A novel in progress: Frank Holloway, now a gassed and partly recovered veteran of the WWI Battle of Amiens, believed the way to avoid an early death—the clenched heart of his father Francis and his father’s father Edwin—was to periodically cross the border near El Paso and breathe in the fragrance of Mexico’s mountains. Rosa Marta told him he was a fool to risk their life together but that she loved him anyway. He had come down out of the mountains several days’ ride west of Chihuahua City. Somewhere not far from Galeana, along the Santa María River. The kind of softly flowing and peaceful water he loved and where he began the night marveling at the stars, before they disappeared in the glare of an overly bright, rising moon.
The next morning, at home in the world, he swung up onto his mare as he had a hundred times and, seized by a stroke on his left side, continued rolling, entered what we would call midair and crashed to the ground on the other side of the horse. The mare, who was used to starting forward at the same time she being mounted, stopped and looked around at him.
At first, he could not move. His right foot was caught in his right stirrup, which was twisted backward, trapping the front of his foot against the mare’s belly. He crabbed forward on his elbows to relieve the tension between his leg and the stirrup. The mare blew out, her head turned toward him still. Then she began eating from a patch of dry grass somehow missed by passing goats. She turned this way and that to increase her grazing selection. But did not step forward.
They were not far from the river. The railroad, some sort of mining spur line, skirted the far shore. He remembered seeing young mesquite growing up between the rails. When he turned his head, he could see the tip of at least one of them. Indicating that trains probably passed infrequently. He had approached, descending toward the river when the sun was low in the sky. He had gotten up once from his bedroll during the night to pee and couldn’t remember any moon glint on the rails.
His next thought was what Rosa Marta would do if she never heard from him again? Men would have no idea where to look for him. Plus, it would be too dangerous. These were not the times to just ride into a dusty pueblito and ask about a missing gringo. Just the question was suspicious. What was he doing there anyway? An artillery instructor? An explosives expert who rode through the country blowing up bridges that locals needed to get their goats and corn to market? Any searchers Rosa Marta could muster would know better and politely decline to look for him. In revolution, no one trusted anyone.
Ask a question, receive a bullet in the throat.
As as the morning wore on and the sun burned down on them, Himari worked her way toward the river bank where the grass received more moisture, dragging him along with gentle pulls. He must have passed out at some point. When he awoke, they were at the water. A Japanese mining engineer who was returning to his country had wanted to sell his mare. Frank needed a reliable horse. The man had mentioned something about Himari and water. She liked it or didn’t like it, he couldn’t remember which. He hadn’t been paying attention. He had been too busy wondering how honest the man was and which of the several sides he had been on in the lingering Revolution. And why had he worn a certain knife. Short, with a hook to it. Ideal for peeling back a wire’s protective coating. To better twist the copper around a charge’s terminals. The package placed at the apex, hence backbone, of a village bridge. Arching stones, wide enough for howitzers and mounted troops.
Himari was drinking. Sunflower, in Japanese. He could hear the water gurgling up her throat. She sucked it in, then raised her head, whiskers dripping, to let gravity move the water deeper into her long throat. The heat was intense. She splashed a hoof in the water. Frank tried to loosen his foot. He couldn’t. He clucked, but Himari didn’t respond to clucking. He grunted, “Jale,” and she stepped farther into the water. He grunted again and she moved deeper until Frank’s rear was bouncing across the bottom, and the mare was swimming. And soon after, Frank as well.
He paddled to keep his head above the water. He could feel her rear legs trashing beside him. He tried to stay clear, but her right leg kept hitting his left arm and numb left leg, sending him under. He took what he thought would be his last gasp and realized he was floating backward. His foot had come loose. He grabbed across for Himari’s tail with his right hand, found the very end of it, out of the range of her legs. Soon enough, her feet were touching bottom. And she walked calmly up the far bank.
He let go of her tail at the edge of the water. He rested for a moment then crabbed backward away from the river. Himari had already found grass. Plenty of it. Good for her, bad for him, because it meant there were no grazing animals on that side of the river. No shepherds, not even passing soldiers looking for fodder for their mounts.
