Dusk crept in as the grey September sky loomed over the mountainous terrain overlaid with pine and blue spruce. Musky scents of creosote bushes from three days of rain showers swept through the dry air. Red-tailed hawks screeching while perching on branches above canyons with keen eyes to the brushy ground below. Mexican wolves howling out of hunger and newfound dominion over territories. Bull elk bugling to challenge each other’s mating rights. Many more sounds from many more animals. Yet in random and concordant manners, sudden periods of silence permeated the isolated wilderness–with exception of a river that always resounded through the land.
Then the dusk gave way to a cool night in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. No roads, no cabins, nothing of human toil. Yet a twenty year old named Thomas lived there who wore a brown cowboy hat with a buckle set, a grey wool coat, and leather chaps on jeans over boots. Holstered was his Peacemaker. He left the modest little town five months before where he hung around with a rowdy crowd whenever it was quitting time. He often played billiards with old-timers at the saloon who in the midst of tobacco smoke under dim light gave their own kind of wisdom through stories of business and war.
And as he sat on a decaying log close to the campfire, he stared at the constellations even though he couldn’t remember their names. So he pulled out a harmonica from his coat pocket with glimmering blue and silver features that shined in the dark as he was about to improvise. But something within him sensed that it was best to call it a night. He put it back.
Thomas slid into the bedroll and having felt many sharp sensations throughout his back, he realized he forgot to clear the mountain floor of rocks and other nuisances to outdoor slumber. He got up and kicked them away, laid back down and went into a deep and uninterrupted slumber. Off in a small distance while 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 faded throughout the night.
It is said that a man will find his true circadian rhythm in nature. Thomas knew this all well, as he had been a night owl back home. Yet in the wilderness, he woke up at seven-o-clock every morning with a new sleep cycle so ingrained that he forgot all the old habits.
He got up with a dry mouth and took a short walk down the mountain to the Gila River. He walked slow while his emerald eyes stared ahead. Three hawks circled the grey sky above. The river had a rejuvenating quality about it, one of the more still and clear parts through which he upon arrival saw loach minnows grouping near the surface and crayfish lurking on the stones. He checked his wooden funnel basket trap perched near the edge of the water–in it there was a small Gila trout. The slimy body had a dull yellow color with disfigured blotches and the left eye was bulging out. Such petty matters. Food was there and it was time to eat. He took the fish out and walked back to camp where he filleted and cooked it over a new fire for a small breakfast.
But Thomas finished his meal a bit agitated. He grew tired of eating fish, squirrels, rabbits, and nuts everyday. Deer and elk were tough to hunt in those mountains, as they typically bedded down in sunlight, and climbed high at dark. Having gone weeks without eating anything else, he hungered for a change.
Thomas stood up, ready to try what he had put off for days. He grabbed his forty-five-seventy lever action and saddled the hobbled Buckskin without a rail post. The saddle was made of brown leather perfused with white rawhide and underneath was a black saddle pad. A horizontal scabbard rested on the right side for his rifle; attached to both sides were some trail packs meant for carrying supplies and game. After climbing on, the young cowboy rode off to hunt for anything else he could find. Although he did not plan to be picky, he had a bull elk in mind. It could feed his body for a little while. He had shot two before and loved the meaty back-strap, the stew he could make, the quarters he could roast over a fire for a fine dinner, and the blanket he could skin. He needed no silverware, no salver, no salt, and no one to eat with.
Hunting on a horse alone in the Gila requires a good eye. Thomas switched from scoping out animals with his binoculars to looking around in the immediate area for predators and dangerous walking spots for the horse. Yet wilderness riding was always peaceful. The environment that surrounded him every day was just right as he felt a connection to the life that surrounded him. While he glassed the ridges and meadows that he passed, he patiently looked for a kill. He remembered reading a book by an old wiseman that wrote if an elk hunter does not cover at least eight miles a day, then he is not truly elk hunting.
Three hours passed since the duo 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 was not worth it to pursue them, as an elk can travel dozens of miles on any given day. He rather wanted to stumble upon on close to camp. It would demand much less strength and endurance for the journey back. It is not easy to carry an elk anywhere–it’s especially difficult in the mountains. To merely walk in the Gila Wilderness, even with nothing to carry, is difficult for most men, as it connects one to a harsh world that cannot be understood without experience.
