The surrounding cliffs shielded the sun, which cast long, dark shadows down their faces and across our path. But the heat persisted, stubbornly refusing to dissipate, or to subside in order to bring us relief. Every surface radiated and returned to the air all the warmth they had accepted throughout the long, sunbaked day. I reached for my water bottle and held it up to the sky to observe its contents; there was not much left, it seemed. I couldn’t remember when I had drunk last, or how it came to be drained as it was. Heavy condensation on its inner surface obscured my view into the vessel, but I could feel it weighing gently in my hand, and it was much too light. I decided to save what was left. Nobody knew how much longer it would be until we reached the river. It was wise to conserve, I told myself, so you can imagine how disheartened I became, when in the next moment I greedily, inexplicably, opened my bottle and emptied its contents down my damaged throat. The water burned as it went down, and then it disappeared, presumably soaked up by my throat’s desiccated lining before ever a drop reached my stomach. I reached into the bottle with my finger extended, and swiped the insides, and then pulled it back out and licked it hopefully; but my tongue stuck to my finger, and I had to pull it off with my other hand. I looked down the darkened trail and it swayed from side to side. As the path lurched to the left I strode to the right, and when it swung back to the right I compensated by leaning back to my left. I made my way forward in this manner until the constant rocking made me nauseous and I fell forward, first landing briefly on my knees, and then my face planting into the dirt. My diaphragm convulsed, and I gagged upon nothing but my raw mucus membranes, choking and hacking until I grew too tired. I felt a hand on my back and someone helped me into a sitting position; and then I drank. Water. Just a little, not too fast, not too much, take it easy, that’s good. A little while later I was back on my feet again, propped up by a kindly neighbor, and walking slowly down the middle of the trail.
The night was suddenly overtaking us, as the sun finally set somewhere over the backside of the cliffs. I heard someone say that we hadn’t found the river yet; and it was beginning to get too dark to safely go much further. In the dim light just ahead I could see old-man Mitch, yes it was him, I could tell by his hat, and he was carrying something large in his arms. No, not something, it was someone; he was carrying a person. “We’re almost there, Maggie, you’re going to be fine, girl.” I heard him say soothingly.
Sometime later, perhaps an hour, perhaps two, though maybe only several minutes—I’m not certain—we came to an impasse, and our group had to stop. Just up ahead, the trail ended in a cataract of fallen rock which had covered the way entirely. Standing at the base of the tower of rock rising high in front of us, we were perplexed. With cliffs to our left and to our right, some members of our group turned around, and looked back up the trail that we had just traversed; and I could see them silently assessing the merits of a retreat. Others looked up, the only other way possible. I looked up along with them, into the darkening sky, but without any real thoughts formulating in my mind, but just a generalized awareness. I noticed vultures passing overhead, one or two coming briefly into view, sailing across the dusky sky. They vanished behind the cliffs, momentarily, and then they returned and crossed back the other way. They returned again, gliding beautifully amidst a gathering field of stars. Pretty things. I smiled as I watched, as they faded and vanished into the night sky.
“Mitch. My sister isn’t looking good.” I overheard Sean whisper to the old-man. “I seriously don’t know if she’ll make it through the night. We’ve got to get her out of here.”
The old man was silent for a while as he stared down at his boots. He looked about at the others in our group, and over at me, as I lay with my back propped up against a rock. “She’s not the only one in a bad way.” And then he looked intently back at the boy. “You still got that hand-crank charger I’ve seen you’ve been using? You keeping that cell phone of yours charged?”
“Of course,” Sean replied.
“We need to get some help.” Mitch said as he scanned the cliffs. He pointed to a spot over my left shoulder, suggesting they might climb up that way, where the cliff wasn’t so steep. If they could get up there to the top, maybe they could call for help.
Next, something seemingly miraculous happened; almost as if Mitch had conjured it up with the right combination of words, or simply by the asking with a pure heart and pure intent. We heard, right then as Mitch asked for help, voices in the distance coming towards us. Someone in our group called out to them, and they replied. Our spirits rose. It seemed the cavalry was finally coming at the most dramatic moment, upon the climax of our need, just like they often did in the western movies. We could see beams of light from their flashlights as they surveyed the cliffs. They were coming towards us from the other side of the cavalcade of rocks strewn across the trail; we could only see the light as it was cast upon the uppermost reaches of the surrounding rocks, and could only hear their voices muffled behind the tower of fallen stone. We told them we needed help; which, they did too. And that we were short on water; but, so were they. And we were looking for the way to the river but got lost along the way; and, so were they. Slowly, a sickening realization descended upon all of us and our hearts sank. “Heather, is that you?!” was asked from one side of the ruins. “Tom?!…shit!” was heard from behind the other side.