He rested for a while. His right side seemed still alive, his left not so much. He worked his way up the gravel rail bed and slowly crossed the tracks. The cross ties were rotten on top, the rails coated with rust. Yet he could smell the mix of old urine and the sweeter one of excrement. A train had passed recently enough that the smell was still there. He crawled down the gravel slope on the other side. There was a wagon road. Rain had smoothed the edges of wheel tracks. But how long ago? He lay himself out in the shade of pines, forty yards up the slope, on his back, and drifted off.
Himari stayed close to him. His rifle was still strapped in its sheath. A 1903 Springfield, disassembled and sneaked back from the war. Modeled on the fearsome German Mauser. His bed roll—an old quilt with pink roses—and his saddle bags were still in place, and now drying in the sun. He worked his way into a splotch of sun to warm up. He slept and was grateful for the Japanese mining engineer. Who appeared to have sold him a horse that wasn’t planning to leave him.
When he awoke, he thought of food. There was a cooked chicken leg wrapped in his old blue bandana in his saddlebags. He couldn’t remember in which one. He found he could prop himself up into a half-sitting position on his right side. He sat up higher. With his right hand, he touched his left leg, beginning at his knee and working upward. Hoping for feeling. His canvas pants were dry, including his crotch. And he decided that was a good thing. He lay back down and unbuttoned his fly with his right hand. Then he rolled onto his right side, took a stone and scratched a small channel in the dirt, to protect his pants, and peed. That part seemed to work as it always had, and he felt thankful. He wriggled his toes on his good leg. He tried it on the other and felt nothing. He focused more. Maybe there was something there. A tingling.
Himari had been grazing toward him, snuffing as she came. He talked to her in English. His mouth appeared to work. He praised her and thanked her in Spanish and English. She looked up, then dropped her head to continue grazing, still advancing.
“Can you help me?” he asked.
She kept coming. He held out a hand. She stretched her neck to sniff it. It was his left arm, come halfway alive. He reached across with his right arm and caught her bridle. She lifted her head. He was prepared and pushed off with his right foot. The power of her rising head lifted him. He hopped a little on his right foot, steadied with his left and kept his balance for a moment, and then dropped back down, still holding Himari.
“Almost,” he said, and released her bridle.
Later, he tried it again and got to the saddlebags and found the chicken.
That night, after filling his canteen in the river, he crabbed his way back across the track and farther up into the the pines. Using a young tree, he stood up and tied off Himari’s Mexican-style, with her head close to the tree, so she couldn’t get entangled in her reins. Then he rolled out his bedroll. With his rifle beside him. Sending a vague, half-remembered Protestant prayer to his left leg.
They slept, her standing, and him lying on his back, listening to the night. Things moving in the bushes, a night bird, a late heron perhaps, perched in a tree along the river. Some kind of frog. Crickets. The murmur of water. A rising moon, melting over the mountains to the north.
Something woke him. He rolled onto his right side and propped himself up, listening. The moon stood over them, exposing their hiding place. Nothing moved. He couldn’t hear the river. He couldn’t see it. Had he forgotten the contours of the land? Had he lost his hearing? His entire mind?
Himari commented. A low nostril flapping. As in, “Why are we awake?”
There was something on the tracks. The air was thick with moonlight. Covering everything as if it were snow. An immense locomotive sat between him and the river. A locomotive and its attached coaler. And three flatcars. The last two with Howitzers, chained tight and no one guarding them.
Nothing moved. No lights, no steam. No firebox glow. No smell of coal smoke. He could feel his pulse thumping in his temple. He saw a man in overalls back down the ladder from the cab, stand sideway, unbutton the bib, push down his underwear, push his pelvis forward, and pee.
