Copyright 2007 by Luke Jackson
May not be printed or electronically
distributed without permission
Best read by narrowing the window.
West of Santa Fe, you won't find a real town again for a nine or ten day's ride. Not until you get to Flagstaff. And since the army left, Flagstaff isn't much more than a trading postówith maybe a building or two extra that can serve as a hotel or a jail.
The ten days from Santa Fe to Flagstaff are ten days of the loneliest, most God-forsaken country you'll ever see. Sagebrush and creosote, mountains far off in the distance, but seldom another man or animal.
There are Indians along the trail, but generally they keep to themselves. Most are friendly enough if you can speak their language. From time to time you might find a man with an arrow in his back, but that's probably because he was up to no good in the first place.
The biggest problem is finding enough water. It's a dry area most months, and you've got to be careful to keep your saddlebags full. You may need to ride fifty miles north to find a dependable stream, then backtrack to the south, then north again. Your ten days ride can take a month or more. Straight across is something for a railroad, if they ever get around to building one through here.
Sure, it rains plenty on the trail. But the rain may not be there the same day you need it, or the same month. You can watch the creosote close up for lack of water, and the tumbleweed shrivel and roll off across the high prairie. You see a wild horse, maybe two, off in the distance, standing near a line of trees. But when you get to the creek bed, there's only a drop or two of muddy water there, water good enough for a horse maybe, your own horse will take to lapping it up, soon as he finishes rubbing noses with the other animals, but not fit for a man.
If you head out alone from Santa Fe, you can't really be worrying about whether you'll get to Flagstaff in ten days or ten weeks. You've got to be prepared for thirst, and hunger, even frostbite if the weather turns peculiar. And you've got be prepared for the kind of loneliness that would make many an ordinary type of man sit down and howl like a wolf. But if you was an ordinary type of man, you'd never have set out alone west of Santa Fe.
Even when you do meet up with a fellow human, it might not be quite the reunion you'd hoped it to be. There's plenty of room for suspicion. The men who ride the high trail are no better than they should be. A man don't put that much distance between himself and civilization unless civilization has failed him or vice versa.
Sure each rider has a code of rules he swears by. But you can never be sure the other man's rules are the same as yours. I knew a fellow once said his name was Pete Wilson. Wilson bragged he'd never shot a fellow human, afore he'd made sure the other man knew his name. I know some who will bury those they murder, even if it takes them an extra half a day. But there are other men who don't have shame, nor remorse, nor any parcel of good in them at all.
On the other side of the Painted Desert is a row of mountains with snow near their peaks. Far to the south is a thin line of trees along a now dry creek bed. Everywhere else the eye travels, there is a mixture of scrub grass and open space, scrub grass and pebbles. If you grew up in Virginia, it ought to make you happy to see grass again. But not this grass, not these yellow brown knife edges.
When two men meet, there's a lot of thinking that has to be done, decisions that have to be made. You spot the other rider far off in the distance, just a break in the horizon. Could be five miles, could be ten. You've got plenty of time to speculate on what kind of a man the other is likely to be.
The other rider could be from Virginia, too. Maybe from Richmond or Shenandoah where your folks lived before the war.
Far to the rider's left is a heap of boulders. The rider's partner could be hidden behind those rocks. So far there's been no sign of a second man, but you keep your eye cocked for the gleam of sunlight on a concealed rifle.
The other man's rifle is tied down behind his saddle. Could be a sign of his good intentions, could be a just a sign that he's out of ammunition. There's no way of telling until he comes closer. Close enough to use his revolver, close enough to use a knife.
It's funny how you can ride for days half-asleep, the miles slipping by, the prairie giving way to rocks and mud and clumps of tumbled boulders, the trees petrifying before your very eyes and then . . . . That other rider's silhouette breaks the horizon, time slows, you feel every movement of your horse, you count every hoofbeat.
Wouldn't it be something if the other fellow just rode on by without exchanging a word. Just rode on by like some kind of a ghost, coming closer and closer, like your own reflection, then silently slipping off again across the prairie. Didn't that almost happen to you once? Met this German fellow with only a word or two of English. Somehow, even without the words, you stopped and talked together, exchanged tobacco, even discussed women, the German fellow using his hands just so in the air to tell you what she'd been like.
