Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
John Wetherill, one of the famous Wetherill brothers and trader at Kayenta, Arizona, is the man who discovered Nonnezoshe, which is probably the most beautiful and wonderful natural phenomenon in the world. Wetherill owes the credit to his wife, who, through her influence with the Indians finally after years succeeded in getting the secret of the great bridge.
After three trips to Marsh Pass and Kayenta with my old guide, Al Doyle of Flagstaff, I finally succeeded in getting Wetherill to take me in to Nonnezoshe. This was in the spring of 1913 and my party was the second one, not scientific, to make the trip. Later this same year Wetherill took in the Roosevelt party and after that the Kolb brothers. It is a safe thing to say that this trip is one of the most beautiful in the West. It is a hard one and not for everybody. There is no guide except Wetherill, who knows how to get there. And after Doyle and I came out we admitted that we would not care to try to return over our back trail. We doubted if we could find the way. This is the only place I have ever visited which I am not sure I could find again alone.
My trip to Nonnezoshe gave me the opportunity to see also Monument Valley, and the mysterious and labyrinthine Canyon Segi with its great prehistoric cliff-dwellings.
The desert beyond Kayenta spread out impressively, bare red flats and plains of sage leading to the rugged vividly-colored and wind-sculptured sandstone heights typical of the Painted Desert of Arizona. Laguna Creek, at that season, became flooded after every thunderstorm; and it was a treacherous red-mired quicksand where I convinced myself we would have stuck forever had it not been for Wetherill's Navajos.
We rode all day, for the most part closed in by ridges and bluffs, so that no extended view was possible. It was hot, too, and the sand blew and the dust rose. Travel in northern Arizona is never easy, and this grew harder and steeper. There was one long slope of heavy sand that I made sure would prove too much for Wetherill's pack mules. But they surmounted it apparently less breathless than I was. Toward sunset a storm gathered ahead of us to the north with a promise of cooling and sultry air.
At length we turned into a long canyon with straight rugged red walls, and a sandy floor with quite a perceptible ascent. It appeared endless. Far ahead I could see the black storm-clouds; and by and bye began to hear the rumble of thunder. Darkness had overtaken us by the time we had reached the head of this canyon; and my first sight of Monument Valley came with a dazzling flash of lightning. It revealed a vast valley, a strange world of colossal shafts and buttes of rock, magnificently sculptored, standing isolated and aloof, dark, weird, lonely. When the sheet lightning flared across the sky showing the monuments silhouetted black against that strange horizon the effect was marvelously beautiful. I watched until the storm died away.
Dawn, with the desert sunrise, changed Monument Valley, bereft it of its night gloom and weird shadow, and showed it in another aspect of beauty. It was hard for me to realize that those monuments were not the works of man. The great valley must once have been a plateau of red rock from which the softer strata had eroded, leaving the gentle league-long slopes marked here and there by upstanding pillars and columns of singular shape and beauty. I rode down the sweet-scented sage-slopes under the shadow of the lofty Mittens, and around and across the valley, and back again to the height of land. And when I had completed the ride a story had woven itself into my mind; and the spot where I stood was to be the place where Lin Slone taught Lucy Bostil to ride the great stallion Wildfire.
Two days' ride took us across country to the Segi. With this wonderful canyon I was familiar, that is, as familiar as several visits could make a man with such a bewildering place. In fact I had named it Deception Pass. The Segi had innumerable branches, all more or less the same size, and sometimes it was difficult to tell the main canyon from one of its tributaries. The walls were rugged and crumbling, of a red or yellow hue, upward of a thousand feet in height, and indented by spruce-sided notches.
There were a number of ruined cliff-dwellings, the most accessible of which was Keet Seel. I could imagine no more picturesque spot. A huge wind-worn cavern with a vast slanted stained wall held upon a projecting ledge or shelf the long line of cliff-dwellings. These silent little stone houses with their vacant black eye-like windows had strange power to make me ponder, and then dream.
