A sharp February wind gently howled as it snaked its way through the pass at Iron Mountain. The sun had been down for several hours and soon the temperature would drop to freezing. Sparse patches of snow adorned the quiet mountain pass. Desert sprawled across the darkness below while white slopes towered above.
He never quite understood why he frequently came to places like this. This thought haunted him as he stared into the glowing coals left by his evening fire. He paid to be here with the pain in his legs and chill in his feet. Now, with a day's hike behind him, dinner eaten, and bedded down, it was his time to think.
The desert was peaceful and far removed from his office job with its pressures and responsibilities. He knew he was the only person for miles, few come up here at this time of year. He wondered if this was why he came, to get away from people and problems. He never understood why, he just felt the urge to come.
He was frightfully cold and exhausted as he lay in his sleeping bag under the crisp star-filled sky. He knew the trick to staying warm was in lying still. The temperature would be tolerable, not comfortable, when the bedding against his skin was warmed by his body. The rest of the sleeping bag would stay as cold as the desert. Any movement would cause some part of his body to contact unwarmed bedding. His hand-picked padding of dried grasses and leaves rustled under the sleeping bag as he tried to get comfortable for the night. He turned on his side with his bad ear to the ground then covered his head with a jacket.
His hearing suffered during military service many years ago. Roaring jet engines damaged his right ear and rendered his left ear completely deaf. Although he could hear most sounds, he had no way of knowing what direction they came from. He listened to the gentle night sounds and waited for sleep to take him.
He was alerted as he heard something move in the brush next to him. Yes, he was sure of it! At first it was not apparent whether he fell asleep or was just on the verge of sleeping. He heard the brush rustle again! After he became fully awake he realized he must have been asleep for some time because the sleeping bag was warm and his shoulder was cramped from the weight of his body. He heard the sound again, it seemed to be moving on.
With as little movement as possible he searched for his .41 magnum. He found the ice-cold iron several inches from his chest. Since he had his gun in hand and the animal continued to move off he felt relatively safe. He decided he would not brave the cold to investigate, instead he would just keep an ear on it for a while.
He listened to the movement as best he could. His crippled hearing would not yield much detail, to him the sounds were muffled and distant. He determined that the animal was not large like a deer, but more along the size of a coyote or raccoon.
The eluding animal filled the night air with a distant cry. He had heard this sound before. It was the mewling of a large cat, such as a bobcat or cougar. The uncanny resemblance between a mewling cat and a child's cry sent shivers down his spine. He caught a glimpse of a cougar yesterday during the hike up here. He assumed it was a cougar.
The cries were nearly out of hearing range when he could have sworn he heard the word "Mommy". He lifted his head as he threw the jacket aside. He listened to the cries, which began to fade into the February wind. He heard it again, "Mommy". He clambered out of the sleeping bag then grabbed a flashlight.
My God, he thought, there's a child up here in the Superstitions... A lost child calling for its mother!
He stood in his underwear and shivered with the breeze as he panned the desert brush with a flashlight. It was a fruitless gesture since the dim beam was useless beyond 50 yards. The cries continued to fade in the distance. Finding the child would not be easy. The entire region was filled with waist-high brush, which was more than adequate to hide a toddler.
He turned his head from side to side in an attempt to determine where the cries came from. He could hear the faint cries best with his working ear pointed toward the lower southern slopes.
How did a child get up here, he thought as he frantically stuffed himself in a pair of pants. How could a child survive?
His mind painted a picture of a cold and helpless child crying as it wandered through inhospitable terrain. The thought brought tears to his eyes. He donned his boots.
"Child!", he shouted, "CHILD!!"
When he secured his last bootlace, he realized that he could no longer hear the pitiful cries.
The child was in my camp, he thought, all I had to do was stand up and save it.
He threw a jacket over his bare chest then paused long enough to listen for the child one more time. The child was either silent or had wandered beyond the range of his feeble hearing. All he heard was his heart pounding in his chest and the February wind, which gently howled with a steady monotonous tone.
I have to find that child, he thought. It couldn't possibly survive the night.
He checked for tracks in the immediate area of his campsite. At night footprints tend to disappear when directly illuminated by a flashlight. He shone the light across the ground to reveal any tracks in a contrast of light and shadow. There were plenty of his footprints, but nothing else.
He would have to wait until morning before he could pick up the child's trail. Any attempt to track the child at night would be futile. Worse yet, he could trample fragile evidence of the child's whereabouts.
That child was right here by my camp and I did nothing, he thought. I can't wait until morning.
He fastened his gun belt as he surveyed the darkness, which swallowed the lower southern slope. It was on that slope where he last heard the child. He knew better than to trust his poor sense of hearing but it was all he had to go on.
