Hubris

by , under Fiction Prompts, Flash Fiction, What Pegman Saw

“You about finished writing, Major? The men is chafing to get this next stretch over with.”

“Just a moment more.” Powell dipped his pen into the inkhorn and scratched away at the page.

“I don’t think them Howard boys and Dunn is coming back, Major. Yesterday scared out their Jesus.”

“Yes. Can’t be helped. Some men will desert.” Powell glanced up at the man. “And you, George? What are your feelings on this matter?”

Bradley pulled himself straight and looked the major in the eye. “My word’s my bond, Major. Even if it kill me.”

Powell nodded and went back to writing, the boiling white foam clear in his mind’s eye, the sickening drop as the barge plummeted down and down between the towering granite walls.

He knew at that moment the extent of his hubris, the incredible arrogance of thinking this expedition was possible.

And now to learn his mapmaker had deserted.

Hubris.

 

What Pegman Saw

 

August 14, 1869

As we proceed, the granite rises higher, until nearly a thousand feet of the lower
part of the walls are composed of this rock. About eleven o’clock we hear a great roar ahead, and approach it very cautiously. The ground grows louder and louder as we run, and at last we find ourselves above a long, broken fall, with ledges and pinnacles of rock obstructing the river. There is a descent of, perhaps, seventy-five or eighty feet in a third of a mile, and the rushing waters break into great waves on the rocks, and lash themselves into a mad, white foam. We can land just above, but there is no foothold on either side by which we can make a portage.
It is nearly a thousand feet to the top of the granite, so it will be impossible to carry our boats around, though we can climb to the summit up a side gulch, and, passing along a mile or two, can descend to the river. This we find on examination; but such a portage would be impracticable for us, and we must run the rapid, or abandon the river. There is no hesitation. We step into our boats, push off and away we go, first on smooth but swift water, then we strike a glassy wave, and ride to its top, down again into the trough, up again on a higher wave, and down and up on waves higher and still higher, until we strike one just as it curls back, and a breaker rolls over our little boat.
Still, on we speed, shooting past projecting rocks, till the little boat is caught in a whirlpool, and spun around several times. At last we pull out again into the stream, and now the other boats have passed us. The open compartment of the “Emma Dean” is filled with water, and every breaker rolls over us. Hurled back from a rock, now on this side, now on that, we are carried into an eddy, in which we struggle for a few minutes, and are then out again, the breakers still rolling over us. Our boat is unmanageable, but she cannot sink, and we drift down another hundred yards, through breakers; how, we scarcely know. We find the other boats have turned into an eddy at the foot of the fall, and are waiting to catch us as we come, for the men have seen that our boat is swamped. They push out as we come near, and pull us in against the wall. We bail our boat, and on we go again.
The walls, now, are more than a mile in height.

-From the Journal of John Wesley Powell

  1. k rawson

    How insane! You really capture them moment, along with his inner machinations on the situation he’s gotten himself into.

    If I’m not mistaken, the photo you used for your linkup was taken at the Grand Canyon, was it not? <3

    Reply
  2. Joy Pixley

    What a terrifying adventure to attempt, I can see why people might desert. I enjoyed the extra background included in the letter — and now I don’t feel so bad about the lengthy postscript I couldn’t help including on my own story.

    Reply
    • J Hardy Carroll

      Thanks, Joy. I included Powell’s journal entry to contrast his private self-doubt with his public journal. That one of the three men who deserted was his map-maker had to be especially galling. I took some liberties, since I have no idea what he was really feeling. Such are the joys of historical fiction!

      No trace was ever found of the three men who abandoned the party.

      Reply
      • Joy Pixley

        When you write historical fiction you always have to make guesses and take liberties. It’s fascinating to imagine what people might have been thinking and feeling behind their formal public statements.

        Sounds like there’s another possible story speculating on what happened to those three who disappeared…

        Reply
  3. Lynn Love

    It never ceases to astonish me how brave – and foolhardy – our ancestors often were. Ploughing on through uncharted wildernesses, facing dangers I can’t even imagine. You capture that inner doubt well, Josh, and surely he must have felt that at times, leading his party into such peril. Beautifully written as always. I’m fascinated to know what happened to those missing men

    Reply
  4. 4963andypop

    Those 19th century naturalists and gentlemen knew their classics. I can see how this adventurer would berate himself, this way, using a classic heroic flaw, “hubris.”

    But we wishy-washy, weaker beings look upon his courage and steeliness, and wonder, if we could have managed, to follow through to the bitter end. Speaking for myself, anyway.

    You had us there, in the crashing waves and churning whirlpools. Nice reminder of how much of leadership is gambling with, and sometimes losing,other men’s loyalty and lives.

    Reply

Don't just stand there.