Next day, upon resuming our journey, it pleased me to try to find the trail to Betatakin, the most noted, and surely the most wonderful and beautiful ruin in all the West. In many places there was no trail at all, and I encountered difficulties, but in the end without much loss of time I entered the narrow rugged entrance of the canyon I had named Surprise Valley. Sight of the great dark cave thrilled me as I thought it might have thrilled Bess and Venters, who had lived for me their imagined lives of loneliness here in this wild spot. With the sight of those lofty walls and the scent of the dry sweet sage there rushed over me a strange feeling that "Riders of the Purple Sage" was true. My dream people of romance had really lived there once upon a time. I climbed high upon the huge stones, and along the smooth red walls where Pay Larkin once had glided with swift sure steps, and I entered the musty cliff-dwellings, and called out to hear the weird and sonorous echoes, and I wandered through the thickets and upon the grassy spruce-shaded benches, never for a moment free of the story I had conceived there. Something of awe and sadness abided with me. I could not enter into the merry pranks and investigations of my party. Surprise Valley seemed a part of my past, my dreams, my very self. I left it, haunted by its loneliness and silence and beauty, by the story it had given me.
That night we camped at Bubbling Spring, which once had been a geyser of considerable power. Wetherill told a story of an old Navajo who had lived there. For a long time, according to the Indian tale, the old chief resided there without complaining of this geyser that was wont to inundate his fields. But one season the unreliable waterspout made great and persistent endeavor to drown him and his people and horses. Whereupon the old Navajo took his gun and shot repeatedly at the geyser, and thundered aloud his anger to the Great Spirit. The geyser ebbed away, and from that day never burst forth again.
Somewhere under the great bulge of Navajo Mountain I calculated that we were coming to the edge of the plateau. The white bobbing pack-horses disappeared and then our extra mustangs. It is no unusual thing for a man to use three mounts on this trip. Then two of our Indians disappeared. But Wetherill waited for us and so did Nas ta Bega, the Piute who first took Wetherill down into Nonnezoshe Boco. As I came up I thought we had indeed reached the end of the world.
"It's down in there," said Wetherill, with a laugh.
Nas ta Bega made a slow sweeping gesture. There is always something so significant and impressive about an Indian when he points anywhere. It is as if he says, "There, way beyond, over the ranges, is a place I know, and it is far." The fact was that I looked at the Piute's dark, inscrutable face before I looked out into the void.
My gaze then seemed impelled and held by things afar, a vast yellow and purple corrugated world of distance, apparently now on a level with my eyes. I was drawn by the beauty and grandeur of that scene; and then I was transfixed, almost by fear, by the realization that I dared to venture down into this wild and upflung fastness. I kept looking afar, sweeping the three-quarter circle of horizon till my judgment of distance was confounded and my sense of proportion dwarfed one moment and magnified the next.
Wetherill was pointing and explaining, but I had not grasped all he said.
"You can see two hundred miles into Utah," he went on. "That bright rough surface, like a washboard, is wind-worn rock. Those little lines of cleavage are canyons. There are a thousand canyons down there, and only a few have we been in. That long purple ragged line is the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. And there, that blue fork in the red, that's where the San Juan comes in. And there's Escalante Canyon."
I had to adopt the Indian's method of studying unlimited spaces in the desert—to look with slow contracted eyes from near to far.
The pack-train and the drivers had begun to zigzag down a long slope, bare of rock, with scant strips of green, and here and there a cedar. Half a mile down, the slope merged in what seemed a green level. But I knew it was not level. This level was a rolling plain, growing darker green, with lines of ravines and thin, undefined spaces that might be mirage. Miles and miles it swept and rolled and heaved, to lose its waves in apparent darker level. Round red rocks stood isolated. They resembled huge grazing cattle. But as I gazed these rocks were strangely magnified. They grew and grew into mounds, castles, domes, crags, great red wind-carved buttes. One by one they drew my gaze to the wall of upflung rock. I seemed to see a thousand domes of a thousand shapes and colors, and among them a thousand blue clefts, each of which was a canyon.
Beyond this wide area of curved lines rose another wall, dwarfing the lower; dark red, horizon-long, magnificent in frowning boldness, and because of its limitless deceiving surfaces incomprehensible to the gaze of man. Away to the eastward began a winding ragged blue line, looping back upon itself, and then winding away again, growing wider and bluer. This line was San Juan Canyon. I followed that blue line all its length, a hundred miles, down toward the west where it joined a dark purple shadowy cleft. And this was the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. My eye swept along with that winding mark, farther and farther to the west, until the cleft, growing larger and closer, revealed itself as a wild and winding canyon. Still farther westward it split a vast plateau of red peaks and yellow mesas. Here the canyon was full of purple smoke. It turned, it closed, it gaped, it lost itself and showed again in that chaos of a million cliffs. And then it faded, a mere purple line, into deceiving distance.
