Novels

Finding Billy Rudd (part 5)

June 21, 2016

Getting the Monkey Off My Back

Those days seemed so far away, now that my new battle is with a different enemy, a formidable foe. Nature. I’m here because of my addiction and nightmares that wouldn’t go away, especially under the circumstances I was living. Ray had a brilliant idea; his father had a small hunting cabin in this remote mountain gorge, unused since before the war, rationing and duty preventing he or anyone from its use. Indians in the vicinity were employed to watch over the place and make repairs where needed. Except for the handful of indigenous people, there wasn’t another living soul within five-day hike. I rode into this place for four days and hiked another three, my guide only going so far with his horses. The rest of the trail was too dangerous for him to risk his animals and he wasn’t about to babysit me all the way to the cabin. I wondered why anyone would want to live in a place life this, removed from everything.

Ray said I needed psychological therapy, a term being used in medical journals of this time. He told me it would stop the dreams and reverse the depression I suffered from. I’m not sure how a person can erase the horrors of war, wipe them clean from our consciousness and continuing living. There are things we should never see in our lives, battles and death, some of them. The mind is only capable of so much; then it snaps. The army was swamped with post-war mental disorders not unlike mine. I was on a long list with hundreds of veterans seeking help, though there didn’t appear to be any available. My problem was amplified due to my wounds toward the end of the war.

Morphine was given freely to the wounded, easing the suffering until medical help could be had. I had my share and then some because urgent cases poured in in front of me. They kept shooting me up until they had time to care for my wounds. Who was I to complain? No pain and a free ride to Nah-Nah Land. By the time I was out of the hospital, my addiction was well entrenched. The morphine was hard to come by on the outside and expensive. If I waited too long for treatment, the drugs would eventually kill me.

Ray strapped me down for a few days to get me through the initial hell before sending me off on this trip to nowhere. The morphine habit wasn’t easy to kick. I wanted to quit before the junk was out of my system but Ray refused to let me. Five days later I was on a horse, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains heading for a place I wasn’t sure I wanted to be. Ray knew me well enough, riding alongside part of the way, to guarantee I wouldn’t turn back. He and the guide left me stranded in a shallow meadow surrounded by mountains and forest. My only companions were a heavily laden backpack with fly rod and Enfield 303 rifle. None of these things were meant for sport; I was going to have to hunt and fish for some of my meals if I wanted to live. Basic supplies had been dropped at the cabin, carried by a couple Indians sent ahead of me.

The gorge twisted and turned leaving little more than the width of my body to pass on the ledge trail. Though it was mid-spring, plenty of snow patches still clung to the ground. I was feeling the effects of withdrawal, my guts aching and my tongue as dry as sand in the desert. I figured out the best way to quell my thirst; tying a tin cup to my pack made it quick and easy to get a drink from the many ice-cold trickles that ran down the mountainside. The spring runoff was still providing plenty of clean water. The water was fabulous, a taste like nothing I had in civilization.

“I bet you could bottle this stuff and sell it,” I said out loud. “Nah! Who’d buy something they can get free?”

The two nights of camping in the gorge offered some problems. Finding a place soft enough to sit and protected from the elements proved tricky. Years of water and wind scouring the gorge left little in its wake, no sand or anything soft. Large boulders lay at odd angles with only a few sparse trees for shade or protection from the rain. A few cords with a shelter-half kept rain off of my head but didn’t do a thing to keep my ass dry. My old army jacket with liner would have to do for warmth. Though bears did not normally frequent this area I still had to put my food up a tree when possible; that was no guarantee against the smaller wild things getting into my pack, which they did on several occasions.

Looking around I spied hundreds of small waterfalls from the snowmelt, turning into small rivulets running into the fast moving river below. Some of theses small streamlets emptied into semi-calm pools causing a ripple on the surface. I might have even enjoyed this, if I had eyes to appreciate the natural beauty that surrounded me. Other thoughts were in my head; all I could see was a long walk and no morphine at the end of it.

The second morning of my trek into the gorge made me think of the forced marches Lieutenant Albright drove us on. Fifty miles in full field pack, weapon and cigarettes were the order of the march with nights of digging holes wherever we went. I didn’t smoke but took it up because we got a smoke breaks; otherwise, he’d find something else for us to do during the break. At first I didn’t inhale, sucking on the end letting the smoke curl out of the corner of my mouth. But soon I was puffing away like all the other men, hooked on tobacco, eager for the next cigarette. Albright puffed away on his own corncob pipe trying to emulate a well-known army general. The effect was less than what he hoped for.

 

By the end of the day I made out something in the distance; it could be the cabin, though the weather and visibility played tricks. This part of the gorge was tricky and a misstep might prove to be my last, alone and vulnerable if I broke a leg. The thought of spending another night in the open was not appealing, so I pushed on determined to reach the cabin before being enwrapping in darkness. The lack of light played on my fears, the unknown lurking around, perhaps looking for a victim. I learned that the night really wasn’t as dark as one would believe. After acclimating, I could make out things very easily by the light of the stars. I guess that happened after living a long time in the desolate region. Even though I considered myself an outdoors person, I was not prepared for what was about to befall me.

Burden down with the weight on my back, I eagerly pushed my pace, nearly falling on several occasions. The rifle butt acted like a walking stick, propping me up where there were no handholds. I had a vague idea when the sun was going to set but soon learned the sun set a couple hours earlier than in a wide-open. It was almost completely dark before I could get full sight of the cabin about a quarter mile away. This last bit was going to be tough; there was little light to make anything out and the cold unrelenting. I retrieved an old army flashlight out of my pack. It had a right angle bend in it and a metal clip on the side, which could be fastened to my belt, hooking it so it directed the light forward. Holding it with my hands was impossible, both needed for the rifle and the other to grasp anything to keep me upright.

I remember those cold nights in France when we didn’t even have the use of a flashlight. It would have been foolish, anyhow, the Germans waiting to see a flicker of light and then shoot at it. Even the flame from a match could bring doom to anyone unfortunate enough to hold it too close. We had a saying, “Only two, to a match.” Magically or practically it had been worked out that a German marksman could find and aim within the first two lightings of cigarettes and shoot at the third. Whether it was an old wives tale or the truth, no one challenged it. Light was our friend and enemy, a useful tool on one hand and a means to be seen by our enemy. Many a soldier had been shot, while looking up at a flare in the sky, a moth to the flame. It was a natural reaction; you had to fight it or suffer the consequences. The Germans were primed for such opportunities, an illuminated face a fine target.

There was nothing illuminating about the trail in this gorge. The light played against the rocks and brush creating as many shadows as it lit the trail. With or without flashlight it was almost impossible to see your way over the rocks, boulders and fallen trees. There was no cabin close to my trail. So I finally gave up after twenty minutes of struggle and hunkered down for another cold evening in the rock garden designed for a giant. Cold and weary I didn’t bother to tie off the tarp but pulled it over my head, hoping the evening would not bring rain. The sky was crystal clear but storms happened in a flash and disappear just as quickly. I would have to find the cabin in the morning. I didn’t know what to expect and the light of day would help me get my bearings, though it would be good to sleep indoors.

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