Copyright 2000 Robert G. Ferrell

A Moment of Joy, A Moment of Pain

A Texas Short Story

The softly shimmering water seemed so distant that it could almost have been another world viewed from an aerial dream. He felt no fear or exhiliration at the height, so unreal was this river to him; even the sudden resolution of what he had thought was a partially submerged rock into a heretofore motionless grebe did not lend verisimilitude to the scene. Heedless of these human doubts, far below the grebe stretched one wing casually.

The army of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the Napoleon of the West, advanced along the narrow defile in tight columns, banners limp in the still, moist morning. The sweetly pungent scent of grass ground under hundreds of booted feet mixed with an effervescent salty tang from the nearby Gulf and the heady sharpness of his own anticipation.

Mexican soldiers arrayed themselves before him in ragged files, an empire of blue and red. A sudden reverberating crack rent the crystal silence, and rapidly the subtle odors of morning gave way to that of gunpowder, as though the infernal depths had been transported to these gentle coastal fields.

From a secure vantage beneath a densely foliated hummock, he hugged his rifle to his chest and watched the stream of soldiers pour over him in a headlong rush to the sea. As the wave swept past, it left behind a young Mexican infantryman who seemed intent upon searching for something in the tall marsh grass directly in front of the overhang. An incautious movement of an unseen foot caused the young soldier to unsling his rifle in sudden alert. A sharp 'pop' from beneath the bank overhung with greenery spread a thick red stain over the soldier's breast, and he stared at it uncomprehendingly as life fled. The man who had taken this life waited for nightfall before he himself fled to his own line.

A breeze blew gently from the northwest, a breeze which ruffled his fine white hair and disturbed a brightly blue dragonfly in the process of alighting. The aborted landing seemed to change the dragonfly's conviction, and it allowed the breeze to waft it gracefully away.

He stared at the deep green Colorado swirling a hundred and fifty feet below him, squinting as the sun emerged enthusiastically from a procession of fluffy white clouds tinged with gunmetal. A fence lizard crept languidly from a crevice in the cliff face and settled itself for a sunbath some ten or twelve feet closer to the river.

At first, it wasn't recognizeable as a body. An irregular lump of faded blue fabric, torn and splattered with mud and other stains, stuck stiffly up from behind an old and well decayed pine log. He knelt down and saw that the weathered tatters concealed a form about five and a half feet long which had at one time been that of a proud young soldier.

Not so much a soldier, he told himself, as a child in soldier's clothes.

He took the boots; they were still better than what he wore on his own feet. As he went about the grim chore of removing them from their late owner's earthly remains, he reflected on the fact that the Commanding General smells exactly as putrid as the least mule skinner volunteer when they join one another on the casualty lists: Death is not only the Great Equalizer, it is also the ultimate social stigma.

Three days ago he had been one of six survivors of a skirmish in what would later be called the 'Battle of Mansfield.' Six soldiers had survived, but only five horses. He took this as an omen and rolled off the bloody ridge into a narrow crevice. When at last he was certain that the battlefield was deserted, he crept out of his hole and limped off into the woods, no longer a cog in the doomed Confederate machine.

He had since encountered occasional artifacts of that battle and previous ones, but this was his first reminder of the human cost of war. Having retired himself from military service by posing as a corpse, he felt an odd sort of kinship with this pitiful dust. He briefly considered giving it a simple burial, but decided, in the end, against it, The soul was gone, what mattered the fate of the body? Coyotes and vultures or worms and beetles; the earth eventually claims all creatures and nothing he could do would alter that.

He leaned ever so slightly.over the edge of the precipice. An insistent updraft carried a pleasant mixture of water, wildflowers, blackberries, sage, and less identifiable scents to his indulging nostrils, The peaceful river in the distance beckoned to him, speaking softly of days half remembered and dreams that nestled warmly, like cats on a cozy hearth, in the wispy corners of thought. Sunlight bathed him in a cheery radiance and he wandered further.

He rode in silence on a glorious spring afternoon, savoring the stark beauty of the as yet unscorched hinterland. Sandstone sculptures, creosote bushes, chirring cicadas: each lent a unique and singularly fitting voice to the rich desert canticle.

