The grey overcast loomed over the ostensibly endless, yet unpredictable terrain of spruce trees, dormant shrubs, and mountainous earth. Strong scents of creosote bushes, caused by weeks of heavy rains, swept through the windy mountain air. Dusk was creeping in, and the wild animals of the isolated forest were commencing warmups of their nighttime rituals with bouts of hooting, howling, and even the occasional roar. Yet, in remarkably random and concordant manners, periods of absolute silence presided over the dark wilderness. That is, with the exception of the turbulent, yet calming sounds of the mighty river flowing free.
It was a cold, autumn night in the Gila Wilderness. Thomas, a rugged young man of seventeen, had heard about and read all of the legends, rumors, and personal accounts that he needed to hear. After growing up, he decided to conduct his own rite of passage into manhood. After all, the time had come for him to prove his self-reliance. As he sat on a log close to the small crackling campfire, he gazed with boredom at the nighttime sky, attempting to remember the constellations. He was unable to remember their names, so he decided to pull out his harmonica to kill the time. Staring at the bright blue and silver features, tempted to play a folk tune that he had learned as a child, he decided it was best to call it a night. Thomas slid into his sleeping bag in order to sleep warm in the freezing forest. Feeling the painful sharp sensations all over his back, he realized that he had forgotten to clear the mountain floor of rocks and other nuisances to outdoor slumber. Slightly irritated, he got out and kicked them away as best as he could. After getting back in his sleeping bag, he quickly fell into a deep slumber, where he dreamt of life back home with his parents and the family beagle. Off in a very small distance, hobbled at the hooves, the young obedient Buckskin mare stood quiet and attentive to the sounds of the forest. A great-horned owl announced its presence nearby. And the campfire slowly disappeared throughout the night, eventually reducing to ashes.
It is said that a man will find his true circadian rhythm out in nature. Thomas knew this all well, as he was a night owl back home. In the wild, however, he woke up at seven-o-clock every morning. His sleeping cycle was so ingrained, that he had forgotten about his old habits. As always, he got up with a dry mouth, prompting him to take a short walk to the Gila River to refill his canteen. After using the water to drink and freshen up, he checked his funnel basket trap for fish; to his surprise, there was a small Gila trout! The fish was quite repulsive in appearance, having a dull yellow color. Not caring about such a petty matter, he took the fish out and headed back to camp where he quickly filleted and cooked it for a small breakfast.
The boy finished his food with a sense of dissatisfaction. He was tired of eating fish, squirrels, and nuts every day. Having gone weeks without eating anything else, he was very hungry. Thomas was a man of action. He stood up, excited to try what he had not been able to accomplish for weeks. He grabbed his forty-five-seventy lever action rifle, saddled the Buckskin, and rode off to hunt for anything else that he could find. He hoped to come back with an elk or a deer, as one large animal could sustain his body for several weeks. Although he did not plan to be picky, what he really wanted was a trophy elk. As well, he could use the fur to protect himself from the bitter wilderness cold. It can kill a man without warm clothing.
Hunting on a horse alone in the wilderness requires full attentiveness to surroundings. Thomas switched from using his binoculars to scope out prey, to looking around in the immediate area for any threats, such as predators, dangerous walking spots for the horse, poisonous plants, and even bandits. Yet for him, wilderness riding was always relaxing. The environment that surrounded him every day was breathtaking and beautiful. He seemed to feel a spiritual connection to nature that surrounded him- as if he was one with it. The boy also had an incredible bond of trust, loyalty, and friendship with his horse, giving each other confidence. As he glassed the ridges and meadows that he passed, he looked for antlers- patiently waiting for his moment. He remembered reading somewhere that if an elk hunter does not travel at least eight miles per day, then he is not elk hunting.
It had been two hours since the boy and the horse had left camp. Something had yet to be seen, but tracks had been encountered. However, Thomas was able to tell that they were at least a day old. He knew it would not be worth it to pursue them, as an elk can travel dozens of miles on any given day. He instead was looking to stumble upon one. Perhaps he could get his kill close to camp, which would make carrying it back more convenient. But the boy was beginning to feel worn out; his hunger overwhelmed his focus, and the ride was becoming painful in the legs, due to the worn-out and hardened condition of his saddle. He tugged at his reigns to bring the horse to a stop. It was time for a water break. As he sipped the cold water, he felt an intense chill run throughout his body. It was a cold and unforgiving morning. Not giving it much thought, he clicked his heels against the torso of the horse and continued down the trail of the narrow mountain ridge. He was glassing a riverbed area about five-hundred yards away, trying to distinguish spots where an animal may be camouflaged. As he zoned his eyes in on the area, he heard the most wicked and all too familiar noise in the entire Gila Wilderness. The sound blared in his ears, which prompted him to yank back on his horse reigns as fast as possible. But it was too late.