A sullen silence reigned, for quite some time after that, on both sides of the rocky ruins. Meanwhile, Mitch quickly recovered from the disappointment, and he coaxed Sean to get a move on, as they both gathered up a few things and then began their ascent of the nearby cliff, in hopes of making a call for help. Shortly after they left, I fell asleep.
In the night, rain began to fall—large, heavy drops which made a splash when they hit. I opened my mouth and let them cover my tongue, and trickle down my throat. They rolled off my forehead, and dripped into my ears. I felt them land on my eyelids, and I breathed in their freshness. They smelled like sweetness, and like life. Early in the morning, as light began to dawn, I looked up into a cloud-filled sky. It was a soft, light gray, though tinged with dark tones. Sharp light flashed across the summer sky, crashing against the cliff faces, and illuminating the depths where we dwelt; followed by baritone groans, and bass grumblings, which seemed to shake the sky above, and the earth below us. The vultures returned and appeared to be watching us as they circled. Round and round they went; I watched them through half-closed eyes. There were more of them now, it seemed to me. They looked like large, black blades, cutting circles through the white, cloudy sky. And they brought thunder in their wings—a loud, incessant thumping sound, slapping the air around us, repeatedly.
I closed my eyes, and still, I could hear them—flapping, thumping. And they wouldn’t go away. I suspected that I must be dying, and I remembered the carcass of that desert fox, or coyote that we had seen many days earlier. I shuddered to think of myself in the same predicament now, with the vultures gathering around to dine upon me. Exhaustion overtook me as I formed this repulsive image, and I gratefully drifted off, someplace between waking and slumber, and I floated there for a long while. I felt the vultures come for me. I felt them peck and pull at me, grabbing at my slack skin. And then I felt them carrying me, lifting me, raising me into the sky. But…strange. Do they actually do that? I forced my weary eyes open, as I floated up towards their frenetic circling orbits—black vultures, swirling rapidly in the summer sky.
In the midst of my stupor I could feel something foreign pierce my arm, and then the flow of a cool, invigorating fluid flowing up my arm, and then throughout my body. I turned my head to the side, from the place where I now lay, and gazed out through an open doorway at the cloudy sky beyond. Rain was falling, and splashing on the sill of the door, making tiny puddles on the floor of our aircraft suspended high above the desert floor. Clear fluid dripped from a bag hung above me, and it filled the tube which entered my arm. Beside me, within touching distance, someone else was lying, also with a tube in her arm, and a peaceful look of incomprehension on her face. Her eyes closed and she looked at peace—her soft features, softening even further. I gazed at her youthful face for quite some time; it brought me comfort. She looked like an angel.
She opened her eyes, taking some time to focus. I saw her eyes roll up, to the left, and to the right, as she attempted to take in our new accommodations; she tried to lift her head, but the weight appeared to be too much, and she gave up. I recognized her, but couldn’t remember how I knew her. She looked at me, staring into my eyes for a long time, without any apparent thought, emotion or recognition behind her gaze. And then she smiled a slight smile, while keeping her eyes locked upon mine. She tried to speak, opening her mouth only a sliver, and then resting, taking a shallow breath before closing her eyes again. I continued to watch her and thought she had fallen asleep. Then she opened her eyes, and smiled once more, while gazing intently into my own. This time she spoke—she sang actually—in a soft, faint voice, sweet and gently playful: “Happy trails…to us.”
Ah yes, I remembered now. Maggie. She was Maggie. Sweet girl, brave girl. Tenacious Maggie, with the ironic sense of humor. She was still looking at me after she had sung her line; and she was waiting. I couldn’t disappoint her. I sang for her, as best I could: “Who cares about the clouds when we’re together. Just sing a song and bring the sunny weather.” She smiled broadly—and nearly laughed—and then she joined me; and together we finished: “Happy trails to you…until we meet, again!”