The Last Canyon: A Novel

The Last Canyon: A Novel

by John Vernon


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“Both gritty and sublime” (Seattle Times), The Last Canyon tells the story of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 voyage of exploration through the Grand Canyon, the last great expedition of discovery in United States history. In this vivid novel, John Vernon intertwines two stories – that of Powell and his crew, and that of a band of Paiute Indians, known as the Shivwits, who lived on the north rim of the canyon. As the novel moves inexorably toward a violent encounter between the two groups, Vernon deftly leads us into perilous geographical and emotional territory. Powell’s adventure is a story of triumph, hardship, bravery, and ultimate loss.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618257744
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 09/26/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 354
Sales rank: 791,641
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.81(d)

About the Author

JOHN VERNON is the author of the novels La Salle, Lindbergh's Son, Peter Doyle, and All for Love: Baby Doe and Silver Dollar. The recipient of two NEA fellowships, he teaches at SUNY Binghamton. His work has been published in Harper's Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and The Nation.

Read an Excerpt

Part One
May 23-June 15, 1869

Green River City, Wyoming Territory
23 May, 1869
Dearest Emma,
Rec’d yours of the 13th inst. and trust no more will follow,
as we launch tomorrow, consequently further letters to me will lie
unopened in their dusty pigeonholes. I will, as we discussed, write
to you from the Uinta Agency, tho’ knowing precisely when is
impossible. We could take as much as a month to arrive there,
depending upon the hazards on the river. After that our course is all
unknown territory, for a thousand miles, and we shan’t be again among
civilized people until we reach the southern settlements in Utah
“Civilized”? “Again”? I say these with a wink. Green River
City is a wicked place; and the Mormon towns too in the southern
wilds of Utah are said to be full of wastrels and laggards who engage
in shameful orgies. That is slander and calumny, one Latter Day Saint
passing through here informed me last week. I assured him I would
judge for myself. And you may too, Emma my love. If Detroit becomes
weary, jump on a train and join us regardless of where we wash up --
on whatever lurid shore -- once our Odyssey is finished.
No, I’ll join you. I’ll come to you in Detroit. You’ll be
easier to find.
Don’t tell your father that I’ve called this place wicked --
he’ll send an angel to destroy it. And wicked’s a mild sketch. It’s
changed in three months. Now the line is completed, the pashas of the
Union Pacific have chosen Bryan, not Green River City, as the base
for their terminal buildings, much to the chagrin of the locals, who
promptly fled, leaving only the riffraff. The line completed! You
must have seen it in the papers, Em -- the final spike hammered at
Promontory Summit, the Atlantic and Pacific coasts at last linked --
they played it up to beat the band. The consequence is, half this
town is boarded up. Of the several thousand who lived here in March,
perhaps a hundred remain. Remember what I said before leaving? --
these Hell on Wheels towns are as transitory as soap bubbles. And
they hold human life as cheaply as at Gettysburg. One nymph du pave
among our soiled doves inhaled charcoal fumes in her crib a week ago
and was found dead the following morning.
There’s not a tree, shrub, flower, or patch of grass anywhere
about except along the river. The hills are scorched daily by the
unrelenting sun. Little wonder the people have bolted!
Our camp is by the river, and most of us keep as much as
possible away from the town, except, as you might imagine, your
friend Bill Dunn, who struts along the main street every inch the
oleaginous desperado. He may look ferocious, with that raven-black
hair falling to his shoulders, and the fat and blood of countless
slaughtered beasts adding luster to his buckskin, but looks are
deceiving. Those who sputter and grouse and behave with surly bluster
are often mild as kittens, I’ve learned. His principal fault is his
speech -- blunt, frank, and harsh -- but men such as that often prove
the most loyal. When I gently reprimanded his surliness last week he
turned away and said, “I don’t wish to be happy.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Afraid it won’t last.”
I trust him more than some softer-spoken men, for instance
Oramel Howland. Dearest, don’t exult -- I should have listened to
you. The knowledge he claimed of elementary surveying and mapmaking
and the like when we met him last year made a happy impression. But
when I unpacked the instruments this week -- the sextant, the
barometers, the precious chronometer -- he showed no interest
whatsoever. I begin to suspect he is less than meets the eye. He
fusses and scolds and every now and then gives me that prophet-of-the-
Bible stare, which I counter with my own, though my beard is shorter.
(His, now long and white, curls back in the wind.) I bloat my eyes
enough to burn a hole through him, but he seldom wilts. Since we’re
both of the Wesleyan body -- and because he is my senior, tho’ only
by a year -- he may think he has as much right as I to preach to the
men, but so far (in my presence, at least) he suppresses the urge.
I’ve learned he’s already sent a dispatch to his paper, the Rocky
Mountain News, which violates my agreement with the Tribune in
Chicago, but I’ve decided there’s no sense in kicking up a row. Each
man on this voyage has his interests and inducements -- or his own
madness, to use your word -- and I have mine. Ora did relinquish his
position on the News to join our corps, so I’m loath to begrudge him
the occasional dispatch, and besides, once beyond the Uinta Agency
all is unexplored territory, and dispatches won’t be possible then,
as we’ll be incommunicado.
We’ve all given up something. Jack Sumner gave up his trading
post, and William Hawkins, like Dunn, gave up his trapping, tho’
that’s little sacrifice, since beaver are scarcer than hen’s teeth
these days. Sumner, Dunn, and Oramel Howland are bringing their gold
pans, and I’m not blind to that especial madness, indeed I encouraged
it. I told them I knew quite a bit about rocks, having lectured on
the subject, and that’s what I gave up, the comforts of the
classroom, for the duration of this voyage. But didn’t their eyes
light up when I described the rivers we’ll descend, and the gorges
they’ve carved deep into the earth, and who knew what sort of veins
would be exposed or what a man might find if he brought along his
gold pan?
As for my madness, as you know -- and I made this clear to
them -- it is geological knowledge. I informed the gold hunters that
our voyage will be no ordinary junket but a scientific exploring
expedition, the first to venture through all the canyons on the Green
and Colorado Rivers, culminating in the greatest canyon of all,
rumored to be 300 miles long -- and they ought not to mind if their
one-armed commander measures and weighs and takes samples and
describes all we come across in the rock and mineral department, not
just gold. I said I needed their help not only with physical work but
with a profusion of scientific observations, and to their credit they
give the instruments a fling, but sometimes I must rescue them (the
instruments, that is). Each man is charged with making independent
estimates of the distances between compass bearings, and Ora shall
take said compass bearings at every river bend. Bill Dunn seems adept
with the barometers, and Ora pretends to have mastered the sextant,
but I shan’t let him handle it. His task will be to write down my
observations for latitude and longitude and use them for his maps.
Dunn wished to know why we needed maps, since the river would take us
where it would regardless, and I told him that was not the proper
attitude. What sort of nation, I asked -- turning my head to include
all the others -- can build a transcontinental railroad yet be
ignorant so long of what its borders contain? Maps are more precious
than gold, I said, and Dunn wrinkled his nose. Between you and me,
Emma, I’m afraid we’ll be a little raw at first in the business of
surveying and mapping the country, but I’ve educated roughnecks
before, and most of these men were in the war -- they’ve the habit of
obedience. All are bronzed, hardy bucks in the vigor of life, and
I’ve no real regrets in the choices I made, not even dear Ora, whose
labors will be under my watchful eye, not yours, I ought to add -- he
resented your orders this winter past.
You should have seen our corps hail the new men as one by one
they arrived. A dunking was the usual salutation, but George Bradley
glowered and backed off his greeting party, including Bill Dunn, and
George is even shorter than I (tho’ only by a finger). Until a few
weeks ago, he was orderly sergeant at Fort Bridger, but General
Grant -- excuse me, President -- obtained his release at my request,
that he might go on this expedition. George will be useful; he comes
from a family of Massachusetts boatmen and is skilled in the repair
and the management of vessels. Little misfortunes work him into a
passion, but he is made of good gum and has a ready hand and a
powerful arm and appears brave and generous, if something of a lone
Andy Hall, another newcomer, I spotted rowing in circles in a
homemade boat not far from our camp, and I enlisted him at once. He
is a Scotch boy and only eighteen years old, even younger than Ora’s
brother Seneca, but a good deal stronger. When we stand side by side
he is the tallest of our crew. Young as he is, he has had
considerable experience with adversity, having worked as a
bullwhacker for the railroad. A merchant in town described him as a
skilled Indian fighter. If I know my wife as well as the back of my
hand -- and you must admit I do -- I am satisfied that, confronted
with Andy, your first reaction would be to sketch his massive head,
surmounted by a beaked nose, surrounded by ears, and beset with blue
eyes as deep as forest pools. He will serve as cook’s assistant --
Hawkins as cook.
Finally, not counting myself, there is a ninth, added
yesterday, an Englishman named Frank Goodman. I confess he is a
stranger. His face is florid, so is his speech, and at the last
moment he showed up in our camp and asked if I was the famous Major
John Wesley Powell, having read about our expedition in the papers. I
said I was indeed the person he sought, minus that part about the
fame. You’ll be famous enough after this voyage, he vowed, and then
he begged to come along, even offered me money -- and I capitulated,
but refused the money. I thought we could use another stout, willing
hand, but now I have my doubts. He seems somewhat namby-pamby.
All have been practicing handling the boats and learning the
signals I’ll make with my flags. Their antics extend to roughhousing
on the water, and I’ve been pleased to observe that my oversized
bulkheads are splendidly watertight and prevent the boats from
sinking when capsized. The men are quite amazed.
