Methven - Day Twelve - Part Three
It wasn't until the tacht had blithely wandered off that I realized I'd watched the entire encounter with my mouth hanging open, when I should have been unslinging my crossbow and drawing a bead on the sucker.
I was more than a little chagrined. After our battle with the rats, I'd promised myself I was going to stay sharp and be prepared for action at a moment's notice. Instead, at the first hint of what looked like a combat situation, I'd gawped like a rubbernecker slowing down to watch a fender-bender on the freeway.
Apparently there's more to this "military mindset" jazz than I'd been allowing for. It's clearly going to take something beyond a well-intentioned resolution to shake off my civilian habits.
I'm capable of coping with any emergency situation that has to do with climbing. I've gotten bumblies who busted important body parts halfway up the Grey Ledges safely back to level ground. I've had an electrical storm appear out of nowhere when I was two hours away from the summit of Half Dome and I not only avoided becoming a crispy critter, but finished the climb.
I've run across black bears in Yosemite a couple of times. In both cases, I just backed away until I put enough distance between me and the bear to let us both feel comfortable about getting on with our respective business. Those encounters got my adrenaline up, but I never considered attacking either animal. For one thing, in Yosemite, I never carried any weapon more dangerous than a Buck knife. For another, I'd've found myself in a world of trouble with the park rangers, the Sierra Club and PETA if I'd've actually managed to injure one of the beasts.
It hadn't been necessary to resort to violence in order to deal with the tacht. Natasi had seen to that. But, there was no way for me to have known in advance that that was the way things would turn out.
And that bothered me.
. . .
I don't much like climbing in the dark. Even if you've got serious beta on a route, it's damned dangerous. Doing it when you're two days behind on sleep is the height, width and depth of foolishness, in my book.
Of course, nobody asked me about it.
So, we pressed on, the Vomisa with catlike surefootedness, we others much less so. They glided along paths through the high "conifer" forests that were completely invisible to me, weaving between the low-hanging branches, moving silently through the duff underfoot. By contrast, I stumbled along those same unseen paths, finding every low-hanging branch with my face or forehead and generally raising a helluva racket.
It was little comfort to me that my fellow Earthlings were in similar straits. Misery may love company, but it sure doesn't pay it much attention.
We took a break just after dawn of our tenth day on Methven to char the flesh of a few more unlucky small animals and bolt it down without benefit of spices, utensils or side dishes.
"What's the deal here, Bruno?"
"What do you mean, Drewsie?"
I used the greasy leg of whatever it was we were eating to gesture toward our "hosts".
"We feed these clowns like royalty and this is what we get in return? As Tong would say, 'Whussup wid dat?'"
"All part of the plan, kiddo."
"Oh, well, that's a relief. You mind letting me in on this so-called 'plan'?"
"It's pretty simple, really. We put on the dog and trotted out the dancing girls to create what you call a 'reciprocal obligation' on their part."
"So to speak. See, Læ knew they weren't in a position to reciprocate, so she boxed 'em into a corner. Once she got them to acknowledge she has the right to stick with Mantami until he gets his hearing in front of the Mothers, they were stuck with her. Offering them hospitality just created an additional obligation for them to do likewise--something they can't do until we get to their Clanhome."
"They're rangers, kiddo. They travel fast 'cause they travel light. Out here, they just don't have the materials or the tools to do it right."
"I still don't understand. Why should we care whether they're obligated to put on a big feed or not?"
"When we get to Khasim Clanhome, word will get out about the way we treated their boys. Even thought they'll supposedly even the score by reciprocating, the fact that we extended their guys that level of hospitality way out in the boonies will make big points with the locals. That will become important once Læ starts dickering with the Moms about what's going to happen to Mantami."
"So that whole dog-and-pony show was to rack up points on Mantami's behalf?"
"Sure. Why? What did you think it was for?"
. . .
As soon as we finished our meal, we tackled a series of pitches that led us up an alternating sequence of slabs and faces that seemed to go on and on and on. The rangers didn't use any protection that I saw. In fact, the only real gear they had was ropes made out of plaited leather, which they mostly used to rap and to haul us up faces they free-climbed.
They put a lot of trust in those ropes. A lot more trust than I was comfortable with. Leather wears quickly. It gets stiff and brittle when it gets wet and it breaks.
I didn't like it and I said so.
And, naturally, they ignored me.
They took turns using their Scout tricks to climb lead on the steeper pitches. The lead climber would kneel, go into a trance, then rocket up the face with one of those leather ropes in his teeth. When he got to a suitable ledge, he'd do a body belay and the next one in line would swarm up the rope after him. Once half their team was upstairs, they'd haul us up like so many sacks of potatoes.