Once I rode up to a still smoldering campfire, a man and a woman lying next to it, both of then shot through the head. The woman's petticoats had been disturbed. I wondered if it were before or after she'd been shot.
Now you can see the other rider's face. A white man, not that this tells you much about the color of his soul. With a hand-tooled saddle. Seen saddles like his before in Colorado Territory. Good people in the Territory. A lot of bad ones, too.
The man's rifle is still out of his reach. Too late for a rifle now, of course. A well-placed revolver bullet could stop him dead. Fire now while you still have the chance, before the other fellow guns you down.
I could tell you a story now about how two men meet riding across the high prairie, meet and exchange chewing tobacco. One of the men, coming from the West, had just filled his saddlebags with water two days back. He tells the other where to ride to drink his fill. The other man produces a plump jackrabbit from behind his saddle. The first man shows a string of tubers, no bigger than marbles, he says a tribe of Indians taught him to dig for. The tubers look a little like potatoes and when cooked they taste like them too.
The two men gather brush and start a cooking fire that later, they hope, will keep the bobcats and coyotes away.
For two hours or more, the stew simmers on the fire. But even before the stew is ready, the two men begin to talk. Long buried memories, some part still real, are pulled out and shaped into words. Just a couple of sentences, just enough so you can tell the other fellow understands and shares your dream.
Both men have women they hope to return to someday. (Or hoped to ; it's been so long now.) Both men had had plans, an ambition that had somehow gone astray. There'd been a betrayal, a woman or a superior officer who was less than they'd appeared to be. One's woman had made a careless choice while he was gone. Or so she'd told him. Too late, too late to undo that now.
Though it was dark, and the fire dying, you could see in the darkness that the other man had nodded, that he was listening to your dream.
You slept, heard the horses stirring, heard a far off pack of coyotes howl, and slept again. In the morning, you shook hands with the man, checked the last of your cinches and rode off never looking back. . .
Or, I could tell you a story of two other men, one not necessarily less evil than the other, just less wary. He'd been too long without friendship. He'd misjudged the proffered hand. He'd drawn his gun too late.
The fight didn't last long. The first blow led to the next and you were never really able to defend yourself. When you awoke, you could still feel the dull thump of his pistol beating on your head and shoulders. Beating again and again, beating long after there was any reason for the beating.
Maybe he taunted you before he beat you, and threatened to carve his initials into your cheek. Maybe the letters are there, cruel and ugly, when you awake.
You long to rub your blood-encrusted eyelids, but your hands are tied tightly behind your back. Tied in rawhide handcuffs that cut cruelly into your wrists.
There's no feeling left in your fingers as you begin to rub the rawhide, first slowly and then more quickly against the rough edges of a chunk of rock.
You are afraid now, truly afraid. It is a fear you have seen often in the eyes of other men gunned down or beaten. Without water, without leathers, without a horse, how can you survive? You continue rubbing against the rock, your wrists one angry mass of pain, twisting and jerking, trying to break free. . .
Or, if you like, I will invent two handy clumps of boulders near where the riders come abreast. At the last moment, each of the riders breaks for the shelter of the rocks, one to the right and one to the left. Now each crouches in his barren shelter, only yards away from what might have been.
What caused the men to bolt for shelter? Perhaps each saw something in the other's face--deformed teeth, a long nose, a crooked moustache, or hooded, staring eyes. It takes very little to make one man think 'this other man is not like me.'
An occasional ranging bullet breaks the evening's quiet. One man was hit early in the shooting by a chip of rock; there was a scream, a curse, then silence. The other man has remained silent, throughout. Perhaps the last squeeze of the trigger caught him as he dove for shelter. Perhaps, he lies dying or dead. Perhaps all the shooting is unnecessary.
You hear his horse whinny. Your own horse answers. Then you see the slow rising smoke of a cooking fire from behind the rocks where he is hiding. The man is alive after all. The bastard. Not that you had any too much to cook for dinner yourself or water to cook it in. Jerky, herbs, a few dried blueberries.
You remember the plump young jack rabbit that was tied behind the other man's saddle. You can feel your teeth crunching on the bones and sucking at the last bits of flesh. You can hear your lips smacking over the taste of fresh water. Instead, you hear your enemy whistling in the smoke of his fire.
You signal to your horse and beckon him closer. Those blueberries would taste good after all. There is a sudden flurry of bullets from across the way. Your horse, startled, leaps away.