Of course they’ve heard all the stories. They’ve listened to
preposterous descriptions of thousand-foot waterfalls, of suckholes
that can swallow an iron-plated Monitor, of stretches of river that
run so fast they go uphill for several miles at a time. A man in this
town described our goal, the “Great Canyon,” as the most stupendous
gorge known on the globe. He hasn’t seen it, of course; no one has,
except in fleeting glimpses from the rim. That doesn’t prevent
authoritative declarations of the sort this dabster made: that the
height of the walls causes birds to exhaust themselves before they
can fly out, with the result that they drop back senseless into the
canyon; or that powerful waves of the Colorado River can knock a
large hawk out of the sky. I told the men such stories are ant paste,
and they agreed to come along with my solemn assurances -- but who
really knows?
You asked in your last about hostile Indians. Bill Dunn
assures me that once beyond the Uinta Agency we will meet none, and
the agency Utes, as you know from the winter, are warm and
openhearted, if somewhat unsavory. Those Indians in the country south
toward which we go -- Paiute and Navajo and Apache, principally --
never venture into the canyons, Bill has learned. They are too deep,
and the river too swift.
Yes, I wish you could have stayed and come with us. Not just
for my comfort; you have all the requirements -- hardiness, vigor,
and practical wisdom -- but I could not do this to your father,
subject his precious daughter for who knows how many more months to
the crudity of mountain men. Note that I say your father, not you. I
know your strengths, and they are steadfast yet patient, strengths of
heart above all.
We have rations for ten months, and our boats are as soundly
constructed as I could wish: three built of oak, staunch and firm,
double-ribbed, with double stem- and sternposts, and further
strengthened by the bulkheads. As we discussed, I made the fourth
boat smaller, and of pine, though cut to the same pattern. And,
surprise -- I’ve named her for you. She is called the Emma Dean and
has a sharp cutwater. She is in every way built for speed and
flexibility, and shall be our lead boat, with me in command.
We feel quite proud of our little fleet as it lies in the
river waiting for us to embark: the Stars and Stripes, spread by a
stiff breeze, over the Emma Dean; the waves rocking the little
vessels; and the current of the Green, swollen, mad, and seeming
eager to bear us down through its mysterious canyons.
The good people of Green River City, such as they are -- all
one hundred of the merchants, miners, gamblers, Mexicans, Indians,
mulewhackers, saloonkeepers, soiled doves, and infernal wretches left
in the town -- plan to see us off in the morning, but I suspect the
only ones who actually appear will be those who manage to drink until
dawn. We leave as early as possible; at midday the heat becomes
intolerable, enough to boil the fish in the water.
My brother sends his regards. He grows more melancholy the
longer we delay, and today when I told him we launch tomorrow he
launched himself -- into song, of course -- and you’ve heard his
booming voice. Walter is strong and can row like the devil and will
go mad again if he stands around idle, as I mentioned in my last.
Lord, send him peace of mind.
And now, my dear, I have one more thing to say. After eight
years of marriage, declarations of affection between husband and wife
are like a coin effaced from use, or I should say overuse. You
already know my feelings on this matter -- my shameful discomfort. I
can think of you and a fountain of tears starts from my eyes, but in
speaking of love, or putting pen to paper, my too great measure of
irksome discomfort often robs me of words. Actions speak louder than
words, dearest Emma. My love will be expressed in the caution with
which I face dangers on this voyage, in my management of hazard and
want, in my continual vigilance, and in my safe return. What perils
there are, what breakers and torrents lie in wait on the river, what
precipices will suddenly appear beneath our boats, who can truly say?
My grim determination to see you again and embrace you will bring me
back whole. It need not be said that anyone in my position would be
hard pressed to peer into the future, to anticipate dangers
unsuspected and unbegotten, whether of the river or of hostile
Indians. No one knows what waits ahead, tho’ on the score of Indians
I suspect Dunn is right -- that either from fear or superstition our
dusky brethren stay away from the river and its steep and gloomy
canyons. The land is too harsh and the hazards too great even for
feathered men. And as for the waters, they may be high now, but that
is just the spring flood. For the first 200 miles the Green is free
of rapids save the occasional meager ripple. It will carry me safely,
and I’ll end where I began -- in your arms again.
Your Loving Husband,
Wes looked around him: all hell was breaking loose. His boat had
nosed down, got gripped by the river, and wind had turned to water.
The Emma Dean shot forward in a blink and Wes was shouting and Jack
Sumner rowing air and Bill Dunn pulling so hard on his oars that a
tholepin popped out and clattered to his feet. He dropped down to
pick it up. Between Bill in the bow and Jack in the stern, Wes waved
his stump and bellowed out orders lost to the roar and hiss. “Left,
boys, left! Man your oars, Bill!” Shouts reduced to bird squeal. Bill
leaned over the gunnel now and was fumbling with the tholepin. Wes
bent down and shouted in his ear, “What the devil are you doing?”
“Major Powell, sir, I can’t make the fucker fit!”
Just moments ago they’d been drifting in a dream on a placid
tilt of river, a bubble’s downward sag. Below and beyond it, peaks of
waves and gouts of foam had leapt like little demons trying to find
the doomed men. Prominent in the rapids ahead was a monstrous boulder
stacking up the river -- neck folds on a bull.
Now they raced toward it. “Left,” Wes screamed, then looked
back to spot, a hundred feet behind them, the Kitty Clyde’s Sister
sliding into the rapids, with George Bradley and Wes’s brother
attempting to row, the latter’s mouth wide open in song. Even George
couldn’t hear Walter’s voice, Wes thought. The roar of the rapids,
more like fire than water, drowned all other sounds. But Wes knew
what his brother was singing: “John Anderson, My Jo.” He could tell
by the satisfied warp of Walter’s mouth.
He turned back to face upriver, clinging to his rope tied
around a strut, which he used for busting rapids. His inflated life
preserver wrapped snug around his neck felt like a horse collar and
took away some dignity, since no one else wore one. The Emma Dean
climbed waves then dropped then climbed again, and above her the
canyon walls rose in red bluffs and the noontime sun flamed off the
sandstone and the river caught its light and spread it like a rash.
The No Name entered the rapids now, and twisting around Wes
saw it jumping like a deer jumping logs, and the grown men inside
bouncing up and down -- the two Howland brothers and the helpless
Frank Goodman, clinging to his seat. Wes shouted again -- he wasn’t
sure why or at whom or even what -- then a wave cuffed his boat,
nearly knocking him over, and something in his spine broke into
blossom and he righted himself in the act of turning back, and all
this happened in a moment. The unceasing roar filled the air and the
river rose before him. “Left, boys!” he screamed, stressing that
direction with his head and upper torso. The right stump helped too,
straining left across his chest, with nerve ends sprouting a frantic
phantom arm. He watched Bill in front of him rowing with one oar and
felt like clubbing the oaf. They weren’t going left, they were
broadsiding toward the huge rock ahead and he screamed, “Both oars,
Bill!” Furrows of water rocked the boat left and right, sending
columns and streamers ten or more feet high toward Wes, half
standing, and bucked him like a mustang. From his height above the
men he could see the fatal boulder, obscured by a left-moving sheer
wall of water. “We’re lost, boys, we’re lost!” He stood to full
height -- five foot four -- and shaking his head, laughed like a
A shard of his attention sensed the Maid back there shooting
into the rapids, and detected as though from an inner distance the
howls and execrations of Andy Hall and William Hawkins.
The Emma Dean reached its crisis. Wes had to sit when his
boat rose and hung suspended in time, remitted from gravity, but
shaking like a peak about to blow. She seemed to keep rising while
water crashed through her, her forward momentum still jerking her up.
At last she paused. Out of nowhere he pictured the real Emma Dean,
safe in Detroit. And the water carved open, or so it seemed -- it
positively parted to receive them.
They shot straight ahead through two walls of water, and now
it was just a never-ending breathless race. Wes stood again. Below
him, Bill Dunn with the tholepin in his hand looked startled as a
baby laid on his back. Wes turned to signal the others left, as far
left as possible, but he had to hang on and couldn’t use his flag. It
was all body language -- head butts, stump flaps. The Emma Dean
didn’t race, she flew through the air, then slammed down so hard he
was airborne for an instant. She spun around madly, pinning Wes to
his seat, but the boys worked the oars -- this was water they could
bite -- and the boat swung downriver, slowing to full steam.
Amazingly, Bill still rowed with one oar. It mattered less now. A
perfectly flat slide of water had found them and they rode it down
the wind toward the next hanging avalanche of river, then rode that
around a bend -- these rapids were endless -- past shawls of foam
pouring over boulders left and right of their boat. The river slowed
as it curved.
“Ain’t you done with that yet?” Jack Sumner barked. Bill Dunn
fumbling with the tholepin again.
“Can’t get it back in.”
“We rode all that way with it out?”
“I suppose.”
As the rapids diminished, the sound of Walter’s song broke
across the water.
Now we maun totter down, John,
But hand in hand we’ll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot,
John Anderson, my jo.
Wes pulled off his rubber life preserver. He wore it as a
favor to Emma, since with his one arm, swimming would be tricky if
her namesake capsized. You needed every crutch, he thought, every
human expedient -- gadgets, prayer, quick wit, charms, and spells --
when the unknown lay around every corner.
They’d herded together, the Emma, the Sister, the No Name,
and the Maid, in a gentle eddy near a beach at a bend. Here the river
looped right. The men began to bail, all except Frank Goodman in the
No Name -- sitting up smartly now -- and Bill Dunn in the Emma Dean,
still working on the tholepin. Wes asked too, “That’s not done,
Bill?” at which Seneca Howland looked up from his boat, bailing like
mad, and said, “Bill, are you Dunn?”
“Shut your damn piehole.”
A snarl, a stare. The games men play with each other, thought
They anchored the boats, climbed onto shore, and sprawled in
the sand at a bend in the river eating biscuits and dried apples
passed out by Hawkins. First willows then box elders and cottonwoods
grew on the rocky soil behind them, then the broken ground rose to
high red cliffs seamed into blocks. The river had quieted down at
this bend, and their boats hardly tugged at the deadman anchors.