If I weren't so blind with fatigue and so buzzed on hinch nuts, I'd've been insulted.
Anyway, we reached the peak of the ridgeline by late afternoon. I scrambled over the lip and found myself looking directly into the eyes of a naked, barely pre-pubescent girl.
For a moment, I thought I must be hallucinating. What the heck was a naked 13 or 14-year-old doing out by herself in these mountains?
Then I spotted the knife she had slung around her neck on a cord it came to me what had to be going on.
She's preparing for her Ordeal, of course.
That didn't make it any easier to accept. Even in the direct sunlight of a late Summer afternoon, it was noticeably cool on the exposed ridgeline and I knew from experience that it would get downright cold come nightfall. The girl was going to freeze her little buns off--or at least court double pneumonia.
To be honest, her matter-of-fact nudity made me uncomfortable for other reasons, as well. It bugged me that I kept catching myself accidentally gawking at the hairless cleft between her legs. Whenever that happened, I'd immediately shift my gaze elsewhere, as if her pudenda was the Gorgon Medusa and I were afraid of turning to stone.
I'm reasonably comfortable around naked women. I usually like what I'm seeing and I pretty much know how I'm supposed to react. I have no problem with nude children, either. They're just kids, after all. But this girl was just at the cusp of womanhood, and her bareness provoked a knot of conflicting reactions in me that, frankly, I had no desire to deal with just then.
So, I just kept my mouth shut and my eyes averted and, after a short conversation between the girl and our escorts, the problem solved itself.
At least, for the moment it did.
. . .
Evening found us descending into another high altitude forest. We stopped for another meal--this one of a kind of dried meat that was something like jerky--and crunched down another round of hinch nuts, then pushed on down the mountain.
Within the forest, it was pitchy black and, strain as I might to make out the path we followed, I still couldn't keep from stumbling over roots, dead branches and sundry underbrush. To add to the fun, we were deviled by swarms of gnat-like bugs that kept buzzing by my ears like invisible Messerschmitts. I inhaled a few of them, as well, which did nothing to improve my mood.
By the time dawn of our 11th day on Methven broke, I was covered with scratches and welts, the palm of my right hand was skinned raw and both my knees were a mass of bruises.
I was about ready to sit down and declare myself on strike when we emerged from the forest onto a bluff above a swiftly-flowing river. The setting reminded me a lot of the Merced Gorge outside of Yosemite and the standing whitecaps and water foaming around a multitude of midstream boulders added to the impression.
We broke for another meal--jerky again--and more hinch nuts, then set out nearly due West along the riverbank.
Within an hour, we reached a rope footbridge which spanned the river. It swayed and creaked under us as we crossed it, but it was so sturdily constructed that I had no concern about using it.
Once across, we began hiking uphill through another "coniferous" forest. The path here was conspicuously more visible and more frequently traveled. There was no undergrowth to speak of and the ground underfoot was heavily compacted.
We began to encounter other Vomisa, mostly adult males. When we did, the exchange was usually the same:
The greeting party would hold up a hand, palm forward.
"Good hunting to you."
Our respondent--usually Natasi--would return the salute.
If the Vomisa we passed were curious about we strangers the ranger troupe had in tow, they chose not to mention it--although we definitely got the once-over. Otherwise, we didn't so much as break our pace and the folks we met stood aside and let us by.
It wasn't until well after noon that the routine varied. That was when we met another party of rangers on their way to begin a stint of border patrol duty--at least, that's what I assumed their mission was. After the exchange of salutes, we stopped long enough for Natasi and the leader of the other band to spend several minutes gabbing in rapid-fire Vomisa. Our group also handed over what was left of our food and several skins of water before we parted ways.
If it hadn't been before, it was now clear we were getting close to our destination. We slogged on up the mountainside with a rising sense of excitement, despite the fact that we were all--Vomisa and outworlders alike--hungry, dirty and reeling with physical and mental fatigue.
Late in the afternoon, we started encountering places where stone steps had been set into the steeper sections of the trail. The track had gotten considerably broader, too and we were almost never out of sight of other people.
Finally, as we came around the shoulder of a modest hill, we came face-to-face with a suggestively-shaped pair of stone pillars elaborately roped together with glittering gold hawsers thicker than my arm. They towered a good forty feet or more into the air, forming a kind of gateway, beyond which was a long, lush valley.
Nestled against the far end of the valley in the saddle formed by the bases of two good-sized conical peaks and one absurdly-big spire of naked rock was a collection of buildings large enough to be visible at a distance of several miles.
We had arrived at Khasim Clanhome.
(Copyright© 1997 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)