He heard in the near distance a soft, sweet note that sprang suddenly from amidst a jumble of caliche figures. He dismounted and led his horse quietly down into the arroyo; rounding a corner he caught sight of a white-on-black bird the size of a thrasher that abruptly ceased whistling and flapped off, unhurriedly, to the next jagged thicket.

As he watched its flight, bemused, he saw something in the distance. A band of Indians, probably Comanches or Kiowas, rode at a brisk trot along a low ridge off to his right. He backed his horse and himself quickly behind an imposing caliche slab, praying that he had not been seen.

The faint sound of riders faded to nothing in a few moments, and all around was once more silent. When, after a few further moments the call of the Phainopepla began again, he let himself relax somewhat. Remounting, he nudged his horse forward along a path calculated to take them away from the roving Indians. Suddenly, his horse snorted, nostrils flaring, and he felt a creeping prickle on the back of his neck. He twisted around in the saddle and came face to face with a Kiowa brave who leapt at him from a nearby rock perch.

He rose in the stirrups to meet the flying attack, and together he and the Kiowa tumbled over the confused pony and onto the hard, dusty canyon floor. Their battle was a melange of grunts, flailing limbs, and the flash of knives. The Kiowa lunged viciously with a wicked leaf-blade, sharp as a cactus thorn. The white man jerked out of the way at the last possible instant; the blade creased his shoulder but did not find his neck. Bleeding but acutely poised from the pain, he found his own knife and crouched in a low stance, waiting. The brave mirrored his crouch, grinning mockingly, and danced from side to side. He leapt without warning with the speed of a striking snake but found nothing but the dry desert air. The white man had sidestepped the onslaught and, as the brave flashed past, brought the heavy wooden butt of his knife down on the Indian's skull, just above the spinal cord.

Stunned, the brave turned to look at his opponent with disbelief and a hint of respect in his eyes, as blood trickled redly from his ears. The white man shifted his grip on the bowie and drove the point in smoothly beneath the Kiowa's jaw.

Behind him, the meadow opened fragrant arms and beckoned. He turned and it came to him, somehow, that she would be waiting in that verdant copse. Awash with a lightness and vigor he had not felt since youth, he ran effortlessly along the well-worn path. There, among the wildflowers and deep green shrubs, beneath the vert and umber of a giant gnarled oak, she stood.

He slowed his approach to a reverent walk. She stepped forward to meet him and they touched, softly, after thirty years of separation. He held her with infinite gladness and a rush of emotion that made breathing difficult. They stood there in a pristine meadow as one, embracing, silent; yet they jumped and laughed and danced in celebration at this impossible reunion. He kissed her, shyly. She smiled and stroked his cheek: they both laughed at their timidity. As he gloried in her silvered laughter, she began to back away, seemingly ten feet with each step. He could not bear the thought of losing her a second time and bounded after her. The trees and meadow dissolved into opaline clouds and a distant green river; the girl became a swallow.

Warm air streamed past his face and through his fine silver hair. The swallow paused, startled, then darted off in consternation at this violation of the sanctity of its aerial demesne by such a ridiculous creature.

He stood suspended in space and time as the rocks, vines, and cliff face paraded themselves before him and around him. He peered down through the fluid atmosphere and saw the oneiric Colorado flowing quietly, its surface a rippled mirror of the heavens. It was growing wider and more distinct, through some process he could not seem to understand. This was his river, he thought, his church, to which he had felt the strange urge to return every few years throughout his time of loving and fighting and wandering, to cleanse himself of the sins of his life just by gazing into its holy face.

He thought of the impudent fools who were planning to build a dam across this majestic river, somewhere downstream. Was it not enough that they had already spanned it with a hellish aggregation of iron and stone for the convenience of buggies and wagons? The river was a wild creature, with dignity and spirit, not a simple geographic impediment to be overcome and harnessed for Man's mere accomodation. He pronounced a solemn heartfelt curse upon all such affronts upon the Colorado, and called upon the river to take back its freedom, its birthright.

The river reached out to him, as if in answer to his plea, to caress him. It enfolded his tired body in a cool green embrace that soothed away his fears and worldly concerns. For the first time in a long and tumultuous existence, in a lifetime spent on restless quest and filled with nameless longing, he felt well and truly at peace.