Wes checked the four boats for damage then sat on the Emma’s
bow deck by himself and observed his men: Andy Hall of the big head
and nose and powerful arms, the former mule driver. He walked as if
another Andy Hall, made of buckets and poles, were pitching forward
inside him while trying not to spill.
Hawkins the cook with his dark eyes, enormous shag mustache,
and small wisp of beard on a dinky chin. Hawkins’s face was singular,
fixed as cement, but his name a buzzing crowd -- sometimes Missouri
Rhodes, sometimes William Rhodes Hawkins, sometimes Billy, sometimes
Cook -- and Wes hadn’t managed to learn about his past, no one had.
Or if they had they weren’t saying.
Jack Sumner’s mustache had bleached in the sun, and like
Hawkins Jack was short though round-shouldered, a human cannonball.
He’d given up his store in Hot Sulphur Springs to come on this trip
and often reminded others of this fact in Wes’s presence. Otherwise,
Jack kept his own counsel. Wes had made him his Peter, his rock, but
seldom really knew what he was thinking.
Bill Dunn’s stringy black hair brushed his shoulders, and his
beard held as much grease, it appeared, as his filthy breeches. Bill
sat in the sand. Had he fixed the tholepin at last, the big lunk?
He’d better have, thought Wes, he couldn’t row without it. Next to
Bill, Ora Howland, head resting on his arms, seemed to be sleeping.
He often slept, but when baby brother Seneca, to his right, commenced
idly digging in the sand with a stick, Ora lifted his head. “Leave
the sand be.”
Seneca stood and tossed the stick away. Last night he’d told
Wes he’d come along for the adventure.
George Bradley was off sitting by himself but within earshot.
Quiet, thought Wes, but quiet men sometimes made fewer mistakes. And
George knew boats -- their one experienced boatman. Since the first
few days after their launch, George had camped alone every night.
Quiet, and a loner. Wes instinctively trusted him.
Between George and the rest of the men bunched together,
Wes’s brother Walter reached for the sky, stretching prodigiously,
then paced in a circle, peered up at the cliffs, inspected the river.
At last he walked back and rejoined the group, sitting next to Frank
Goodman. “How come you didn’t bail?” he asked the Englishman.
“Afraid I couldn’t.”
“What’d you do to yourself?”
“Sandbar crumbled beneath me last night. I was -- discharging
my burden in the dark.”
“I suppose that’ll do it.”
“Can’t yawn, can’t sneeze. Speaking causes discomfort.” Frank
seemed to be smiling, but Wes wasn’t sure -- his nose did all the
talking. The loose mouth just hung there. “If I feel the need to
sneeze, the sensation is like being stabbed in the back. Then I
can’t. It’s cut off before the crisis.”
“Need yourself a woman,” said Walter, who turned to his
brother and winked. Wes nodded. Walter’s moods ranged from distracted
bonhomie to rage to self-torture, and who knew when they’d shift?
Surprise me, Wes thought. Most of the others had fought in the war
too. They knew the damage of combat and the Icarian falls suffered by
some, and ought to indulge his brother, he’d decided. Still, every
time Walter opened his mouth Wes felt alarmed, ready to jump in.
Walter folded his arms across his knees and lowered his head.
Wes ate a biscuit and let the sun warm him. This was his
hastily assembled crew, his disciples, the men Emma had said wouldn’t
last the first week. As of yesterday she was wrong. Still, they’d
just begun. And Wes knew from the war that first skirmishes weren’t
always predictive of a battle’s outcome, and this would be a battle,
but of the oddest sort. For one thing, their enemy -- the river --
was also their lifeline. In one week he’d glimpsed the river’s fitful
moods: it lulled you like a dream, then shocked you awake with the
same looming anxiety war made you feel, as though even at rest you
were always approaching the edge of a cliff.
Andy Hall waded in the river to his calves and pissed
upstream. Like spitting into the wind, Wes thought. Andy shook his
member at the rapids, now diminished in the distance. “Best ride so
far, Major Powell,” he said walking back. He brushed sand off his
drawers, and Wes noted the union suit -- too small. The boy was still
growing. No one had changed clothes, all still wore the standard
uniform for rapids: flannel shirts and drawers, kerchief tied around
the neck.
“It was fun, I’ll say that.” Hawkins spit in the sand.
“Fun? Christ almighty,” Andy said. “It wasn’t fun, it was
“Same difference.”
“No sir,” said Andy. “Fun’s a good time, but exciting is
different. Exciting’s the kind of good time you know you had only
after it’s over. It’s like being shot at by a drunk.”
“I wouldn’t have thought being shot at was exciting.”
“When it’s over, I said.”
“I’ll tell you about exciting,” said Jack Sumner. “Exciting
has to be a little dangerous, like a black-eyed whore.”
“Exciting gets old,” George Bradley said. He was twenty feet
away, sitting in the sand, but didn’t raise his voice; Wes strained
to listen. “We been gone a week, we got a thousand miles to go, and
we’ll be sick to death of getting dunked like this by the time we get
through. Sick of each other too.”
“Sick of you already, George.”
“Sick of this canyon.”
“Don’t the sun feel good, though?”
“First you freeze, then you burn.”
“I thought it was over,” said the Englishman. “Thought we’d
gone to meet our Maker.”
Walter Powell raised his head. “Then how come you’re smiling?”
“Something amusing just occurred to me.”
Walter’s lips thinned. “You’re one of those boys which your
nose points up and your chin points down and there’s what I call a
saddle between your nose pits and your mouth.”
“So wipe that stupid grin off your face.”
Wes jumped up, guided Walter aside, and said, “Let’s get to
work. Walter, help Hawkins reload the Maid. Ora -- compass bearing.”
Acting for two, Wes’s one arm swung wildly as he walked, and the
walking was labored -- he stomped through sand. Short as a fencepost,
shirtsleeve pinned up, he fought the inclination to list.
He stopped to watch Ora take a bearing and scribble on his
sketchpad. Wes had been teaching him the meander system for mapping
their course: compass bearings at every bend, the distance between
bends approximated, approximations compared and averaged. Those
figures in turn were corrected by astronomical stations taken with a
sextant fifty miles apart and linked by the river estimates. Only
trouble was, you could not take bearings and cling to a runaway boat
at the same time. If they’d gone around a bend in those last rapids,
would Ora’s map even show it? Wading to shore, Ora asked his brother
how far he made it from their last bearing.
“Forgot to keep track,” Seneca said.
“Eight miles.”
“Six,” said Wes.
Ora settled on nine.
Meanwhile, Bill Dunn had unpacked the barometers and, having
loosened the screw beneath the cistern case, stood in the sand
holding one up, waiting for the mercury to reach its level in the
tube. The wooden box with the other two barometers stood open in the
sand, and when Wes walked up the first thing he did was close the lid
and latch it tight. “You have your tables?” he asked.
“In the boat.”
Bill’s usual expression when he tried to concentrate was
startled dismay, or confused irritation. His long hair looked black
as an Indian’s, and his smell was burnished, carrion, and old, a
copper bowl filled with chopped meat gone bad. His beard appeared to
be a solid thing, whereas Wes’s muttonchops felt made of sparse
lamb’s wool. Standing there, Wes looked him squarely in the face
while Bill glanced around like a boy at the blackboard. He’d been
teaching Bill to keep careful track of their ever-falling base line,
but it took a lot of patience.
“In the boat.”
“In my breeches.”
“Where are they?”
“In the boat.”
“I’ll hold that. Get the tables, the thermometer, and the
Bill handed the barometer to Wes and stumbled over mudflats
to unlatch the Emma Dean’s bow compartment. He rooted around and
pulled out a thermometer, pocket watch, and leather case, then
slogged back to his commander.
“I think it’s settled on a reading.” Wes held up the
barometer. Its long glass tube, cased in brass, showed no moisture in
the sun -- a good sign. Bill placed his nose two inches from the
thing and squinted at the scale. “Twenty-four point six.”
“What does that give you?”
Bill opened the case and pulled out the little notebook with
the tables in the back. He flipped through the pages. “Five thousand
four hundred feet?”
“Write it down.”
Bill licked his thumb and turned the pages, then licked the
pencil and wrote down the numbers. Before Wes could prompt him, he
screwed one eye up and consulted the temperature and referred to the
tables, then plugged in the correction. It took him several minutes
to multiply the figures, and while he did Wes returned the barometer
to its box, and the box to the No Name’s stern compartment.
Bill entered the corrected altitude in the notebook, slipped
the notebook into the case, and started for the boat. Seneca Howland
whispered as he passed, “Bill, are you Dunn?”
“You’re forgetting something,” said Wes.
“What?” Bill spun around, slapped his forehead. With watch in
hand and pencil in teeth, he took out the notebook again and jotted
down the time. And the weather conditions.
A raven flew by. Wes heard the wooden croak and the soft
whoop whoop of its wings above his head. “Let’s get started,” he
called to the men.
They climbed into the boats while Wes watched the raven,
whose head hung down, yellow eye watching him. The bird crossed the
canyon rising on thermals toward the opposite rim. For no apparent
reason he folded his wings and bulleted through the air a few feet,
rolling on his shaggy neck. Then he opened his wings and with another
croak wheeled up toward the cliffs looming over the canyon. The croak
was a thick piece of air wedging open.
He landed on a tree and stabbed at his tail -- plagued by
lice, no doubt. But Wes could barely make him out now. From the
raven’s lofty perch the tiny boats below gliding down the river would
hardly seem to be moving, Wes thought. The raven was one thing rooted
in the world, while the little men below rode on ten separate rivers,
none quite the same.
