standing position, making sure to pull it out at the end of the journey. He had to hunch due to the sharp pain in his torso–his legs also felt weak and numb. He then slowly walked to a spruce tree to cut himself a walking stick. This helped him balance and take the weight off of his worst leg. He would need it for the rough and mountainous path back to camp.
Thomas had walked for forty-five minutes. He figured out a way to position his body in order to avoid some of the pain. He was able to refill his canteen at the river earlier, which took one important worry off of his mind. He was undoubtedly stressed about his terrible accident. Being smarter than most people in dangerous situations, he knew that negativity was his worst enemy. It could mean the difference between life and death out in the Gila. So he just kept walking, as he thought about his favorite memories of family and old friends. He remembered his mother’s incredible heart and love for the family. He also considered how his father worked hard to support them, making sure to teach Thomas about the straight and narrow path.
Two hours had passed since the boy began to walk. By now it was dark. The air was hovering around zero degrees, and he figured he had well over an hour of walking left. He knew it was dangerous to traverse the Gila in the dark. But, he could not help to think how happy he would be to see his campsite again. His hands and feet were numb, and he was shivering. He limped along the river when a noise coming from the mountain trees to his left spooked him. Thomas quickly stopped and looked towards the mountain. Nothing could be seen with clarity.
As he listened to the branches breaking, he knew he was better off staying still, ready to fight whatever fate required. After all, the creature most certainly could outrun him- even on a good day. He wielded his hunting knife in preparation for the fight of his life.
The large animal stomped through the forest in an unusually loud manner. The boy’s heart pounded louder and louder as he waited for the animal to arrive. He hoped it would not be able to see him, but he knew all well that predators tend to have excellent night vision.
He noticed a head pop out of the trees and recognized the animal. He whistled for it to come over, and it immediately responded. In the most heartwarming fashion, Thomas had reunited with his Buckskin.
After having the mare drink from the river, Thomas was ready to saddle up. Everything, including his rifle and his stirrups, remained intact. He stepped upon a large rock to help him land on the saddle. It was a slow and painful climb, but he made it up and sat with relative comfort. The boy clicked his boot heels to both sides of the horse and she walked.
There was a short period of travel along the river, but the duo made it back to camp where Thomas was able to get off his horse and eat some walnuts that he had saved. Then he took his loyal mare’s saddle off, hobbled her, and wrapped her in a horse blanket. Looking at the black-haired beauty’s dark eyes, he felt a sense of calm that was unlike any other. He knew that rattlesnake bites were usually harmless to a horse. So he left her alone.
While the boy sat next to the campfire, he thought about his life’s incomplete mission and what compelled him to come to the wilderness. He chuckled aloud as he realized that every man must eventually face a call to the wild–or forever be restless in a pursuit for meaning and adventure. But this was his new home and thus where his heart would remain for an indefinite amount of time. He looked back up at the stars in the sky and finally recognized the constellations, as he recalled his father had taught them to him when they camped together. He wondered when he would physically recover so he could try big game hunting again. He then grabbed his harmonica and blew a mellow tune that brought back a feeling of somewhere he had been before, of which he had no recollection. He stopped when he heard a pack of Mexican wolves howling and yelping off in the distance. The boy smirked and let out another chuckle–perhaps in acknowledgment of his tremendous fortune.