The massive rattlesnake on the side of the trail landed a vicious bite on the Buckskin’s front right leg. In an instant, the horse reared up on its hind two legs and started plowing through the middle of the forest with Thomas hanging on for dear life. As Thomas held on, he was battered by branches. He was trying to find a way to leap off, but it was all too fast. In a matter of moments, the Buckskin, in agony from the rattlesnake venom, began a bucking circus. Thomas had dealt with this before- but without the disorientation of what just happened. All it took was one good leap by the horse to toss the poor boy off. However, a piece of Thomas did not leave- his boot. Having his foot stuck in the stirrup, he attempted to yank it out for his dear life. But the horse had already taken off again, dragging Thomas through the middle of the forest. His entire body was beaten like a rag doll- banging against rocks, being sliced by dormant plants, and colliding with trees. The whole scene must have lasted twenty seconds before Thomas’s foot finally flew out of the stirrup. But the horse was galloping too fast; the inertia propelled the poor boy to roll and tumble back down the mountain again. After several seconds of colliding with everything imaginable, he received a smack ending at the trunk of a White Pine. He fell unconscious.
Dusk was approaching, and Thomas slowly began to wake up. He realized that he must have been asleep for at least seven hours. His head was pounding and bloody from the scratches and impacts. He was dazed and confused as to what had happened. He felt delirious, and his vision was slightly blurry. After a few minutes of staring at the grey sky, he tried to sit up. But his ribs ached, and his back muscles were strained. He felt the cuts on his neck, face, and torso; he could already tell he had bruises and inflammation all over his body. Confused as to whether he broke any bones, he looked to his right and saw his canteen laying next to him. He frantically reached for it and drank what was left of it. Since he was able to drink a significant amount of water, he was no longer dehydrated. But the evening was growing cold- well below freezing. Thomas realized that if he stayed still, he would face hypothermia, which was a sure path to death.
Thomas’s vision and mental processing began to improve after a few minutes of laying on the floor. Never one to cry or panic, he was ready to figure how he would limber back to camp; after all, he knew how to navigate the path by following the river at the bottom of the mountain. He grabbed his large hunting knife and stabbed it into the floor. Grabbing hold of the handle for leverage, he was able to flip over on his stomach. Agonizing pain shot through his ribs and back. But he knew had no other choice.
He was able to push himself up to a crawling position. As he rested on his knees, he said aloud, “I will walk.” Pushing on the knife in the ground with all his force, he slowly propelled himself up into a standing position, making sure to pull it out at the end of the journey. He had to hunch due to the sheer pain in his torso; his legs also felt weak and sore. He then slowly walked to a spruce tree to cut himself a walking stick. This drastically helped him balance and take the weight off of his worst leg. He would need it for the mountainous path back to camp.
Thomas had walked for forty-five minutes. He figured out a way to position his body in order to avoid some of the pain. He was able to refill his canteen at the river earlier, which took one important worry off of his mind. He was undoubtedly stressed about his terrible accident. Being smarter than most people in dangerous situations, he knew that negativity was his worst enemy. It could mean the difference between life and death out in the Gila. So he just kept walking, thinking about his favorite memories of family and old friends. He remembered his mother’s incredible heart and love for the family. He also thought about how his father worked hard to support them, making sure to teach Thomas about the straight and narrow path.
Two hours had passed since the boy began to walk. By now it was dark. The air was hovering around zero degrees; Thomas figured he had well over an hour of walking left. He knew it was dangerous to keep moving in the dark. But, he could not help to think how happy he would be to see his campsite again. His hands and feet were numb, and he was shivering. He was limping along the river when a noise coming from the mountain trees to his left spooked him. Thomas stopped in fear and looked towards the mountain. Nothing could be seen with clarity. SNAP. SNAP. As he listened to the branches breaking, he knew he was better off staying still, ready to fight whatever fate required. After all, the creature most certainly could outrun him- even on a good day. He wielded his knife, preparing to fight for his life.
The large animal stomped through the forest in an unusually loud manner. The boy’s heart thumped louder and louder as he waited for the animal to arrive at the river. He hoped it would not be able to see him, but he knew all well that predators tend to have excellent night vision. THUMP THUMP. He began to see a head pop out of the trees and immediately recognized the animal. He whistled for it to come over, to which it immediately responded. In the most heartwarming fashion, Thomas had reunited with his Buckskin.
After having the mare drink from the river, Thomas was ready to saddle up. Everything, including his rifle and his stirrups, remained intact. He stepped upon a large rock to help him land on the saddle. It was a slow and painful climb, but he made it up and was able to sit with relative comfort. The boy slightly touched his boot heels to both sides of the horse, prompting it to start walking.
After a short period of traveling along the river, the duo made it back to camp safe and sound. Thomas was able to get off his horse and eat some walnuts that he had saved. Then he took his loyal mare’s saddle off, hobbled it, and wrapped it in a horse blanket. Looking at the black-haired beauty’s dark eyes, he whispered, “Thank you, Cheyenne.” Knowing that rattlesnake bites are usually harmless to a horse, he left her alone.
As the boy sat next to the campfire, he thought about his life, and what compelled him to come here. He chuckled aloud, realizing that every man has to face a call to the wild- or forever be restless. He then looked back up at the stars in the sky, finally remembering the constellations, as he recalled that his father had taught them to him when they went camping. He wondered when he would be able to try his hand at big game hunting again. He then pulled out his harmonica and blew a soft tune that brought him back to his childhood. He stopped when he heard a pack of Mexican wolves off in the distance making hysterical howls. The boy smirked and let out another chuckle- perhaps in acknowledgment of his tremendous fortune.