The next day the rapids worsened and they had to portage. Wes had
named this place Red Canyon; an Adam in his garden, he spent names
like coins. Red Canyon ran east, parallel to mountains to the south,
and seemed to be endless, but at least it gave them sun from early
morning to late evening. Around a bend, the river pinched, lashed by
eddies and crosscurrents and filled with boulders in the main
channel, each of which uttered its own dull roar. They landed on the
right and Wes jumped out and stormed up the bank to see the way ahead.
The sun beat down. Two humping slopes of earth massed with
fallen rock descended to the river, which hung between them like a
flume. It was not only fast but filled with rocks. “We could run it,”
said Andy.
“Go ahead. Have a party.”
They spent the next hour clearing a path along the bank,
ripping up scrub oak and levering boulders, then had to unload all
the supplies -- the rifles, saws, barometers, and compasses, the
sextants, thermometers, mess kit and clothes, the hundred-pound sacks
of dried apples, the salt pork and bacon, the sugar, beans and
coffee, the endless sacks of flour -- and haul them through the
talus. They stripped to their waists and left their shirts upriver,
then on return trips jumped in the rocky eddies near the bank to cool
off. Once the boats were emptied out, they ran a long rope through
the ring on the stern post of the Emma Dean and doubled it back.
George Bradley tied another rope to the bow, and Walter and Andy, the
two largest men, clambered over talus downstream carrying the bow
rope. Wes pointed out a boulder on shore where they could see
upstream. Then he ran back upriver to the boats and they began.
The rest of the men except George Bradley held on to the
doubled-back stern rope on the bank while George and Wes shoved and
kicked the Emma Dean through shallows and eddies to the edge of the
rapids. They threaded it around rocks and clung to the boat until the
rapids caught it, then the six men on the bank, holding on for dear
life, slowly lowered it inches at a time.
The sun was merciless. Sweat greased the hands of the men on
the bank. The Emma Dean strained, pulling on its rope past the worst
of the rapids, and when it ran out of rope Wes climbed a rock and
raised his flag. He made sure they were ready -- the six men upstream
hanging on to the stern rope, and the two downstream. He swung the
flag down in a wide arc and the men upstream released one end of the
doubled stern rope and it whipped through the ring and the boat cut
through water, slashing left and right past Walter and Andy until,
slowing, it reached the end of their bow line and they hauled it in.
Wes paced the bank, anxious and distracted, until the next
boat was ready. Lining down the boats took all morning, then they had
to reload them. He began to grow alarmed about the water in the
supposedly watertight compartment of the Emma Dean. A picture raided
his mind: water clouding one of their pocket watches -- or worse, the
chronometer -- and fouling its works. He checked the other boats and
found the Sister leaking too, so he moved the chronometer from its
bow to the drier stern compartment. It took another day to find a
place to spread their clothes and rations to dry, and another after
that to reach Browns Park, where the canyon walls shrank and the
mountains fell away and they could caulk their battered boats with
oakum and pitch and preserve their equipment from their enemy, the
Browns Park was a place where fur trappers once had held
their rendezvous, and Wes knew that made it hallowed ground for
Sumner, Dunn, and Hawkins; with Wes and Emma, they’d been here last
winter for a few cold days. It was rimmed by steep slopes, red and
green in the distance, and broken by hills and mesas in the valley
and by terraces and bluffs along the banks of the river. He sent Bill
and George out to hunt and they came back with fish. Bill explained
they’d hiked to a creek where he spotted trout and tried to shoot
them with his pistol, but it didn’t work. George caught some
whitefish with his fishing rod instead.
The next day being Sunday, George and Oramel suggested the
men observe it, but Wes wanted to see the canyon up ahead. “Fasten
your belts and gird up your loins,” he told the two men, the stumpy
George Bradley and the prophet Ora Howland. Those two rowed like
Christian slaves doing the minimum, but the others pulled hard,
bucking winds all the way through a broad valley.
It rained off and on. Clouds were still massing to the east
when they landed, so they pitched the tents. They camped in sandy
soil on a ledge above the river near the end of Browns Park, with
gambel oaks around them and cottonwoods overhead and willows nearby
with which they made mattresses. Downstream the river entered the
mountains between two cliffs with a tinny distant roar, and Wes
stared at those gates, having spotted them last year when snow lay on
the ground. Massive and high, the sandstone cliffs were broken with
seams but just about perpendicular. And the left one flamed up when a
cloud unleashed the sun.
Bill Dunn took their elevation and discovered they’d fallen
about a hundred feet since the Red Canyon rapids. Oramel plotted
their recent course and worked on his maps, but they were water-
stained and damp. Jack Sumner and Hawkins tried panning the river --
no color showed.
Wes walked downstream to stare at the canyon’s gates because
something felt wrong, some thought half formed when he’d stood here
last winter. This was the voyage he’d begun planning then. This was
the scientific exploration he’d dreamed of for a year, the one that
would carry him deep into unknown country, through canyons and
mountains and past looming landforms whose secrets had locked up
millennia of history. He’d studied erosion, analyzed rocks, read
about uplifts, and rejected the notion that earth’s scarred and
knotted surface was the product of catastrophe, as Professor Whitney
claimed. In its elephantine mass the earth’s surface delimited its
own capacity for change. Change was logical, slow, persistent, and
was written in river and rock and their characters, inscribed in
landforms born of their friction. Yet here, and in similar sites
they’d come across last winter, the river cut directly into a ridge
of mountains. It didn’t have to do that; it could have stayed in this
valley. Across the river from this spot the valley curled east and
its obstacles were fewer and lower, he observed. But to the south --
solid rock. It looked as if someone had struck a meaty hand through
the heart of the mountains and plowed that narrow furrow. It was even
more awful to behold in this light, he imagined telling Emma. This
late afternoon pre-summer solstice light. The sun couldn’t strike the
canyon’s inner walls, which grew darker as they plunged, answering
the brilliance in this valley with gloom. Standing here, it felt
impossible to resist the sepia theology, the allegory of the chromos,
the familiar parables of light and dark.
Although Emma could resist them. She was a better skeptic
than he. Just yesterday, Ora had compared the twists and snares of
the river to the Christian’s earthly voyage, and Wes couldn’t help
it -- for a moment he thought the man was right. After all, unless
perversely inspired, why would a river choose to cleave a massive
block of mountains? First the crafty river seemed to run without
design, then it made for the highest point in sight, as though
ordinary valleys weren’t worthy of its notice.
Ordinary valleys, of course, were ancient; they’d been worn
down by time. Here the river cut gorges, stark and high, without the
rounded walls of eastern river valleys. From everything he’d learned
about the Great Canyon, a thousand miles south, the same held true
there: high walls, massive and chiseled -- profound, gloomy depths --
precipitous spires, towering pinnacles, labyrinthine chasms. It
overwhelmed conception. How his heart ached to see what the inner eye
could only feebly sketch!
A glacier could have carved the canyon before him. Maybe that
was the answer. Or maybe the answer was an underground river whose
roof of earth collapsed and got washed away. No, long ago he’d
rejected that idea. The ability of water to carry off soil seemed
incontrovertible, but common sense and Ockham’s razor made short work
of the fantasy of underground rivers. The river itself had sliced
through this mountain, but how?
“Plunder! Plunder! Come and get it!” That evening Hawkins had cooked
the bacon on sticks, catching its grease in a cup for dipping
biscuits. Made from flour, water, salt, and saleratus, the biscuits
usually baked up golden brown and took suggestive shapes not
ordinarily appetizing. But the men were always hungry. On a rock at
the fire’s edge sat a pot of beans.
“Where’s the plunder?” asked the Englishman.
“I said that plunder to make you come quick. Tell the boys to
go out and shoot us some game, then I’ll say plunder truly.”
“Shot some yesterday,” said George.
“Skinny ducks and bony fish. Where’s the meat?”
“Move it over just a skoshy bit, would you please, Lime
Juicer?” At the end of the log, Jack Sumner tried to sit next to
Frank Goodman. The left-handed Englishman seemed to need a lot of
room, since he always ate with his right elbow cocked.
“Come now, Major, won’t you take a bit of Simon?” Hawkins
handed Wes’s plate to his brother, then nodded at the bucket. From a
tin he scooped soap and plunged his hand into the water. Wes plunged
his in too, and Hawkins’s hand remedied the deficiency of limb,
enabling Wes to wash his own. Meanwhile, Walter cut up his brother’s
Tin plates on knees, they sat on logs around the fire in
huddled postures of protection. Wes had read Darwin and understood
the suggestion of animals in a pack. Now and then someone stood and
dipped his biscuit in the grease cup, which sat on a flat rock. The
wind was still testy and blew the smoke around, but that at least
kept the mosquitoes away.
Downriver, dying sunlight caught the canyon’s gates and
turned the cliffs to flaming gold. A convulsion of light in the gray
clouds behind them contracted and a rainbow showed its stump.
Mockingbirds sang. Frogs had started croaking. In a pool on
the mudflat below their little camp, trematode larvae formed cysts on
tadpole limbs, assuring that some would grow deformed legs. Routine
signs of slaughter lay around. Beneath the cottonwood sheltering
their camp, a few feet away from a blossoming balsamroot whose yellow
had pooled in the deep light of dusk, an ant dislodged some dirt at
the edge of a crater and the ant lion beneath it exploded in jerks,
showering sand to force the ant down. The ant lion destroyed his
perfect little crater with these fitful landslides, but he could
always dig another. During the war, in prison camp, Walter Powell had
seen centipedes and millipedes large as water snakes in a boot, and
next to the boot he’d seen his own shadow bleeding on the floor. But
if he could see what that ant saw, or feel what it felt, he’d go mad
again and stay mad forever. Oval and flat, grayish brown, with
toothed mandibles, studded all over with warts and bristles, the ant
lion seized the ant with his pincers, punctured its body, and sucked
out the juices.