The plan was to descend the southern slope in hope of hearing the child again. Even if he could get within earshot of the child, it would still be difficult for him to home in. If lady luck did not favor him, then, perhaps she would favor the child. He knew he had to try or be haunted forever by the cries of a child he could have saved. He stuffed a first aid kit in his jacket then abandoned camp.
He was experienced in hiking at night. He had been in the habit of hiking the moonlit desert almost every full moon. On this night however, the moon offered no light. Beyond the reach of his flashlight was darkness without a hint of landmarks. He left his compass and canteen behind in haste. The north star and silhouette of Iron Mountain were the only reference points available. He felt confident with his navigating skills and knew he could find his camp again. What concerned him was his crippled hearing, it was the only means he had to locate the child.
He wadded through waist-high brush, which tore and scraped at his clothing as he made the decent. Every-so-often he would stop to listen for the child. All he heard was the moan of that February wind. He pressed on with an obsession to find the child.
Progress was slow until he happened across a wash. The rock wash was void of brush and allowed for better pace. He moved down the gradual slope with quick rhythmic steps, stopping now and then to listen for the elusive child. He had covered nearly a quarter mile when a loose rock fowled his footing and sent him to the ground.
He rolled over on his back and grabbed his knee in pain. Warm blood began to soak into his pant leg and stain his fingers. After several seconds of moaning and swearing he retrieved the flashlight, which laid askew on the ground. He examined the gash in his knee. It was a good one, about two inches long and almost deep enough to reveal bruised kneecap.
He was about to reach for the first aid kit when he heard the lonesome cry of his quest. He froze for an instant then hobbled to his feet. He held his knee as he listened to the night air.
Yes! It was the child. The cries came from the west and a little lower on the slope. No! The cries were above him to the west. Yes! The child was above him and to the west. He had passed the child.
"Child!" he shouted. "Damn you child!"
With no regard for his injury, he pursued a westward course across the slope. He limped through waist-high brush in search of the persisting cries. His mind's image of a helpless, crying child continued to torture him. He felt frustrated with the knee injury, which impeded his efforts to rescue the innocent child. Progress was slow and the February wind grew colder as the night aged.
The southern slope gave way to a ridge near the skirt of White Mountain. The pitiful cries drew him past white mountain to a high mesa just south of Cimeron Mountain. He spent most of the night searching that mesa.
He was immensely weary, cold, and thirsty. His knee continued to weep with fresh blood as he pushed through thorny brush and rocky terrain. His flashlight grew dim as did the cries of the child. About an hour before sunrise his flashlight went dark and the cries of the child ceased.
Early dawn brought a hint of light. He had traveled three or four miles during the longest night of his life. His search took him to the southwestern edge of a mesa, which overlooked Rogers Canyon.
He feared the child had perished during the night. Alive or dead, he was determined to find the child. He decided to walk to the cliff at the edge of Rogers Canyon. It was a high vantage point where he could survey Rogers Canyon as well as the high mesa he had searched during the night. If he could not see the child from there, he would return to camp and try to pick up the child's trail.
He limped to the edge of the cliff that overlooked Rogers Canyon. It was a beautiful view in the early morning light. From there he could see Weavers Needle and Superstition Mountain. Just beyond Superstition Mountain was the sprawling metropolis of Phoenix. He thought of how ironic it was that help was just on the other side of that mountain. As far as the child was concerned, that help was on the other side of the moon.
He checked Rogers Canyon, some four hundred feet below him, for any activity. There was no one to be seen. He turned around to survey the mesa behind him. As near as he could tell, he was the only person for miles. There was no sign of a child.
He was just about to return to camp when he felt the edge of the cliff shift under the weight of his feet. He charged northward away from the cliff and would have made safety if it were not for his injured knee. Several tons of rock fell from the cliff's edge and out from under his feet. He grabbed for anything in reach.
Tons of rock roared down the canyon wall as he dangled buy a partially uprooted bush. He knew better than to look down yet he did anyway. The roar below him gave way to the clatter of smaller rocks somewhere in the cloud of dust at the bottom of the canyon. After the rocks settled he looked back up at the bush and secured a better grip.
Don't panic, he thought, think carefully.
He looked around for some kind of handhold but there was nothing. The fault was sheer for the first ten or fifteen feet with no signs of any nooks or crannies. Below that, the cliff was so steep it could have been considered sheer.
He took several deep breaths and began to sweat. The thorny bush bit deep into his painful hands. His heart pumped vigorously. He felt the cold chill of adrenaline ripple through his body. He looked up at the bush. It was secured to safety by one lousy root! He swallowed hard then pulled himself up gently. He managed to get one hand over the other, then the bush cracked. He froze for an instant as fear shot through him. A split second latter the root gave way with a snap!
He screamed during a fifteen-foot free fall but was silenced when he hit the nearly vertical canyon wall. He tumbled down the rock-infested washboard to the sound of breaking bones. Consciousness fled long before his body came to rest on the canyon floor.
