John Vernon


Wes looked around him:  all hell was breaking loose.  His boat had nosed down, got gripped by the river, and wind had turned to water.  The Emma Dean shot forward in a blink and Wes was shouting and Jack Sumner rowing air and Bill Dunn pulling so hard on his oars that a tholepin popped out and clattered to his feet.  He dropped down to pick it up.  Between Bill in the bow and Jack in the stern, Wes waved his stump and bellowed out orders lost to the roar and hiss.  "Left, boys, Left!  Man your oars, Bill!"  Shouts reduced to bird squeal.  Bill leaned over the gunnel now and was fumbling with the tholepin.  Wes bent down and shouted in his ear, "What the devil are you doing?"

"Major Powell, sir, I can't make the fucker fit!"

Just moments ago they'd been drifting in a dream on a placid tilt of river, a bubble's downward sag.  Below and beyond it, peaks of waves and gouts of foam had leapt like little demons trying to find the doomed men.  Prominent in the rapids ahead was a monstrous boulder stacking up the river -- neck folds on a bull.

Now they raced toward it.  "Left," Wes screamed, then looked back to spot, a hundred feet behind them, the Kitty Clyde's Sister sliding into the rapids, with George Bradley and Wes's brother attempting to row, the latter's mouth wide open in song.  Even George couldn't hear Walter's voice, Wes thought.  The roar of the rapids, more like fire than water, drowned all other sounds.  But Wes knew what his brother was singing:  "John Anderson, My Jo."  He could tell by the satisfied warp of Walter's mouth.

He turned back to face upriver, clinging to his rope tied around a strut, which he used for busting rapids.  His inflated life preserver wrapped snug around his neck felt like a hose collar and took away some dignity, since no one else wore one.  The Emma Dean Climbed waves then dropped, then climbed again, and above her the canyon walls rose in red bluffs and the noontime sun flamed off the sandstone, and the river caught its light and spread it like a rash.

The No Name entered the rapids now, and twisting around Wes saw it jumping like a deer jumping logs, and the grown men inside bouncing up and down -- the two Howland brothers and the helpless Frank Goodman, clinging to his seat.  Wes shouted again -- he wasn't sure why or at whom or even at what -- then a wave cuffed his boat nearly knocking him over, and something in his spine broke into blossom and he righted himself in the act of turning back, and all this happened in a moment.  The unceasing roar filled the air and then river rose before him.  "Left, boys!" he screamed, stressing that direction with his head and upper torso.  The right stump helped too, straining left across his chest, with nerve ends sprouting a frantic phantom arm.  He watched Bill in front of him rowing with one oar and felt like clubbing the oaf.  They weren't going left, they were broadsiding toward the huge rock ahead and he screamed, "both oars, Bill!" furrows of water rocked the boat left and right, sending columns and streamers ten or more feet high toward Wes, half standing, and bucked him like a mustang.  From his height above, the men he could see the fatal boulder, obscured by a left-moving sheer wall of water.  "We're lost, boys, we're lost!"  He stood to full height -- five foot four -- shaking his head, laughing like a madman.

A shard of his attention sensed the Maid back there shooting into the rapids, and detected as though from an inner distance the howls and execration's of any Hall and William Hawkins.

The Emma Dean reached its crisis.  Wes had to sit when his boat rose and hung suspended in time, remitted from gravity, but shaking like a peak about to blow.  She seemed to keep rising while water crashed though her, her forward momentum still jerking her up.  At last, she paused.  Out of nowhere he pictured the real Emma Dean, safe in Detroit.  And the water carved open, or so it seemed-it positively parted to receive them. 