He hurled the drained carcass out beyond his pit.
This monster was not the dragon by the roadside watching for
a sinner to pass. He was only the size of a watermelon seed and the
ant hadn’t even screamed.
And on a ridge above their camp, a sodden mass of fur and
quills lay in bunchgrass. Late that winter, a porcupine crossing a
deep bank of snow had been surrounded by coyotes, one of which
tunneled underneath his body and ripped his belly open -- the only
unprotected part. With care, the whole pack excavated his flesh. Now
the quills lay scattered in clumps of fur and skin, and the same
coyote who’d tunneled through the snow trotted past them and sniffed.
Then he walked into their camp. “Coyote!” shouted Andy.
Bill Dunn shot to his tent for a pistol, but the coyote
turned back, looking over his shoulder. He’d loped off briskly the
same way he’d come before Bill could fire. “Smart as whips,” he
“Taste like skunk, though,” said Wes.
He watched Bill walk off in the coyote’s direction. Across
the fire, Hawkins asked Frank Goodman what part of England he was
“Where’s that?”
“Shipping town. South coast. You of all people should know
about Plymouth. Your ancestors came from that town to Massachusetts.”
“Not mine,” said Andy.
“Nor mine neither.”
“Mine came from the coal mines.”
“From the fiery depths.”
“From Missouri.”
Frank Goodman threw up his hands. “Your lives are so
circumscribed! You have no sense of history.”
“That’s enough of your gassing,” said Walter Powell, chasing
a bean down his plate with his biscuit. “We got a sense of history
good as anybody’s. It just don’t go far back.”
“No further than your backsides.”
“Don’t give me that sass. Shut your damn mouth.” Walter stood
up and dipped his plate in the washbucket.
“By God,” said the Englishman.
“Don’t ‘by God’ me.”
“That’s right. Well.”
Wes stood up, took his brother by the arm, and whispered in
his ear to leave Goodman alone.
“He’s just a brass button,” said Walter, looking down.
Hawkins rang the bean pot with his spoon. “Roll out! Roll
out! Pigs in the peachery! Who’s for more silage?”
Andy Hall held out his tin plate. Bill Dunn came back and
announced that the coyote had killed a porcupine and been visiting
the scene.
“How do you know?”
“He pissed next to these. Ground still wet.” Bill passed out
some porcupine quills.
“What’s this for?” said Seneca.
“Pick your teeth. Spear a mouse.”
“Where’d you find them?”
“Up the ridge.”
When everyone was finished and the plates were dipped and
stacked, Seneca cried out in pain. “Porcupine quills don’t make good
toothpicks on Sunday, June 6,” he exclaimed. Mouth stretched open, he
probed wounded gums with his finger.
“You mean you actually used them?” asked Bill. “You’re
greener than I thought.”
The young man’s face bloomed in red and white blotches.
Seated on the log, his brother Ora had removed the sketches
for his map from their well-oiled leather case and spread them on the
ground. Wes watched as he lay his arms on his knees, lowered his
head, and promptly fell asleep.
The day began pulling its light from the valley. To Wes’s
disappointment the clouds had not blown out, so he couldn’t use the
sextant. But he footed up their estimated distance to be a hundred
and forty river miles, fifty as the crow flies from their point of
departure back at Green River City. He willed himself to wake up
later that night and see how the sky looked.
As usual, George Bradley slept apart from the others. He
declined the tent and lay under a wagon sheet on a shelf above their
camp. Everyone else slept with their boatmates, three to a tent,
except for Walter Powell, who joined Andy Hall and Hawkins. From that
tent Walter sang “Old Shady,” which meant he’d calmed down. No one
told him to stow it.
In the middle of the night, when Wes woke to the sound of
someone hawking, he reached for his boots with his right arm before
realizing it was missing. He’d been listening to Emma play a Schubert
impromptu -- no, he’d been searching the forests of his Wisconsin
boyhood for an enormous yellow pine bent over in an arch. The search
was full of sadness from hearing Emma at the piano, and besides, he
was lost. When he woke in his tent, the ravines and gorges of his
dreaming mind began their process of vanishing like folds in rising
dough, and he checked the sky outside the tent and found it drunk
with stars. He couldn’t hear the river but sensed its weight below
them, sliding through the earth with a deep steady pressure.
He pulled on his boots and exited the tent, careful not to
wake Bill Dunn or Jack Sumner. Stars flooded the valley. He woke Ora
Howland, who retrieved the sextant from the Maid of the Canyon and
the heavy chronometer -- it looked like a giant pocket watch -- from
the Kitty Clyde’s Sister. Meanwhile, Wes raked out the fire’s banked
coals and fed them with branches and pieces of oak. They worked
together in silence. The air was still and cool, the wind depleted,
but the stars were slowly moving, circling the earth. With his
compass, Wes located north and set up his sextant on its tripod. He
sighted through the eyepiece and moved the index arm until Polaris
sat squarely on the wire. “Ora,” he whispered. “I need a candle.”
Oramel rummaged in the No Name for a candle while Wes looked
up at the quicksand of stars and tried to resist being pulled in. He
flinched when Ora lit a match beside him. With the candle they
scrutinized the calibrated scale and found the altitude, and Wes
jotted it down, then pulled out his pocket almanac. He consulted his
table of mean refractions and calculated their latitude as 45°25
\\Univ GreekwMathSTART\\9\\Univ GreekwMathEND\\.
He took observations for time and distance on the moon’s edge
in relation to Polaris. As the moon reached the wire, the Major
whispered “now” and Ora, holding his candle to the chronometer, noted
the time. Wes consulted his nautical almanac and together he and Ora
performed the subtraction from Greenwich Mean Time. Ora wrote down
the hour, minutes, and seconds. Then every few minutes for the next
hour they took a new reading.
When Ora yawned, his entire skinny body hung down from the
empty crater of his mouth. Wes held the candle to Ora’s list of
readings. He computed a mean from their twelve observations and
calculated their longitude. Ora shrugged. “Just where I thought we
They packed up the instruments. Why didn’t Ora sit down then
and there to plot their location and make corrections to his map, Wes
wished to know. But he kept the question to himself. Yawning, Ora
crept back into his tent.
Still, it was remarkable -- to locate themselves amid a
floodtide of stars who knew how many million miles away. But
everything was connected, Wes thought. He sat there all night,
drifting off then waking. Stirring the fire, watching the sky sponge
up the stars as it turned from ashen gray to sifted blue at dawn, he
thought of their little seed of a planet racing across the universe,
just like their seed pods racing down the river. And what lay ahead?
They loaded up the boats and floated out of Browns Park, passing
those enormous gates of red sandstone. Inside, the canyon walls were
higher than any they’d seen -- and consequently darker -- and the
water, cold and fast and relentless, prompted Andy to shout, “How
does the water come down at Lodore?” to which Wes, who knew Southey’s
poem by heart, boomed out, “Collecting, projecting, receding and
speeding, and shocking and rocking, and darting and parting, and
threading and spreading, and whizzing and hissing, and dripping and
skipping . . .” until the rushing waters drowned him out. But they
had a name for this canyon now -- Lodore -- much to the disgust of
Jack Sumner, who announced that the idea of using limey trash to find
names for new discoveries was un-American.
They struck a chain of rapids, but none they couldn’t run.
They turned it into a race. The oarsmen rowed hard to skim the river
like birds, and the ruddermen in the rear steered with their long
oars, facing forward and shouting directions. Every now and then Wes
in the pilot boat ran ahead to scout the river, then signaled for the
On terraces from which enormous cliffs leaped, the rock was a
deep brownish red lichened over, but slanted walls of sun made it
crimson on top. In some places slopes of piñons hung in shadows by
the shore, in others the walls plunged straight into the river,
suggesting a new source of worry to the Major: where on earth would
they land if they couldn’t run a rapid? Squeezed by the canyon, the
river was deep, but deep did not mean free of obstacles, and who knew
how many boulders lay just beneath the surface?
They camped on a little platform of rocks with no room for
George to go off by himself.
Next day they started early and the rapids persisted. High
cliffs obstructed the early morning sunlight, and in their drawers
and shirts the men grew wet and cold. As always in the Emma, Bill sat
in the bow and Jack in the stern, and Bill, facing Wes, lay his
strong upper torso across both oars. He was rowing for the body heat,
Wes figured, since in most stretches the river ran swiftly. Bill
pulled and they flew, like whipping a fast horse. A hawk shrieked
overhead and Bill looked up, but Wes didn’t bother. He was watching
Bill row, feeling vaguely envious -- watching him strain with each
lunge of the oars like a man granted parturition by the gods. The
high faint scream came from overhead again. “I’d like to see this
from a hawk’s perspective,” said Wes.
Bill pulled on the oars. “Give me the worm’s-eye view any
“My father would say we sit in God’s palm. Yet we pygmies
strive against it.”
“I’ll buy that. Thou knowest, Lord. My daddy said to me, ‘I
brought you in, Bill, I can take you out again. I can make another
one looks just the same.’”
“What religion was he, Bill?”
“What religion? Whiskey.”
“What was he raised as?”
“Raised as a drunk.”
“Still living?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Did he teach you to trap?”
“He was a worthless piece of furniture. He taught me how to
Each talked while looking up at canyon walls, Wes to the
east, Dunn to the west.
“Well, you’re your own man now.”
“That I am.”
“Make it easy on yourself.”
“I will.”
“I’ve estimated these walls as two thousand feet high.”
Bill’s head, tilted back, confronted the sky. “Make your hair
curl, don’t it?”
“Suppose you were the Creator,” said Wes. “What better way to
impress the human mind with a foretaste of eternity?”
“You mean, ‘Chasms like this could smash you to a grease
stain if you step off the rim, so mend your sinful ways’?”