I imagined there was no scene in all the world to equal this. The tranquillity of lesser spaces was here not manifest. This happened to be a place where so much of the desert could be seen and the effect was stupendous Sound, movement, life seemed to have no fitness here. Ruin was there and desolation and decay. The meaning of the ages was flung at me. A man became nothing. But when I gazed across that sublime and majestic wilderness, in which the Grand Canyon was only a dim line, I strangely lost my terror and something came to me across the shining spaces.
Then Nas ta Bega and Wetherill began the descent of the slope, and the rest of us followed. No sign of a trail showed where the base of the slope rolled out to meet the green plain. There was a level bench a mile wide, then a ravine, and then an ascent, and after that, rounded ridge and ravine, one after the other, like huge swells of a monstrous sea. Indian paint brush vied in its scarlet hue with the deep magenta of cactus. There was no sage. Soap weed and meager grass and a bunch of cactus here and there lent the green to that barren, and it was green only at a distance.
Nas ta Bega kept on at a steady gait. The sun climbed. The wind rose and whipped dust from under the mustangs. There is seldom much talk on a ride of this nature. It is hard work and everybody for himself. Besides, it is enough just to see; and that country is conducive to silence. I looked back often, and the farther out on the plain we rode the higher loomed the plateau we had descended; and as I faced ahead again, the lower sank the red-domed and castled horizon to the fore.
It was a wild place we were approaching. I saw piñon patches under the circled walls. I ceased to feel the dry wind in my face. We were already in the lee of a wall. I saw the rock squirrels scampering to their holes. Then the Indians disappeared between two rounded corners of cliff.
I rode round the corner into a widening space thick with cedars. It ended in a bare slope of smooth rock. Here we dismounted to begin the ascent. It was smooth and hard, though not slippery. There was not a crack. I did not see a broken piece of stone. Nas ta Bega and Wetherill climbed straight up for a while and then wound round a swell, to turn this way and that, always going up. I began to see similar mounds of rock all around me, of every shape that could be called a curve. There were yellow domes far above and small red domes far below. Ridges ran from one hill of rock to another. There were no abrupt breaks, but holes and pits and caves were everywhere, and occasionally deep down, an amphitheater green with cedar and piñon. We found no vestige of trail on those bare slopes.
Our guides led to the top of the wall, only to disclose to us another wall beyond, with a ridged, bare, and scalloped depression between. Here footing began to be precarious for both man and beast. Our mustangs were not shod and it was wonderful to see their slow, short, careful steps. They knew a great deal better than we what the danger was. It has been such experiences as this that have made me see in horses something besides beasts of burden. In the ascent of the second slope it was necessary to zigzag up, slowly and carefully, taking advantage of every bulge and depression.
Then before us twisted and dropped and curved the most dangerous slopes I had ever seen. We had reached the height of the divide and many of the drops on this side were perpendicular and too steep for us to see the bottom.
At one bad place Wetherill and Nas ta Bega, with Joe Lee, a Mormon cowboy with us, were helping one of the pack-horses named Chub. On the steepest part of this slope Chub fell and began to slide. His momentum jerked the rope from the hands of Wetherill and the Indian. But Joe Lee held on. Joe was a giant and being a Mormon he could not let go of anything he had. He began to slide with the horse, holding back with all his might.
It seemed that both man and beast must slide down to where the slope ended in a yawning precipice. Chub was snorting or screaming in terror. Our mustangs were frightened and rearing. It was not a place to have trouble with horses.
I had a moment of horrified fascination, in which Chub turned clear over. Then he slid into a little depression that, with Joe's hold on the lasso, momentarily checked his descent. Quick as thought Joe ran sidewise and down to the bulge of rock, and yelled for help. I got to him a little ahead of Wetherill and Nas ta Bega; and together we pulled Chub up out of danger. At first we thought he had been choked to death. But he came to, and got up, a bloody, skinned horse, but alive and safe. I have never seen a more magnificent effort than Joe Lee's. Those fellows are built that way. Wetherill has lost horses on those treacherous slopes, and that risk is the only thing about the trip which is not splendid.
We got over that bad place without further incident, and presently came to a long swell of naked stone that led down to a narrow green split. This one had straight walls and wound away out of sight. It was the head of a canyon.
"Nonnezoshe Boco," said the Indian.