They shot straight ahead through two walls of water, and now it was just a never-ending breathless race.  Wes stood again.  Below him, Bill Dunn with the Tholepin in his hand looked startled as a baby laid on his back.  Wes turned to signal the others left, as far left as possible, but he had to hang on and couldn't use his flag.  It was all body language -- head butts, stump flaps.  The Emma Dean didn't race, she flew through the air, then slammed down so hard he was airborne for an instant.  She spun around madly, pinning Wes to his seat, but the boys worked the oars -- this was water they could bite -- and the boat sung downriver, slowing to full steam.  Amazingly, Bill still rowed with one oar.  It mattered less now.  A perfectly flat slide of water had found them and they rode that around a bend -- these rapids were endless -- past shawls of foam pouring over boulders left and right of their boat.  The river slowed as it curved.

“Ain’t you done with that yet?”  Jack Sumner barked.  Bill Dunn fumbling with the tholepin again.

“Can’t get it back in.”

“We rode all that way with it out?”

“I suppose.”

As the rapids diminished, the sound of Walter’s song broke across the water.

Now we main totter down, John,
And hand in hand we’ll go,
And sleep together at the foot,
John Anderson, my Jo.

Wes pulled off his rubber life preserver.  He wore it as a favor to Emma, since with his one arm, swimming would be tricky if her namesake capsized.  You needed every crutch, he though, every human expedient -- gadgets, prayer, quick wit, charms, and spells -- when the unknown lay around every corner.

They’d herded together, the Emma, the Sister, the No Name, and the Maid, in a gently eddy near a beach at a bend.  Here the river looped right.  The men began to bail, all except Frank Goodman in the No Name-sitting up smartly now -- and Bill Dunn in the Emma Dean, still working on the tholepin.  Wes asked too, “That’s not done, Bill?” at which Seneca Holland look up from his boat, bailing like mad, and said, “Bill, are you Dunn?”

“Shut your damn piehole.”

A snarl, a stare.  The games men play with each other, thought Wes.

They anchored the boats, climbed onto shore, and sprawled in the sand at a bend in the river eating biscuits and dried apples passed out by Hawkins.  First willows then box elders and cottonwoods grew on the rocky soil behind them, then the broken ground rose to high red cliffs seamed into blocks.  The river had quieted down at this bend, and their boats hardly tugged at the deadman anchors.

Wes checked the four boats for damage then sat on the Emma’s bow deck by himself and observed his men:  Andy Hall of the big head and nose and powerful arms, The former mule driver.  He walked as if another Andy Hall, made of buckets and poles, were pitching forward inside him while trying not spill.

Hawkins the cook with his dark eyes, enormous shag mustache, and small wisp of beard on a dinky chin.  Hawkins’s face was singular, fixed as cement, but his name was a buzzing crowd -- sometimes Missouri Rhodes, sometimes William Rhodes Hawkins, sometimes Billy, sometimes Cook -- and Wes hand’t managed to learn about this past, no one had.  Or if they had, they weren’t saying.

Jack Sumner’s mustache had bleached in the sun, and like Hawkins Jack was short though round-shouldered, a human cannonball.  He'd given up his store in Hot Sulpher Springs to come on his trip and often reminded the others of this fact in Wes’s presence.  Otherwise, Jack kept his own counsel.  Wes had made him his Peter, his rock, but seldom really knew what he was thinking.

Bill Dunn’s stringy black hair brushed his shoulders, and his beard held as much grease, it appeared, as his filthy breeches.  Bill sat in the sand.  Had he fixed the tholepin at last the big lunk?  He’d better have, thought Wes, he couldn’t row without it.  Next to Bill, Ora Howland, head resting on his arms, seemed to be sleeping.  He often slept, but when baby brother Seneca, to his right, commenced idly digging in the sand with a stick, Ora lifted his head.  “Leave the sand be.”

Seneca stood and tossed the stick away.  Last night he’d told Wes he’d come along for the adventure.

George Bradly was off sitting by himself but within earshot.  Quiet, thought Wes, but quiet men sometimes made fewer mistakes.  And George knew boats -- their one experienced boatman.  Since the first few days after their launch, George had camped alone every night.  Quiet, and a loner.  Wes instinctively trusted him.