Wes smiled. He couldn’t help it -- with infidels such as Bill
he’d talk religion like his father, whereas with believers like
Oramel Howland, always grousing about how we ought to stop on the
Sabbath and maybe a prayer now and then wouldn’t hurt, he talked
geology instead, as though everything he did followed laws of
A roar ahead grew louder -- Wes hadn’t been watching. They
were crossing, he realized, a flat apron of water toward a line
beyond which the pot had started boiling. Behind him he heard a
hollow rubber hiss -- Jack Sumner inflating the Major’s life
preserver. Bill raised his oars and the Emma Dean gently revolved in
the water, slow and peaceful. Wes found his flag, crawled past Jack,
and climbed on top of the stern deck to see.
“How’s she look?”
Bill Dunn pivoted the boat and started rowing toward the
“You’ll want to slow up,” said Wes.
“It’s just another repetition only more of it.”
“I’ve decided we should land.”
“No and hell no.”
Wes raised his voice. “Ease up, Bill. Row to shore. Row to
Bill shook his head in disgust and held his oars. Jack tossed
the Major’s life preserver aside and started rowing to shore, but the
boat slid downriver.
“Faster!” Wes signaled the other boats with his flag -- left
and right and down. The roar from the rapids grew deafening,
monstrous. They pulled right hard, both men rowing now, watching the
line where the cauldron began. Like a tent made of silk, the river
stretched taut to a flowing apex before dropping off its horizon,
beyond which churned a series of ten-foot waves surrounded by rocks,
impossible to run. The sliding plane of water pulling them closer was
surprisingly unruffled, their lack of progress toward the riverbank
that much more alarming.
But they made it to shore, first the Emma Dean, then the
Sister. Wes disembarked and scrambled up the bank to see the rapids
better. The brown and gray river poured over rock, or the rock raked
the water -- hard to tell which. It is to be observed, he told
himself, practicing for his account of this voyage, that the water on
the ocean merely rises and falls. A wave, if there are waves, is a
form passing through. But here on the river the form remains and the
water charges through it, and multiply that by a thousand waves which
impede and lash the water yet whip it ever faster --
A shout came from the river. To his horror, the No Name with
Ora, Seneca, and the Englishman was perched at the apex, then shot
forward. She went completely under, fountained up and flew, blasted
through a wave and hung there on its hip. Purple-brown blocks of rock
stood all around her. Wes waved the flag madly, as though that would
help. He hurried back to intercept the Maid, leaping as he ran with
great sweeps of the flag, relieved when the final boat made it to
But the No Name was in trouble. In her, Frank Goodman found
himself in Ora’s arms and saw oars fly through the air. Both men were
screaming, but even inches from each other neither could hear. A
series of splintering crashes ensued like successive doors slamming,
and Frank spotted Seneca bobbing in the river twenty feet behind,
then saw half the boat was with him. They were spinning in their own
half of namelessness, he and Ora Howland -- like a whirligig in pond
scum -- crushed by walls of water. They slowed down and clung to each
other like babies being rocked, but the motion was the boat’s, or the
boat’s bow. Then the river erupted and, ripped from Ora’s arms, Frank
flew down the rapids behind Ora in the bow. It was odd: facing Frank,
Ora looked sheathed like a body in a coffin, which skidded and
dipped, bucking hard, rising up. Now the coffin exploded. Something
pummeled Frank, water pried his mouth open, he caromed from rock to
rock, although packed folds of water cushioned these collisions. All
he could think was what a stupid way to die. He’d lost sight of Ora.
He found a rhythm, though -- pin to pin, as in skittles -- and timed
his feeble lunge for the next rock. By sheer miracle it worked, he
thought he’d busted his jaw, but now at least he had a rock to cling
to. The river poured over the rock and over him, but he wouldn’t let
go. And now he had something, the utmost, to say to Walter Powell
when he saw him. His bowels loosened, a wire of fear shot through his
heart. The river was draining him, giving him the shivers, and the
water felt as hard as this rock he hugged. The unrelenting roar may
have been the worst part -- as bad as the force of constant pressure
trying to pry him from the rock.
He’d say something to Walter -- call me a brass button --
something that would knock that bastard from his perch, and if he,
Frank, died, so much the better. He’d die with that lunatic’s name on
his lips.
Something poked his shoulder. He twisted his head, and beside
him lay a long piece of root. He saw Ora lying flat across the water
gripping the far end of the root, and for the rest of his life Frank
never wondered why it didn’t seem odd that Ora should be lying on the
water like that, like some legless Christ.
It turned out to be a sandbank. Ora pulled Frank through a
nest of river tendons and he lay on the sand exhausted for a minute,
then Ora kicked him and they went to help Seneca. The latter clung to
rocks at the sandbank’s lower end, but by the time they arrived he’d
made it onto their island. “ANYTHING BROKE?” Ora shouted at his
This long, narrow sandbank was surrounded by river. Below it,
the rapids began to diminish. How far down the river they’d gone they
couldn’t tell -- it all happened in a blink -- but the others on
shore were out of sight now. Oramel had some matches in his shirt as
a caution against just such a catastrophe, and they blew on them,
spread them on a rock, and gathered some driftwood. From a large pine
trunk washed up on the sand he scraped some pitch and they started a
fire. It seemed the water was rising -- Frank was the first to
notice. Frank was also shivering and his lips had turned blue. The
breeze from the rapids smelled like gunpowder.
Soon the others ran up on the shore across the way, making
meaningless signals. The three signaled back that the water was
rising, and those on shore jumped up and down as though
comprehending -- or not. Frank Goodman’s shirt nearly caught fire,
but at least he felt warmer once their pile of wood was burning. He
stopped shaking and sat there peacefully awaiting his demise from
rising water.
Moments later, it seemed, the Emma Dean shot onto the sand
beside them and they grabbed it instinctively, as if it wouldn’t
stop. Jack Sumner had rowed out alone to rescue them.
They pulled the boat up to the head of the island, waded as
far as they could into the river, and Seneca sat on a rock and held
the gunnel while the others climbed in. He gave them a push and
jumped into the boat. Jack rowed to shore singlehanded, not trusting
them with oars after what they’d been through.
The others ran up, hollered in relief, and embraced the three
men. Andy Hall slapped their backs. Frank Goodman, however, held off
from Walter Powell. And Wes scowled and issued orders. The men lined
down the remaining two boats and walked them through shallows to a
spot downstream where a bonfire could be started.
Farther downstream the stern of the No Name lay wrecked
against a rock in the middle of the river, and Wes descended the bank
to take a look. The deck compartment seemed intact amid a pile of
splintered wood, but the river was a mess of water, rocks, and spray.
Was it worth the risk to salvage it? They’d lost, Wes calculated,
nearly two thousand pounds of food and equipment -- flour, bacon,
rifles, ammunition, bedding, thermometers, barometers, knives, axes,
trade beads, some cook gear -- and Ora’s maps.
He walked back. Frank Goodman announced that the wreck had
carried off every stitch of his clothes except the shirt and drawers
he wore. Also his tintypes, knife and gun, books, extra boots, belt,
rubber poncho, blankets, thread and needles, pocket watch, and cash
he wouldn’t specify the amount of -- all gone.
He was closest in size to Walter Powell, so the latter
shrugged and rummaged through his clothes and gave him some breeches
and shirts, also blankets and a hat. As Wes watched, Frank looked
away and wept. Wes could see that Walter hardly noticed. Yet, after
that day he left the Englishman alone. And for the next several weeks
Wes sensed his brother’s volatile nature floating, unable to decide
whom to single out next.
The worst loss of all was the barometers. Wes had distributed
essential instruments among the four boats in case one got wrecked --
but not the barometers. All three had lain in the single box they
came in, designed to protect them; now, for all he knew, they’d been
smashed. He could delay their trip a month and walk to Salt Lake City
and purchase new ones. That seemed out of the question. They still
had the sextant, chronometer, compasses, and two thermometers.
Together, from memory, they could redraw Ora’s maps. The barometers,
however, were their only means of taking altitudes, and just as
important, of measuring geological strata. Wes blamed himself, but
that wasn’t good enough. Their trip was spoiled and his sole relief
was to make himself hard. He walked up to Oramel. “You had to have
seen my signal,” he said.
“What signal was that?”
“You old fool. To land.”
Ora borrowed a page from the Major and gave him a look that
said, Bend down and tie my shoes. It didn’t work. His long gray-white
beard made it seem comical. He was in fact the oldest in their group -
- thirty-five to Wes’s thirty-four -- but that didn’t make him old.
Still, Wes treated him like some ancient general who’d held his post
beyond his time. Wes was short and his muttonchops sparse, but his
dark eyes and glowering brow lay Ora under siege.
“What’s the signal to land?”
“Don’t get your feathers up.”
“Had you fallen asleep again?”
“By God, I won’t be catechized!”
“Did you even see the signal?”
“We’d shipped a lot of water. I can’t say I saw the signal. I
saw it too late.”
Wes abruptly turned and walked away but heard Bill Dunn
observe to his departing back: “It’s the fucking war all over again.”
The rest of the men surrounded the bonfire. “When rage fills
me,” said the Englishman, “I gently balance my cup on my knee whilst
pulling on my breeches and shaving simultaneously.”
“That don’t answer for me.”
Frank the Englishman was giddy, filled with bliss at having
survived and equally with despair at having lost all he owned. “Well.
I chatter.” He sat on the sand.
Oramel Howland asked George Bradley if Major Powell had truly
signaled. “Signaled us,” said George. “Were you still around the
“Must have been.”
“When them big boats fill with water, not much you can do as
far as directing them.”
“You can bail,” said Bill.
“There you go,” said Seneca. “We were bailing for sure. And
looking out for signals.”