This then was the Canyon of the Rainbow Bridge. When we got down into it we were a happy crowd. The mode of travel here was a selection of the best levels, the best places to cross the brook, the best places to climb, and it was a process of continual repetition. There was no trail ahead of us, but we certainly left one behind. And as Wetherill picked out the course and the mustangs followed him I had all freedom to see and feel the beauty, color, wildness and changing character of Nonnezoshe Boco.
My experiences in the desert did not count much in the trip down this strange, beautiful lost canyon. All canyons are not alike. This one did not widen, though the walls grew higher. They began to lean and bulge, and the narrow strip of sky above resembled a flowing blue river. Huge caverns had been hollowed out by water or wind. And when the brook ran close under one of these overhanging places the running water made a singular indescribable sound. A crack from a hoof on a stone rang like a hollow bell and echoed from wall to wall. And the croak of a frog—the only living creature I noted in the canyon—was a weird and melancholy thing.
"We're sure gettin' deep down," said Joe Lee.
"How do you know?" I asked.
"Here are the pink and yellow sego lilies. Only the white ones are found above."
I dismounted to gather some of these lilies. They were larger than the white ones of higher altitudes, of a most exquisite beauty and fragility, and of such rare pink and yellow hues as I had never seen.
"They bloom only where it's always summer," explained Joe.
That expressed their nature. They were the orchids of the summer canyons. They stood up everywhere star-like out of the green. It was impossible to prevent the mustangs treading them under foot. And as the canyon deepened, and many little springs added their tiny volume to the brook, every grassy bench was dotted with lilies, like a green sky star-spangled. And this increasing luxuriance manifested itself in the banks of purple moss and clumps of lavender daisies and great mounds of yellow violets. The brook was lined by blossoming buck-brush; the rocky corners showed the crimson and magenta of cactus; and there were ledges of green with shining moss that sparkled with little white flowers. The hum of bees filled the fragrant, dreamy air.
But by and bye, this green and colorful and verdant beauty, the almost level floor of the canyon, the banks of soft earth, the thickets and clumps of cottonwood, the shelving caverns and bulging walls—these features were gradually lost, and Nonnezoshe began to deepen in bare red and white stone steps. The walls sheered away from one another, breaking into sections and ledges, and rising higher and higher, and there began to be manifested a dark and solemn concordance with the nature that had created this old rent in the earth.
There was a stretch of miles where steep steps in hard red rock alternated with long levels of round boulders. Here, one by one, the mustangs went lame and we had to walk. And we slipped and stumbled along over these loose, treacherous stones. The hours passed; the toil increased; the progress diminished; one of the mustangs failed and was left. And all the while the dimensions of Nonnezoshe Boco magnified and its character changed. It became a thousand-foot walled canyon, leaning, broken, threatening, with great yellow slides blocking passage, with huge sections split off from the main wall, with immense dark and gloomy caverns. Strangely it had no intersecting canyons. It jealously guarded its secret. Its unusual formations of cavern and pillar and half-arch led me to expect any monstrous stone-shape left by avalanche or cataclysm.
Down and down we toiled. And now the stream-bed was bare of boulders and the banks of earth. The floods that had rolled down that canyon had here borne away every loose thing. All the floor, in places, was bare red and white stone, polished, glistening, slippery, affording treacherous foothold. And the time came when Wetherill abandoned the stream-bed to take to the rock-strewn and cactus-covered ledges above.
The canyon widened ahead into a great ragged iron-lined amphitheater, and then apparently turned abruptly at right angles. Sunset rimmed the walls.
I had been tired for a long time and now I began to limp and lag. I wondered what on earth would make Wetherill and the Indians tired. It was with great pleasure that I observed the giant Joe Lee plodding slowly along. And when I glanced behind at my straggling party it was with both admiration for their gameness and glee for their disheveled and weary appearance. Finally I got so that all I could do was to drag myself onward with eyes down on the rough ground. In this way I kept on until I heard Wetherill call me. He had stopped—was waiting for me. The dark and silent Indian stood beside him, looking down the canyon.
I saw past the vast jutting wall that had obstructed my view. A mile beyond, all was bright with the colors of sunset, and spanning the canyon in the graceful shape and beautiful hues of the rainbow was a magnificent natural bridge.
"Nonnezoshe," said Wetherill, simply.