Between George and the rest of the men bunched together, Wes’s brother Walker reached for the sky, stretching prodigiously, then paced in a circle, peered up at the cliffs, inspected the river.  At last, he walked back and rejoined the group, sitting next to Frank Goodman.  “How come you didn’t bail?” he asked the Englishman.

“Afraid I couldn’t.”

“What’d you do to yourself?”

“Sandbar crumbled beneath me last night.  I was -- discharging my burden in the dark?”

“I suppose that’ll do it.”

“Can’t yawn, can’t sneeze.  Speaking causes discomfort.”  Frank seemed to be smiling, but Wes wasn’t sure -- his nose did all the talking.  The loose mouth just hung there.  “If I felt he need to sneeze, the sensation is like being stabbed in the back.  Then I can’t.  It's cut off before the crisis.”

“Need yourself a woman,” Said Walter, who turned to his brother and winked.  Wes nodded.  Walter’s moods ranged from distracted bonhomie to rage to self-torture, and who knew when they’d shift?  Surprise me, Wes thought.  Most of the others had fought in the war too.  They knew the damage of combat and the Icarian falls suffered by some, and ought to indulge his brother, he’d decided.  Still, every time Walter opened his mouth Wes felt alarmed, ready to jump in.

Walter folded his arms across his knees and lowered his head.

Wes ate a biscuit and let the sun warm him.  This was his hastily assembled crew, his disciples, the men Emma had said wouldn’t last the first week.  As of yesterday, she was wrong.  Still, they’d just begun.  And Wes knew from the war that first skirmishes weren’t always predictive to a battle’s outcome, and this would be a battle, but of the oddest sort.  For one thing, their enemy -- the river -- was also their lifeline.  In one week he’d glimpsed the river’s fitful moods:  it lulled you like a dream, then shocked you awake with the same looming anxiety war mad you feel, as though even at rest you were always approaching the edge of a cliff.

Andy Hall waded in the river to his calves and pissed upstream.  Like spitting into the wind, Wes thought.  Andy shook his member at the rapids, not diminished in the distance.  “Best ride so far, Major Powell,” he said walking back.  He brushed sand off his drawers, and Wes noted the union suit -- too small.  The boy was still growing.  No one had changed clothes, all still wore he standard uniform for rapids: flannel shirts and drawers, kerchief tied around the neck.

“It was fun, I’ll say that.”  Hawkins spit in the sand.

“Fun?  Christ almighty,” Andy said.  “IT wasn’t fun, it was exiting.”

“Same difference.”

“No sir,” said Andy.  “Fun’s a good time, but exciting is different.  Exciting’s the kind of good time you know you had only after its over.  It’s like being shot at by a drunk.”

“I wouldn’t have thought being shot at was exciting.”

“When it’s over, I said.”

“I'll tell you about exiting,” said Jack Sumner.  “Exciting has to be a little dangerous, like a black-eyed whore.”

“Exciting gets old,” George Bradly said.  He was twenty feet away, sitting in the sand, but didn’t raise his voice; Wes strained to listen.  “We been gone a week, we got a thousand miles to go, and we’ll be sick to death of getting dunked like this by the time we get through.  Sick of each other too.”

“Sick of you already, George.”

“Sick of this Canyon.”

“Don’t the sun feel good, though?”

“First you freeze, then you burn.”

“I thought it was over,” said the Englishman.  “Thought we’d gone to meet our Maker.”

Walter Powell raised his head.  “Then how come you’re smiling?”

“Something amusing just occurred to me.”

Walter’s lips thinned.  “You're one of those boys which your nose points up and your chin points down and there’s what I call a saddle for your nose pits and your mouth.”


“So wipe that stupid grin off your face.”

Wes jumped up, guided Walter aside, and said, “Let’s get to work.  Walter, help Hawkins reload the Maid.  Ora -- compass bearing.”  Acting for two, Wes’s one are swung wildly as he walked, and the walking was labored -- he stomped through sand.  Short as a fence-post, shirtsleeve pinned up, he fought the inclination to list.