The bonfire at least seemed to warm the canyon walls. Hawkins
started a meal while everyone else spread equipment out to dry -- all
except Seneca. He’d had enough that day and sat down before the fire
and heaved a big sigh. He lay back on the sand and announced to the
sky: “I am possessed of an irresistible inclination to flop.”
Andy Hall threw some blankets on a bush to dry and declared
of his boat, “She won’t gee nor haw nor whoa worth a damn -- as if
she wasn’t broke.”
“Needs a good kick.”
After they’d eaten their hardtack and salt pork and drunk
their coffee and rinsed their dishes in the river, Jack Sumner pulled
Wes aside and talked sotto voce about rowing to the wreck. The stern
compartment looked intact. Some things called for desperate measures.
Wes said he’d see.
That night, for the first time on their voyage, his stump
hurt. The nerve endings felt on fire, the same old problem since his
amputation. A blunt stone was jammed into his ribs, but he didn’t
change position because who needed sleep? Sleep was just a way for
ordinary men to postpone decisions and hide from their problems.
In the middle of the night he crawled out of his blankets,
sat on a rock, and stared at the river, listening to it roar. Solid
black water, white highlights of foam. He thought of his wound in the
war, of how Walter had stanched the bleeding right away and dragged
him to a tree, and of the amputation two days later. At least it
wasn’t a leg. He imagined himself walking to Salt Lake now, searching
shops for a barometer, then having to wait for a shipment from
Chicago. One by one the men left behind would desert, and who could
blame them? By his estimate, Salt Lake City was a hundred and fifty
miles away.
The next morning he took another look at the wreck. It lay
against a rock where the current, if anything, seemed to accelerate.
More rocks sat between the shore and the wreck but not all in fast
Jack Sumner walked up. “What think you, Major Powell?”
“I’m thinking without those barometers we might just as well
pack up and go home.”
“You needed them for your observations, right?”
“I can’t do without them.”
“And if you got them back -- why, then it’s smooth sailing?”
“I can’t say it’s smooth sailing. This won’t be our last
“My sentiments exactly. Them instruments were packed in
shavings, I believe. It’s likely they’re in good order. Me and Bill
Dunn could row out and see.”
Wes looked at Jack. “Take the little boat.”
“I was planning to, Major.”
“Tell the men to unload it.”
“I was planning to.”
He watched them push off and row between rocks, heading for
the main channel. Where the current picked up they found the running
edge between fast and slow water and rode it downriver, threading
outsized boulders. They pulled hard for the taut blanket of water
wrapped around the rock and broadsided in. The bump hardly seemed to
shake the Emma Dean. The river split here and ran off to either side.
Its ever-healing fabric upwelled in calm, or so it seemed to Wes on
shore. His heart began to lighten. Bill wrapped the bow line around a
jutting rock, of which there were several. The stern of the No Name
was wedged in those rocks, protected by the largest one.
The deck looked half submerged. With one foot in the Emma and
one on a rock, Jack axed the stern deck and Bill, leaning out, ripped
off the boards. They shouted and waved and pulled out a box, and from
the shore Wes recognized it right away. They cheered again and pulled
something else out and Wes felt his burden lift and sunlight struck
the shore -- or perhaps he just noticed it then. The sun had begun
its five- or six-hour journey from one canyon rim to the other.
The barometers were salvaged, even the box was dry. When the
boat returned Wes inspected them with care, and the wet flour as
well -- they dumped it in the river -- and the two thermometers and
some candles. How could the flour receive such a dunking but the box
of instruments stay dry? You’d think the gods were helping them. But
in only three weeks he’d learned that water found its own course
regardless of gods or careful precautions, including frequent
caulking. “What’s that?” he asked, nodding at Bill.
“A jug.”
“Give it here.”
Bill Dunn, slumped, handed the jug to Major Powell, who
uncorked it, smelled the whiskey, looked at Bill. “I’ll take charge
of this,” he said.
No one said a thing.
Later, lining down, Jack Sumner approached him. “Do we got to
portage every time the river squeals?”
“I’m not taking any chances.”
“I make it we’ve gone four miles since this morning.”
“Four and a half.”
They stood in the sun on a huge talus slope next to the
river. Tumbled down from cliffs above, the broken rocks and boulders
had swept into the current, making it impassable. A tree lizard lay
on a rock and watched the two, its soft throat beating.
“So we found the barometers,” Jack said.
“I’m extremely grateful.”
“Now that jug.”
“What jug?”
“With the whiskey inside it.”
“What about it?” asked Wes.
“The men, well, they smuggled it onto the No Name way back
there in Wyoming.”
“And you let them?”
“Where’s the harm?”
“It hampers judgment. How do I know that jug wasn’t the cause
of Ora missing my signals?”
“You don’t. That’s what I mean. What I propose is I could
take charge of it, as second-in-command. Make sure it’s shared
around, but only once the day is over. We could use it for medicinal.”
Wes shrugged. He’d been through this before. At Shiloh, at
Vicksburg . . . He supposed the men could use a little whiskey, what
with sand in sopping clothes, being drenched then burned then
drenched, and endless portages, rancid bacon, grit in their coffee,
and now a boat wrecked. And they’d barely begun. “It’s your
responsibility then.”
“Well. I’m sure the men are grateful.”
“I trust your discretion.”
“Well. I’m no more an officer than a dude. But it’s muddy
going. They need . . . a little lift.”
The next night in camp all the men were drunk except Major
Powell, his brother, and George Bradley, camped off by himself again.
It had come around to Sunday, and this Sabbath they’d kept. But that
didn’t stop the exhausted crew from passing the jug until it was
empty. Now they sat on logs before the fire, and Walter sat apart,
perched on a boulder. He wasn’t sure where Wes was -- out somewhere
in the darkness adding up the stars. Wes had spent most of the day
away from the camp taking geological sections and collecting fossils.
If he happened to be within hearing distance, a good song might
reassure him that all was well in camp, even if it wasn’t, and that
flesh and blood was near. But Walter couldn’t summon up the will to
sing. Legs folded underneath him, he felt himself sinking into
despair. Seneca Howland lay on a blanket beside him, and past Seneca
was the fire with the remaining men on logs reflected in its light
and circled by darkness.
“Thought I’d made my last bow,” said Oramel Howland.
“Thought I’d come to a tragic end,” said his brother.
Ora stood up and waved his finger at Frank. “You. You were
clinging to me for dear life.”
“Quite the other way around. It was you, my dear friend, who
clung to me like a monkey to a coconut tree.”
“Both of you was clinging to each other.”
“I never saw the boat break up.”
Ora sat. “Dashed to pieces.”
“The river just burst it away on every side.”
“It seemed to transpire as in a dream -- very slowly.”
“Nothing slow about the way you screamed.”
“Alls I could see from shore was a smashed boat and two heads
like squashes racing through the haystacks.”
“Only two?”
“Did you hear me shouting?” Frank Goodman asked. “I was
shouting ‘Goodbye, boys!’ Did anyone hear it?”
Bill Dunn slapped his knee. “How long you going to talk about
this? It don’t bear repeating.”
“If you almost died, you’d talk about it too.”
“I almost died a hundred times.”
“Ain’t you glad we found them barometers, Bill?”
“Pleased as punch. Like to crack them over your head right
now and pour the damn mercury down your ear, Jack.”
“The Major says they’ll have to be repaired.”
“I don’t doubt it. Fix this, fix that. A whole catalogue of
shoulds. Maybe you don’t like your thumb the way it sits? God made it
wrong? Think I’ll fix it, by Christ!”
“Least we don’t have to hike to Salt Lake City.”
“More damned nonsense.”
“Bill, is it true a scorpion once bit you on the ass?”
“It’s true.”
“What happened?”
“He died is what happened,” said Jack Sumner.
“Which one?”
“The scorpion.”
“That’s one of the hundred times Bill almost died.”
Andy turned to William Hawkins. “Where you from, Hawkins?”
“That ain’t my name.”
“What is it?”
“Missouri Rhodes.”
“How come you changed it?”
“I didn’t. Okay, it’s William Rhodes Hawkins. Missouri for
“So where you from?”
“Just think for a minute.”
“I’m thinking. There.”
“What’s my name?”
“Missouri?” Andy thought again. “You’re from Missouri?”
Hawkins looked away in disgust.
“You said that was your name, not that you was from there.”
“It don’t take a scholar.”
“I’m from Scotland,” said Andy.
“You don’t talk like no Scotchman.”
“ ’Tis a brough bracht moonlicht nicht.”
“That’s more like it.”
“Came here when I was six.”
“Where’s here?”
“Same state as Major Powell. You know him there?”
“It’s a big place.”
Andy stood up and started pacing back and forth, looking at
Hawkins. “How come you got all those names?”
“None of your beeswax.”
“You don’t look as old as you look.”
“That makes a lot of sense.”
“You ever shoot a flying fish?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“I did once.”
“I never even seen the ocean.”
“No! You don’t say. That why you come on this trip, Hawkins?”
“Come to work like a galley slave. Come to hunt game and
“But we’re going all the way to the ocean,” said Andy. “I am
at least.”
“Well, bully for you.”
Andy spotted Walter Powell. “Hey Walter! Does the Major have
any more whiskey cached away? Some for medicinal?”
Walter Powell didn’t answer.
“I swallowed a bee today!”
“How’d you do that?” Hawkins asked.
“Struggling through some piñons and cedars looking for
firewood. Scared up a swarm of bees. One flew right in my mouth. Felt
him buzzing around in there all day.”
“Open your mouth. Lie on your back and stay real still. Don’t
breathe a fucking word.”
“Goddamn! He just stung me.”
“Sounds like a bad case.”
“Stung me again!”
“Bees only sting once.”
“Mr. Powell, sir, gimme some of your whiskey,” Andy said.
Walter said nothing.