This rainbow bridge was the one great natural phenomenon, the one grand spectacle which I had ever seen that did not at first give vague disappointment, a confounding of reality, a disenchantment of contrast with what the mind had conceived.
But this thing was glorious. It absolutely silenced me. My body and brain, weary and dull from the toil of travel, received a singular and revivifying freshness. I had a strange, mystic perception that this rosy-hued, tremendous arch of stone was a goal I had failed to reach in some former life, but had now found. Here was a rainbow magnified even beyond dreams, a thing not transparent and ethereal, but solidified, a work of ages, sweeping up majestically from the red walls, its iris-hued arch against the blue sky.
Then we plodded on again. Wetherill worked around to circle the huge amphitheater. The way was a steep slant, rough and loose and dragging. The rocks were as hard and jagged as lava, and cactus hindered progress. Soon the rosy and golden lights had faded. All the walls turned pale and steely and the bridge loomed dark.
We were to camp all night under the bridge. Just before we reached it Nas ta Bega halted with one of his singular motions. He was saying his prayer to this great stone god. Then he began to climb straight up the steep slope. Wetherill told me the Indian would not pass under the arch.
When we got to the bridge and unsaddled and unpacked the lame mustangs twilight had fallen. The horses were turned loose to fare for what scant grass grew on bench and slope. Firewood was even harder to find than grass. When our simple meal had been eaten there was gloom gathering in the canyon and stars had begun to blink in the pale strip of blue above the lofty walls. The place was oppressive and we were mostly silent.
Presently I moved away into the strange dark shadow cast by the bridge. It was a weird black belt, where I imagined I was invisible, but out of which I could see. There was a slab of rock upon which I composed myself, to watch, to feel.
A stiffening of my neck made me aware that I had been continually looking up at the looming arch. I found that it never seemed the same any two moments. Near at hand it was too vast a thing for immediate comprehension. I wanted to ponder on what had formed it—to reflect upon its meaning as to age and force of nature. Yet it seemed that all I could do was to see. White stars hung along the dark curved line. The rim of the arch appeared to shine. The moon was up there somewhere. The far side of the canyon was now a blank black wall. Over its towering rim showed a pale glow. It brightened. The shades in the canyon lightened, then a white disk of moon peeped over the dark line. The bridge turned to silver.
It was then that I became aware of the presence of Nas ta Bega. Dark, silent, statuesque, with inscrutable face uplifted, with all that was spiritual of the Indian suggested by a somber and tranquil knowledge of his place there, he represented to me that which a solitary figure of human life represents in a great painting. Nonnezoshe needed life, wild life, life of its millions of years—and here stood the dark and silent Indian.
Long afterward I walked there alone, to and fro, under the bridge. The moon had long since crossed the streak of star-fired blue above, and the canyon was black in shadow. At times a current of wind, with all the strangeness of that strange country in its moan, rushed through the great stone arch. At other times there was silence such as I imagined might have dwelt deep in the center of the earth. And again an owl hooted, and the sound was nameless. It had a mocking echo. An echo of night, silence, gloom, melancholy, death, age, eternity!
The Indian lay asleep with his dark face upturned, and the other sleepers lay calm and white in the starlight. I seemed to see in them the meaning of life and the past—the illimitable train of faces that had shone under the stars. There was something nameless in that canyon, and whether or not it was what the Indian embodied in the great Nonnezoshe, or the life of the present, or the death of the ages, or the nature so magnificently manifested in those silent, dreaming, waiting walls—the truth was that there was a spirit.
I did sleep a few hours under Nonnezoshe, and when I awoke the tip of the arch was losing its cold darkness and beginning to shine. The sun had just risen high enough over some low break in the wall to reach the bridge. I watched. Slowly, in wondrous transformation, the gold and blue and rose and pink and purple blended their hues, softly, mistily, cloudily, until once more the arch was a rainbow.
I realized that long before life had evolved upon the earth this bridge had spread its grand arch from wall to wall, black and mystic at night, transparent and rosy in the sunrise, at sunset a flaming curve limned against the heavens. When the race of man had passed it would, perhaps, stand there still. It was not for many eyes to see. The tourist, the leisurely traveler, the comfort-loving motorist would never behold it. Only by toil, sweat, endurance and pain could any man ever look at Nonnezoshe. It seemed well to realize that the great things of life had to be earned. Nonnezoshe would always be alone, grand, silent, beautiful, unintelligible; and as such I bade it a mute, reverent farewell.