By nightfall your horse has still not come within reach. You can tell he is nearby, though. You can hear him in the darkness as he moves from place to place searching for fresh pasture.
The other man sits picking his teeth. He is smoking real tobacco. The remainder of his rabbit, the little that he has not eaten is smoking on the fire. The mixture of smells reminds you of a New Orleans restaurant you ate in years ago. The walls were lined in red velvet. The men wore big hats, white shirts, and thick black ties. You had a dozen oysters, a trout, sweetbreads; they brought you another fish stuffed with crab, something spicy, then a big steak. There were bare-shouldered women all around the room. There was a woman at your table, too. She smelled of cologne, cologne and sandalwood.
Thinking, the other man will have to sleep soon, you fall asleep yourself. And wake. The shadows have shifted. The other man's fire has almost died out, but still you think you can see his huddled form. You fire your revolver at the shadows. The other man curses. Did you hit him? There is an answering shot and then another, and another. You fire at him recklessly. The gravel spatters. Your horse gallops away and you can hear the other man's horse kicking and bucking and pulling at his tether.
The days pass. Or perhaps it is just the one day. The days are all the same. Hot then hotter. The sky is filled with thunderclouds, but it does not rain.
Each morning, the sky is dotted with small, fluffy clouds. (Was it just one morning?) You watch them grow as the sun rises higher in the sky. The clouds grow slowly. They are big enough to block the sun, but they remain just out of reach to the east and north.
It is very hot now. Your eyelids stick together from hours of staring at an empty unchanging landscape. Even the spiders and the slow-moving lizards which feed off them are motionless, buried in the sand. Once, in the late afternoon, a tiny cloud drifts across the sun. For an instant, the temperature drops and you feel relieved and alert.
You try to make out your adversary, hidden in the rocks across the way, but only see the heat which lifts once more in shimmering waves. You remember the smell of his cooking fire. Saliva fills your mouth as you taste and retaste the rabbit of the night before.
You saw your horse this morning. (It was this morning?) He was standing motionless, not more than twenty or thirty feet away from you. He has not left you. He has only gone to find his own little bit of shade, a clump of mesquite and shriveled pines, there to your right by the dry creek bed.
Then the sun breaks free again, cruel and terrible. You know only your thirst, you know only the pain of other battles, other long periods of waiting hidden in the rocks. Was it Shiloh you remember so long ago? Shiloh and later Antietam. You think of your adversary now as you did then long ago and your thoughts are terrible. You will use your gun like a club; you will use your knife.
When night comes, you will leave your shelter. (How many times have you thought that, how many days, lying helpless in your fevered dream.) You will leave your shelter, crawling on your belly like a snake, inching your way across the pebbled ground, till you can strike at your enemy through the rocks. You have six bullets left in your gun, you counted them only a few minutes ago, and almost a dozen rounds for your rifle. But you know you will kill him with your knife.
Toward dusk, the wind rises till it moves the pebbles as easily as dust. The sky turns pitch black, though the sun was shining only a few minutes ago. Far off against the distant peaks, lightning splits the sky. The horses whinny. But it does not rain.
The winds die. You wait, your throat parched, your body feverish and aching. Bone hungry. How long has it been since you first crept to your hiding place in the rocks? Since the two of you met on the high prairie?
There is not a star in the sky. The moon is a thin almost invisible sliver that disappears behind a cloud. The night air is filled with sounds and tiny scurryings.
Someone is near you in the darkness. You whirl knife in hand. No one. Then your horse whinnies only a few feet away. You crawl to him, and pull yourself up by the saddle horns. You lean against him, just for a moment, just to get your balance.
When you wake, you are in the saddle. The sun is three hours up in the sky. The two clumps of boulders are gone, though you can see a line of trees far off on the northeast horizon where the dry creek might have been. The sky is dotted with small fluffy clouds. And you are alone again with your horse on the trail west of Santa Fe. . .
When two men meet, many different things can happen. Some good, some evil. But there are no more and no fewer possibilities than when each of us wakes each day, pulls his boots on, and smells the morning air. And whether you live free on a mountainside, or imprisoned in a sweat-soaked Abilene jail, as long as you have air to breathe, and a horse to ride, and the once-in-a-lifetime possibility of successful human contact, that's all you'll ever need.
En route from Blythe AZ to Huntington Beach CA 1991