“Drink some water. Drown him dead,” said Hawkins.
“I tried that already. Mr. Powell, sir, he’s still flying
around above the water I drunk and stinging my heart out!”
“Got to drink a whole gallon.”
“Of whiskey?”
“Get him drunk.”
Walter Powell wasn’t listening. He was thinking of Camp
Sorghum in South Carolina, his prison in the war. Every morning the
men washed in a creek behind their shanties, except those who were
dying inch by inch. The creek was where the Union prisoners fought
amongst themselves -- where those with long faces and those who
whined and groused went after each other -- so Walter washed
upstream. But they didn’t like that. They accused him of spreading
disease and filth, and how come he always carried that cold cream
around, and what kind of gal was he anyway? So he took the pot of
cream and threw it in a rage, barely missing Jink Lewis’s head. It
smashed against a rock and after that Walter drew a blank. He woke in
the prison hospital with an ache in both ears and climbed out of bed
and simply walked away. They found him in the woods and carried him
back. Something had broken, some link between events. It was the cold
cream, he thought. Not his brother’s bloody arm or a Reb’s exploded
belly or the dismembered limbs in a pile outside the hospital tent at
Shiloh, no, those didn’t haunt him -- instead, the cold cream did. It
seemed to be some kind of limit or screen -- the limit of the finite -
- waste, grease, disease. He never touched the stuff again. The
revenge of the unctuous. A wet thing that won’t come off. Smashed
against a rock like the white star of death.
“Hey Walter, sing a song.”
Walter kept mum.
“Don’t ask him, you miscreant, he might just do it.”
“Sing ‘Old Shady,’ Walter.”
“I’ll sing it,” said Hawkins.
“No you won’t.”
“I’ll sing it if he don’t.”
“Hey, where’s my medal?” Andy Hall was on his knees behind
the log, feeling around with his palms in the dirt.
“What medal is that?”
“My Saint Christopher.”
“I didn’t know you was a Roman.”
“I always take it off if I’m going to imbibe.”
“I thought everyone in Scotland was a hard-shell
“Not me.” Andy stood up. “All right, nobody move.”
Hawkins launched into “Old Shady” in a bad church voice, one
apt to crack any stray graven images.
Won’t dey laugh when dey see old Shady a-coming, coming,
Hail! mighty day
Den away, away, I can’t wait any longer,
Hooray, hooray, I’m going home.
Walter climbed off his rock and stood there. He would slap
that man hard, the one who was singing. But first he had to wait for
the needles in his legs to hatch and rise in swarms and let him know
he was standing, not afloat on stubs. He found himself making an odd
sort of gesture: dipping the first three fingers of his right hand
into the palm of the left, then bringing them to his face and rubbing
his cheeks with soft, patient strokes. He was still doing that when
his brother came back, when Hawkins’s song had stopped, when the men
had all turned in.
Next morning, Hawkins’s call of “Roll out” woke exactly no one except
Wes. He’d seen the empty jug, he’d allowed it to happen, now it was
over and done with, good. One more day here and they’d be off again.
After a while George Bradley showed up and poured himself some
coffee, then Andy Hall appeared and asked if anyone had found his
He’d never see it again. A pack rat had taken it.
Cracks had opened up in the inch-thick oak of the Sister and
the Maid, so Bradley and Seneca Howland spent the day caulking them
with hot pitch from nearby pine trees. They caulked the Emma’s deck
too, since water was entering the watertight compartment not from the
river but from the cockpit, as Wes had discovered, when they couldn’t
bail fast enough.
Oramel Howland worked on his map once he’d drunk enough
coffee. He staked some wagon sheets up on oars for shade and with
Major Powell’s help restored the compass bearings they’d lost: from
Green River City to Henry’s Fork, 25° east of south; from there to
the lower end of Browns Park, 25° south of east; from Browns Park to
this spot, 25° west of south. They consulted the Major’s sextant
readings and decided that Oramel’s last remembered estimates exceeded
the distance on a straight line from the end of Browns Park to their
present point in a ratio of about five to three, and from that they
concluded the river distance from launch to this place was about --
pretty close to -- near as they could tell -- a hundred and eighty
That is, Wes concluded these things. Ora went along. With the
log Wes had kept of their latitude and longitude at selected points
they were able to grid a presentable map that seemed to make sense.
It ended in nowhere, of course, like a half-tied pendant noose. But
that’s where they were, he’d determined, and could take some comfort
from it -- suspended in nowhere.
Bill Dunn took elevations. Frank Goodman borrowed Seneca’s
sewing kit and tried making some of Walter’s clothes fit. Walter
bounced around from one group to another, helping where he could and
singing “Laura Lee,” as happy as a clam, with no memory of the
interior abyss he’d fallen into last night, nor of crawling out. Even
when Hawkins declared there was something queer about the taste of
the coffee and reached into the pot with his bowie knife and pulled
out one of Walter’s black and dripping socks, Walter didn’t snap. He
laughed with the rest.
Wes and George Bradley, between other tasks, copied entries
into their diaries from the little slips of paper on which they kept
Andy Hall approached Wes and asked about Hawkins. Was he
right with the law? Running from something?
“Why do you ask?”
“His name ain’t William Hawkins. It’s Missouri Rhodes.”
Jack Sumner walked up. “William Rhodes Hawkins,” he
said. “Missouri’s a sobriquet.”
“What’s that?”
“A moniker,” said Jack.
“Another name bestowed along the way,” Wes patiently
“See, that’s what I mean. It’s like a gunman on a poster.”
“You think he’s running from the law?” asked Jack. “He
wouldn’t run if his pants was on fire.”
But Andy looked worried.
Wes came up with new assignments for the boats: himself, Jack
Sumner, and Bill Dunn in the Emma, as before; Walter, Seneca, George
Bradley, and Frank Goodman in the Sister; and Hawkins, Andy Hall, and
Oramel in the Maid. The chief question had been, with only three
boats, who would get the Englishman? Wes decided the best boatman in
the group would have to take the extra weight.
George didn’t like it. Sputtering like a sausage, the young
salt from New England -- with round face, brown eyes, and a nasty cut
above the left eye, from having fallen in his boat -- approached Wes
before they launched and worked himself into a passion at the
prospect of transporting burdensome passengers whose space was better
used for something practical, like fish hooks. He’d gone, in his
boat, from a crew of two, himself and Walter, all the way to four,
thus doubling his duties and headaches and chores. George often
referred to the Sister as his boat, and whenever they landed he
pulled her on shore to upend and examine her. Wes had observed his
frequent loss of patience at the slightest irritant. Mishaps
frustrated him -- they had to be corrected. Frank Goodman, he told
the Major now, was a walking mishap, and he said so in the
Englishman’s earshot, but that didn’t seem to matter. Everyone talked
about Frank in front of Frank, and someone had to take him.
It took Wes most of the next few days to put the loss of the
No Name behind him. The river helped; it kept plowing ahead. Lodore
Canyon would take them to the confluence of the Green and Yampa
Rivers, their first major landmark. A fourth of their food and
equipment had been lost, there was one less boat, but here they were
on their way. They’d managed to survive. Out of nowhere a gust of
rage blew through his heart, yet it left him feeling violently alive,
impelled to shout hosannas. He looked back at Jack, turned to face
Bill, smiled to himself, and wisely kept silent.
The rage was for Ora. Ora existed to correct the lives of
others, not his own. Schoolmaster, parson -- his vigilance when it
came to Wes Powell must have exhausted him, for when it came to
himself, to his own duties, he’d proven lax so far. Wes thought back
to Ora’s behavior during the winter, when they’d first met. Ora
seemed a born leader, thoughtful and determined. He intimidated Wes.
They’d been camped east of here, living in cabins on the White River
above its confluence with the Green, and the first winter thaw had
just flooded their camp with knee-high water. So they moved to higher
ground and built a new cabin and Emma moved in the moment it was
finished. The others slept on the ground -- Ora, Seneca, Hawkins,
Bill Dunn, and Wes’s student Sam Garman. The next day Ora requested
that Major Powell keep his wife away from the men. She bossed them
too much, in case he hadn’t noticed. Garman was leaving, Ora
announced, because he couldn’t take being bossed by a woman anymore.
It was true. Garman left. And without mentioning Ora’s
complaint, Wes did take pains to keep Emma from the men for the rest
of the winter -- early spring, really, just four months ago. He asked
for her help on extended pack trips to collect rocks and fossils.
Ora’s request had taken him aback, and his instinct had been to guard
her, not the men.
Maybe he wouldn’t shout hosannas, maybe just breathe an
enormous sigh of relief. He glanced at the cliffs and the sparse rash
of trees and the water gliding by. The high broken walls of the
canyon drifted past, and when the sun struck the water it sent red
and yellow columns clear to the bottom, which caught them and broke
them and toppled them back. His account of this voyage, what would it
be, monograph or narrative? Geological Notes Pertaining to . . . It
would depend, of course, on the specimens he found, the observations
he made, the character of the country. The world lay ahead and they
were cleaving it in two and his mind was the edge, his solitary mind.
Wes could almost taste the promise of knowledge, the conversion into
words. They’d survived a calamity -- bad luck lay behind. Still, all
at once, his heart gulped air --
“What’s that?” said Bill Dunn. Wes turned to look: a coyote
staring at them from the bank. Bill said, “Him again.”
“Who?” said Jack Sumner.
“That coyote,” said Bill.
Jack feathered his oars and held them suspended. As he and
Wes watched, the coyote loped off, glancing over his shoulder. Jack
turned around. “It ain’t the same one, you lackbrain.” He smiled and
winked at Wes. “That other one before was fifteen miles ago.”
“It’s the same,” said Bill.

Copyright © 2001 by John Vernon

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The Last Canyon: A Novel 1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Former student. He is a better teacher than writer.