Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Trip of a Lifetime

The two old ranchers were working in the barn, watching the aoudad munching on grass out on the point overlooking the swollen Brazos River.  Texas never does anything in moderation—as witnessed by the multi-year long drought ending with a flood that had sent the river up over its banks.

Kent reached over to take the can of oil Mike was handing him when he noticed a peculiar white scar on the back of the old rancher's left hand. 

"How’d you get that weird scar on the back of your hand?" Kent asked.

"You want the truth or a good story?" 

"Hell, I never heard any good true stories."

"An Apache Indian stabbed me," Mike answered.

"Okay, now tell me the truth."

"An Apache Indian stabbed me."

Kent put the can of oil back on the workbench and stared at his friend.  "There are no Apache in Texas, and hasn’t been since before your father was born," he said firmly.

"I know that," Mike said"Never said it happened in Texas.  It was in New Mexico.  You can’t just open up the book of my life and start on any fool page and expect it to make sense.  You have to know the whole story."

"Aw’ right, tell me the whole damn story, but I reserve the right to call bullshit on you."

Well," Mike said. "It started with a hunting trip almost 50 years ago.  I was just a teenager on the loose with a nice truck and…"

It was about as cold as bus station stew, and the snow was falling steadily, building up in the drifts between the pine trees to over three feet, and as the sun set, the temperature was dropping rapidly.  Mike was in trouble, and he knew he had to make a decision soon, because the longer he took, the choices remaining open to him narrowed. 

Looking back, this whole hunting trip had started great—a chance to hunt elk on the Mescalero reservation didn’t come along very often.  His father had been offered a cow permit as payment on a debt that he was otherwise unlikely to collect, and when his father could not get away, Mike had eagerly jumped on the chance to take his place.  As a Texas boy, the chance to hunt elk in New Mexico was too tempting to pass up—there were no elk anywhere near the Brazos River, and the average cow elk was more than twice the size of any of the white tail deer he had ever brought down. 

Even the idea of hunting on an Apache Reservation was the most exciting thing he had ever done.  Unfortunately, ever since he had left Palo Pinto County, things had started to go wrong.  Most of the problems had been connected to his ‘63 Ford pickup.  While Mike loved the truck—he hated the damn three-speed column shift. 

He had no idea why Ford had moved the stick shift from the floor, where it belonged, to up on the steering column, but every time he stopped the truck, the stupid linkages locked.  This meant that he had to crawl under the truck and pop the linkages on the transmission back into position.  This wasn't too bad while driving across the Panhandle of Texas, but as soon as he passed Roswell, New Mexico, there was cold wet snow on the side of the road.  Now, he had the heater on full blast trying to dry out his coat, while driving in his shirt sleeves. 

Mike liked the heavy Ford:  he liked the steady straight six cylinder engine...he liked everything about the truck—except that damn shift lever mounted on the steering wheel.  He swore that he would never again buy a truck that didn’t have the stick shift on the floor where it belonged.

Worse yet, he had started having electrical problems:  the lights kept dimming and the starter motor seemed to hesitate every time he restarted the engine.  Shortly after midnight, he pulled over into the deserted parking lot of the Ruidoso racetrack for a nap in the cab of the truck.  By dawn, despite all the blankets he had brought, he was shivering with cold.  As soon as there was light enough to see what he was doing, he dropped the tailgate of the truck and fired up the two burner Coleman stove to make coffee. 

As the water heated, he removed the battery cable, cursing a blue streak when the wrench slipped and caused him to bark his knuckles on the ice-cold battery mount.  Then he began the task of cleaning the battery terminals.  Lacking a brush, he scraped them with his pocket knife, then cleaned them with an old t-shirt soaked in Coca Cola until they were as clean as he could make them. 

After he had reattached the battery terminals, it was time for breakfast.  Digging through the box of food he had brought, he selected a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew, removed the lid, and put it on the Coleman stove with the blue flame set as low as it would go and still stay lit.  He actually only had three choices for every meal:  Wolf Brand Chili, Ranch Style Beans, or Dinty Moore Stew.  He preferred the chili, but was rationing that to one can a day.