And as more time went on, he began to feel worn out–his hunger had drained his focus and the ride was becoming painful in his legs due to the damaged and hardened condition of the saddle. He tugged the reins to bring the fast-walking horse to a complete stop. Even when Thomas tried slightly tugging at the reins to slow her down, as opposed to bringing her to a stop, the horse would retain her original speed with juvenile eagerness after he stopped tugging. It was time for a water break.
As he sipped the canteen water, a calming sense of relaxation went through his body. He kicked his boot heels against the horse’s sides 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 an all-too-familiar noise in the Gila Wilderness. It was so sudden, yet he immediately recognized just what was in his presence. The sound blared in his ears, which prompted him to kick the horse for a gallop. Too late.
The massive rattlesnake on the side of the trail rapidly launched its head at the Buckskin’s hind right leg and sunk his teeth in. Instantly, the horse reared and plowed uphill through the forest while Thomas hung on. As he clutched his saddle horn, he was slashed and thrashed by branches. He tried to find a way to leap off, but it was happening too fast. In a matter of moments, the Buckskin, in agony from the rattlesnake venom, began a bucking circus. Thomas had dealt with such behavior before but without the disorientation of what just happened. All it took was one good leap by the horse to toss him off. However, a piece of Thomas did not leave–his boot. It 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 pointy rocks and was sliced by dormant plants. His eyes rolled back into his head as if he was being electrocuted. 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, and the inertia propelled the poor boy to roll back down the harsh earth again; after several seconds, he smacked into the trunk of a White Pine. He fell unconscious.
Dusk crept in and Thomas slowly woke up to familiar noises. 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; he felt delirious and his vision was blurry. The right side of his head felt numb and there was a nauseating metallic smell. 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 slowly reached for it and drank what was left. Once he was able to drink enough water, he was no longer dehydrated.
He felt like he was floating over a realm of nothing. Yet everything was so surreal in that state of mind he was in. Then, as he stared ahead into the foggy abyss, something unusual came over him.
If you took your fateful plight tomorrow
With all your solemn grievances and majestic triumphs
The stars would still shine bright, had you only left a shadow of sorrow
The birds will sing loud and free to the sky
As they go about their business on another day
For you, there will be nothing or none left to mourn
As it was on you alone that you had placed all your stakes
You cannot raise a glass high and find yourself a good breath
And whatever happens now is only yours
But the evening was growing dire. Thomas realized that if he stayed still, he would face the wolves he could hear off in the distance. He checked his coat pocket for flint and steel, and when his hand came out empty, he realized he had no means to make a fire.
Snap out of it you fool. Do not substitute your will to survive with esotericism. Get back to camp. The truly honorable thing would be getting up and fighting for your life. You will not receive validation or cheers of praise. You will do it in the hidden depths of a dark forest.
Thomas’s vision and mental processing began to improve after a few minutes of laying on the floor. He knew how to navigate the path by following the river at the bottom of the mountain, but his physical condition would make things difficult. He grabbed his large hunting knife and stabbed it into the floor. Gripping the antler handle for leverage, he slowly flipped over on his stomach. Agonizing pain shot through his ribs and back, but he knew he had no other choice.
He climbed 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 strength, he slowly propelled himself up to a standing position, making sure to pull the knife out at the end of the journey. He had to hunch due to the sharp pain in his torso, and 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.
He 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 stressed about his terrible accident. But 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 things that delighted him.
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, but saw nothing.
SNAP SNAP SNAP.
As he listened to the branches breaking, he knew he was better off staying still, ready to fight what chance had required. The creature most certainly could outrun him–even on a good day. He wielded his hunting knife in preparation for a fight, as the large animal stomped through the forest in an unusually loud manner. He hoped it would not be able to see him, but he knew all well that predators tend to have excellent night vision.
But then something strange happened. When he saw the animal’s head pop out of concealment behind the trees, he recognized the pointy ears. He whistled for it to come over, and it immediately responded. 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. He 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 young man sat next to the campfire, he contemplated his life’s incompleteness and what compelled him to come to the wilderness. He chuckled aloud as he realized that every man must eventually face a calling to the wilderness, or forever be restless in pursuit of meaning and adventure. But this was his home and thus where he would remain indefinitely. He looked back up at the stars in the sky and finally recognized the constellations, as he recalled an old man had taught them to him during a night back home. He wondered when he would physically recover enough to try big game hunting again. He then grabbed his harmonica and played something 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. Behind the buffer of the campfire, Thomas smirked and let out another chuckle–perhaps in acknowledgment of his tremendous fortune.