He stopped to watch Ora take a bearing and scribble on his sketchpad.  Was had been teaching him the meander system for mapping their course:  compass bearing at every bend, the distance between bends approximated, approximations compared and averaged.  Those figures in turn were corrected by astronomical stations taken with a sextant fifty miles apart and linked by the river estimates.  Only trouble was, you could not take bearings and cling to a runaway boat at the same time.  If they’d gone a bend in those last rapids, would Ora’s map even show it?  Washing to shore, Ora asked his brother how far he made it from their last bearing.

“Forgot to keep track,” Seneca said.


“Eight miles.”



“Six,” said Wes.

Ora settled on nine.

Meanwhile, Bill Dunn had unpacked the barometers and, having loosened the screw beneath the cistern case, stood in the sand holding one up, waiting for the mercury to reach its level in the tube.  The wooden box with the other two barometers stood open in the sand and when Wes walked up the first thing he did was close the lid and latch it tight.  “You have your tables?” he asked.

“In the boat.”

Bill’s usual expression when he tried to concentrate was startled dismay, or confused irritation.  His long hair looked black as an Indian’s, and his smell was burnished, carrion, and old, a copper bowl filled with chopped meat gone bad.  His beard appeared to be a solid thing, whereas Wes’s muttonchops felt made of sparse lamb’s wool.  Standing there, Wes looked him squarely in the face while Bill glanced around like a boy at the blackboard.  He’d been teaching Bill to keep careful track of their ever-falling base line, but it took a lot of patience.


“In the boat.”


“In the breeches.”

“Where are they?”

“In the boat.”

“I’ll hold that.  Get the tables, the thermometer, and the watch.”

Bill handed the barometer to Wes and stumbled over mudflats to unlatch the Emma Dean’s   bow compartment.  He rooted around and pulled out a thermometer, pocket watch, a leather case, then slogged back to his commander.

“I think it’s settled on a reading.”  Wes held up the barometer.  It’s a long glass tube, cased in brass, showed no moisture in the sun --  a good sign.  Bill placed his nose two inches from the thing and squinted at the scale.  “Twenty-four point six.”

“What does that give you?”

Bill opened the case and pulled out the little notebook with the tables in the back.  He flipped through the pages.  “Five thousand four hundred feet?”

“Write it down.”

Bill licked his thumb and turned the pages, then licked the pencil and wrote down the numbers.  Before Wes could prompt him, he screwed one eye up and consulted the temperature and referred to the tables, then plugged in the correction.  It took him several minutes to multiply the figures, and while he did, Wes returned the barometer to its box, and the box to the No Name’s stern compartment.

Bill entered the correct altitude in the notebooks, slapped the notebook into the case, and started for the boat.  Seneca Howland whispered as he passed, “Bill, are you Dunn?”

“You’re forgetting something,” said Wes.

“What?”  Bill spun around, slapped his forehead.  With watch in hand and pencil in teeth, he took out the notebook again and jotted down the time.  And the weather conditions.

A raven flew by.  Wes heard the wooden croak and the soft whoop whoop of its wings above his head.  “Let’s get started,” he called to the men. 
They climbed into the boats while Wes watched the raven, whose head hung down, yellow eye watching him.  The bird crossed the canyon rising on thermals toward the opposite rim.  For no apparent reason he folded his wings and bulleted through the air a few feet, rolling on his shaggy neck.  Then he opened his wings and with another croak wheeled up towards the cliffs looming over the canyon.  The croak was a thick piece of air wedging open.

He landed on a tree and stabbed at his tail- plagued by lice, no doubt.  But Wes could barely make him out now.  From the raven’s lofty perch the tiny boats below gliding down the river would hardly seem to be moving, Wes thought.  The raven was one thing rooted in the world, while the little men below rode on ten separate rivers, not quite the same.

From the book, THE LAST CANYON: A Novel by John Vernon
Copyright 2001 by John Vernon.
Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
All rights reserved.

Current | Previous    Submit | Editors    Join | Donate    Links | Contact
Sundress Publications