Frank lowered himself. Slowly. He felt for the Springfield and placed his finger on the trigger, the back of his hand facing the sky. He rolled to the right so he could look past his feet. He shifted the rifle so he wouldn’t shoot himself in the foot if the rifle went off by accident. He had checked earlier. For some reason he couldn’t remember which way the safety lever should be switched for firing, which for safety. There were five .30-06 cartridges fed down into the chamber magazine. He eased the bolt part-way back. In the moonlight, he could make out the brass shell casing of an already chambered round. He eased the bolt forward. Then remembered. “Safety right, left off.” He watched the man shake himself, bent-kneed, hook the overall suspenders over his shoulders, then climb back up the ladder to the cab.
He thought about Rosa Marta’s first husband, Roberto, the explosives expert who had stopped to pee just before entering the silver mine in Mogollon, New Mexico. He had been the only man brave enough to check on a charge that had not fired and who, after the feared, delayed blast had shook the world, had emerged again as nothing more than a fine red mist.
He smelled them first. He had seen one before. On the first flatcar, in the first cage, a stinking, numbed tiger, pacing back and forth. And something else in the cage. Perhaps a half-eaten burro, the moon flowing through its ribcage. In the next enclosure, a camel, its head swooped low, staring up at him, then fixing her top eye on the moon, as if its light would show her the way back to the Gobi. Which some part of her mind remembered, although she had never been there. And in the last cage, a child, in a white shift, who stood up from a thin mound of hay that had been her bed. She unlatched the cage, found her way to the ladder at the rear of the flatcar and climbed down to the gravel rail bed. Barefoot. She ducked under the car at the coupling and past the canons, perhaps to drink from the river. The man in the locomotive cab had been watching her. His right hand plunged down behind the bib, where it didn’t have to be. He brought it out and turned quickly. Surely heading for the ladder on the other side of the cab. Everything indicating that he would follow the child—not so young as Frank first thought—to the river, where he would find her lying down, drinking from the Santa María.
Frank propped himself up again. A natural response, as if he could do something. He tried to remember. Somewhere behind the front-most truck, the first set of tracking wheels, the steam descended by pipe to the piston box. If he could shoot a hole in the pipe, maybe he could release some kind of screech or hissing. In which case, the man would return to the engine as fast as he could. And then, when he stood in front of the wounded pipe, Frank could then consider whether to put a hole in him as well.
In that moment, the child re-appeared at the coupling she had slipped under to begin with. She stopped in front of the camel’s gate. Huschen. One of the few German words Frank knew. He and a German soldier had landed in the same mud hole. Frank with a full magazine, plus his bayonet, fixed. The young German, without his helmet, empty handed and gasping for air.
“Are you going to shoot me?” he asked, in English.
“No.” His own voice was shaking.
“Huschen. That’s the word you need to learn,” the boy babbled away. Hushcen was what hope did when it flitted away. It was the way a sniper’s bullet approached, but a thousand times faster. It was the way the boy disappeared afterward into the mist, toward his own lines, huschend from one shell hole to another, shitting his pants again and again with each bullet that missed him.
Huschen was the way the girl brought out a key and unlocked the camel’s door and swung it open. The way she pulled out two boards. The way, without a sound, she walked the camel down the planks. How she ran back to the ladder, climbed up and ran to the tiger’s door. He was waiting. She reached a pale hand through and stroked him on the forehead, inserted the key and swung the door open. Then she ran back to the ladder and scooted down, backward. With one leap the tiger was on the ground beside her.
Himari watched wide-eyed. Frank knew his Springfield was strong enough. He had sworn to never use it. They passed him, not fifty yards away, heading up the side of the canyon. The tiger looked over at him, the camel looked over at him. The girl looked over at him. The girl said something to the animals, and they continued on up through the pines—not looking back.
Himari didn’t make a sound.
A few minutes later, the man appeared at the coupling between the animal flatcar and the unmanned canons. He ducked under. Heavy, he climbed the ladder, entered the girl’s cage, stared at the thin pile of hay, then came out and stood in front of the camel’s cage, then in front of the tiger’s. That’s where he stood the longest. Then he turned and looked up and down the train. His eyes passed over Frank and Himari, and he appeared not to see them because of the pines.