Sometime during early afternoon he regained a foggy glimpse of consciousness. It was brief. He was awake long enough to realize excruciating pain before the gentle howl of the wind lulled him back to sleep. Throughout the rest of the day consciousness came and left like birds at a water hole.
By late afternoon he awoke to face reality. The fall left him in a broken pile wedged against several large boulders. His head throbbed in pain, his upper torso ached with each breath he took. His legs were mangled but everything below his broken pelvis was comfortably numb. His left arm was immobilized and useless. He found he could move his right arm, though it was stiff and several of its fingers would not respond. He longed for a drink of water.
What, he thought, what happened?
He tried to recall the events that led up to his demise.
Let's see, he thought, hiking... The child... Oh yea, I trusted a loose rock cliff. I know better than that!
As the hours passed his breathing became less shallow though his chest still ached with each breath. Several more fingers began to respond and he could lift his head slightly. The prospect of survival looked a little more hopeful.
It was about sundown when he decided to attempt a cry for help. He took a deep painful breath.
He listened carefully.
The wind, he though, that damn wind. All I've heard for days was a child's cry and that damn wind.
He wondered about the child and what might have happened to it.
It was right in my camp, he thought, and I did nothing. Now here I am.
He thought of how far he had pursued the child. He had pushed his way through rugged country, yet the child managed to stay ahead of him.
Maybe it was a cat, he thought, maybe it wasn't a child at all... No! It was definitely a child... A helpless child!
The night sky grew darker as the February wind grew colder. He felt stronger with each passing hour and was more optimistic about survival. Periodically his cries for help would fill Rogers Canyon.
He knew the area well and had determined exactly where he was. He was about one-eighth mile from a major trail, which ran the length of Rogers Canyon. A mile down the canyon were cliff dwellings built by Salado Indians. The cliff dwellings would often attract hikers. Perhaps one of these hikers would hear his plea for help.
He thought he might be able to survive this incident if he could make it through the night. There was nothing he could do about his thirst or the cold. He was also concerned about desert scavengers. Lying there in a busted mess he looked too much like a carcass up for grabs. He decided to draw his sidearm in case any night prowlers saw him as an easy meal. He wondered if he had enough strength to handle a gun.
His crippled hand fumbled with a stubborn snap on the holster. After several botched attempts the fastener finally gave in. He managed a loose grip on the gun then pulled and tugged until the weapon was free of leather. He laid the gun across his chest as he secured a better grip. He shuddered to think of the .41's powerful recoil against his crippled hand. It took all his strength to heft it, much less fire it. He hoped it would not be needed.
Nothing to do but wait for morning, he thought. I can hold out that long.
Although his body was weak, his spirit was strong. His optimism went far beyond his assurance. He knew Phoenix and its hospitals were just beyond Superstition Mountain. Modern medical technology could patch him together, all he had to do was get there. He closed his eyes and started the long wait for morning.
Many thoughts wandered through his head as he laid there in the February wind. He thought of his job and his home. He thought of friends and family. He thought of God and fate. He thought of a child lost in the desert.
His eyes snapped open wide.
The child, he thought. The child was right in my camp and I did nothing. None of this would have happened if I had just got up to look around.
Like a bad dream he began to hear the cries of a lost child. The distant cries were muffled by the unending howl of that February wind. He kept still and strained his ear to listen.
Can't be, he thought.
He heard it again, it was louder, clearer.
"Child!" he shouted.
The cries boldly echo through his head although the desert remained silent. He was sure the child was getting closer because the cries grew louder. They pleaded for his help.
"Child, I'm here child!"
The picture of an agonized helpless child wandering aimlessly etched at him. He felt a pain for the child, which overshadowed the pain of his injuries.
"Come here child!" he shouted. "I'll help you!"
For the first time since the accident he tried to move. He could not. He felt imprisoned in his useless body. He had to help the child.
"Child!!! Help!! Somebody help this child!!!"
The child's cry grew loud and pathetic as it begged for his help. He could stand it no more. Because of his own inept mistakes, he could no longer hope to assist the innocent child. He felt like a useless fumbling idiot. He somehow knew this fragile child would outlive him. In his mind's eye, the child was strong and he was weak.
His crippled hand trembled as it loosely clutched the heavy sidearm. He could have saved the child and been a hero, instead, he botched the job like a bumbling fool. The child still cried for his help as the February wind moaned like spirits of Salado ancestors. He felt frustrated and angry with himself as he struggled to pull back the hammer on his .41 magnum. He was of no use to the helpless child, and he no-longer felt like a man. He could not bear his disgrace.
"I'm sorry Child!", he shouted.
During a weak, fleeting moment he made an irreversible decision. The blast of a .41 magnum rumbled and echoed through Rogers Canyon. His pleas for help, his last apology, as well as the child's cries, were silenced. When the echo settled, the desert was again quiet except for the February wind, which gently howled through the pass at Iron Mountain.