He should have had enough money to stay in a nice motel and eat a real meal, but at the last moment before leaving, he had given in to temptation and had replaced his aging ’03 Springfield rifle with a second-hand Winchester Model 70.  He had originally purchased the Springfield from Sears and Roebuck for $24.95—having to pass up the optional Monte Carlo stock because he lacked the extra $12.  While the aging weapon dated from the first World War, it had proven to still be incredibly accurate, so he didn’t really need the new rifle….but it was a pre-64 model in .30-06, the same caliber as his old Springfield.  The temptation had proven too strong to resist and now Mike—temporarily impoverished—would be sleeping in his truck and eating out of cans for the duration of the trip.

As soon as the sun was up, Mike cleaned up and made his way to the address he had been given on the reservation to pick up his guide.  The house he was looking for was on Highway 70 just past Apache Summit.  Outsiders weren’t allowed to hunt on the reservation without a guide, and Mike was hoping that his guide would be an experienced hunter—a lifelong resident of the mountain forest that made up the reservation.  Unfortunately, when Mike finally found the house, he was a little disappointed to discover that his guide was a 15 year-old Native American named Janet, who knew the reservation's dirt roads and trails, but knew very little about hunting.

The next several hours of hunting turned out to be fruitless, as they had driven all over remote parts of the reservation, had stopped frequently to look for signs of elk—but to no avail.  Eventually, in a last ditch effort to find an elk before the sun set, they had driven up the side of Sierra Blanca, up a trail that according to a sign would lead to “Cow Camp 3".

As the sun set, Mike and Janet decided it was time to turn the truck around and slowly make their way down off the mountain.  Even as Mike turned the truck around, the snow had started to fall again, so Mike switched on the truck’s headlights.  Almost immediately, the glow from the lights started to dim, which was soon followed by the truck’s engine suddenly quitting. 

As Mike tried unsuccessfully to restart the truck, he realized that what he had thought was a problem of corroded battery cables was actually a dying generator.  Unfortunately, the realization came a little late.

This was why Mike was forced to make that decision pretty quickly.  The temperature was dropping fast, and the snow was still coming down.  He doubted (and Janet confirmed his doubt) that anyone knew where they were hunting, so that help was unlikely to find them anytime soon.  They could either spend a miserable night in the freezing truck, or they could try to walk out.

The best Mike could figure, they were about two miles east of Highway 70 as the crow flies, (Janet had told them the Apache referred to the crows as “Air Dogs”), and more than five miles from the highway if they tried to stay on the twisting dirt trails they had used coming up the mountain. 

To Mike, it seemed that the best method would be to walk out, heading due east until they hit the highway.  Heading out cross-country would be a harder journey, but they could not help but eventually hit the highway.  If they tried to follow the dirt roads back, it would be far too easy to take a wrong turn and wander around endlessly in the wilderness area.  With the snow coming down, the tracks his truck had left coming up the mountain would disappear soon.

Besides, Mike thought, Janet was an Apache, born on the reservation, raised to live in harmony with nature:  she should be perfectly at home in the forest and all he had to do was follow her down the mountain.  Hell, this would be an adventure that he could tell his future kids about…

Mike stopped telling Kent the story and went to refill his coffee cup.  The aoudad outside the barn saw him moving through the open barn door and started to disappear over the rim of the point.

“That’s it?” Kent said.  “You’re going to stop there?  With your Indian guide leading you down a dark mountain in a snowstorm?  What the hell happened?”

“Well,” Mike said.  “It turned out Janet knew less about that mountain than anyone on the reservation.  If I had let her pick the path, we’d still be circling that Ford truck.  That was the clumsiest woman I ever met—she must have tripped over every branch and rock all the way down that mountain.  I spent the better part of the night picking her up all the times she face-planted herself in the snow.”

“Then what happened?”

“Her uncle gave me a ride into town where I bought a rebuilt generator, we used jumper cables to start the Ford, and I drove down the mountain,” Mike said.

“What the hell has any of this got to do with that scar on your hand” Kent asked.

“Well, later that day, Janet guided me to a new spot, where I finally shot an elk.   When she tried to help me field dress the elk before I loaded it into the back of the truck, she tripped and stabbed me in the hand.”

“Why the hell didn’t you just say that?  All I wanted to know was how you got the damn scar!” Kent said.

“Nope,” Mike answered.  “You said you wanted a story.  You got one!—I told you the parts I remembered best.”

“Did any of those parts happen to be true?”

“Every damn word,” Mike said.  “Give or take a lie or two.”

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, you never want to let the strict adherence to the truth to get in the way of a good story. I have a book like that coming out about my exploits at summer camp. I had to warn my readers who were there that details of the story might vary from their memory of the incidents in question.