|STRANDED IN 1870
By Jeff Soares
It was six days ago that his journey began in Gibraltar.
As he remembered it on the day of his farewell the sky was clear with the blazing crimson sun rising in the west.
Theodore stood in front of his balloon airship which was moored in the town square. A crowd had gathered around the platform and gradually his adamant colleagues
assembled at the base of the steps, frantic in their convictions as they warned him repeatedly that his journey would be too dangerous alone and that he must
reconsider. Theodore certainly did recognize their concerns, and in fact was good friends with one of them, but he was determined to share glory with no one. They
would have to find their own, springing from their own research and experiments, trifling as they were. The record for the highest altitude would be his and his alone.
The Royal Scientific Society would have no choice but to admit him with honors as he deserved.
Theodore remembered he waved his colleagues off sternly, nearly accusing them of subversion.
It was then that a local group of Andalusian women dressed in colorful Spanish dresses stepped up onto the wood platform and attentively adorned his hat with wild
flowers as if he was an ailing patient, but in reality he was clandestinely marked for death. Those local, predominately working class men in the crowd, gazed on with
doleful expressions, a few expressing resentment, and were obviously envious of his exploit. Particularly an older gentleman in a wheeled chair who sneered at his
recklessness while he shook his head.
Before long he was high in the sky looking down on the town square as if it were stones on the earth. After another two hours drifting on the southern Mediterranean
air currents, with Gibraltar 50 miles behind him, he began to rise high, far above Morocco and could clearly see the outlying deserts to the south east.
Never before had he, or anyone, experienced the Mediterranean from such a great height. He excitedly conferred with his instruments and discovered he was topping
5,000 feet, and rising. The thin air was very evident and he prepared his oxygen breathing apparatus in the event he might need it.
To the south-east he could see the Atlas Mountain range and it was a solitarily magnificent sight. The eastern sun draped the mountain ranges in stunningly beautiful
morning colors with unbelievable clarity. Gripping the side of the balloon basket he gazed at the scene, captivated, not only by the view but by its coupled, utter silence.
While in the middle of enjoying an apple, a splint of gloom softened his smile when he realized the experience, as moving as it was, was fleeting and regretfully
unshared. He dropped the half eaten apple and it vanished into obscurity far, far below.
Passing 8,000 feet he drifted over the heart of the mountain range. He began to feel light headed as he recognized that he had succumbed to the effect of the thin air.
He clambered over to his breathing apparatus and took several deep breaths of oxygen. With his head clearing he saw the balloon was maintaining a stationary position
as the currents softened and finally died.
It only gave him more reason to enjoy the view.
Soon thereafter he drifted out over the gold Moroccan deserts where, quite suddenly, he was met with a gale that turned exceedingly violent. By its shear fierceness it
began thrashing his basket and a split in the balloon fabric developed due to the strain. To his horror, as he remembered this well, the tear grew and began splitting
down the side of the balloon.
As he franticly attempted to repair the rupture the split worsened. The more and more he tried the more and more precious hot gases escaped, accelerating a
frightening spinning descent.
The gales continued to push him out over the deserts as his balloon dropped in altitude, at times spinning out of control and shaking wildly. With all the sand bags
already dispatched he began to toss removable equipment over the side to lighten his load. His altitude continued to deteriorate at an exceedingly fearsome rate until the
desert earth suddenly sprang into fathomable view with frightening definition.
The crash minced the balloon basket into a twisted mess and moments after the wreck the burner fuel ignited. The fuel-air detonation threw him clear of the wreckage,
some 20 feet. He landed on his back in the hot sand. His hair was burnt slightly but other than that he was quite uninjured, astonishingly.
Theodore awoke to the smoldering wreckage of his prized balloon. The wreckage popped and snapped as the fire grew worse. The heat of the flame kept him at bay
and he only stared at the burning remains in disbelief.
While circumventing the wreckage he realized he wasn’t certain of his location or his orientation. The storm must have blown him a hundred miles off his original
course since the mountains were far, far in the distance. The winds were dreadfully powerful. Enough to fatally damage his balloon and may have carried him as far
east as Algeria.
Dreadful sorrow clutched his heart while he kicked through the wreckage. His instruments, that were critical for the mission, were all but destroyed in the crash.
Burning, melting, or pulverized. It was all a hopeless pile of junk.
This included all of the specialized cameras that were designed by him for high altitude operations. They were certainly sensitive and delicate devices so it is no surprise
that most of it was lost in the fire and subsequent explosion. His oxygen tank for the high altitude was in shredded splinters that were scattered throughout the area.
He had been riding in a flying bomb of his own making.
Theodore's entire lot of provisions which was a small crate of canned goods, a few loaves of bread and a copper water container, were completely unusable. In fact,
they were scattered over a wide area, smoldering on top of the searing desert sand.
He was, however, lucky to be alive, and yet at the same time he was assured a terrible death from thirst and exposure.
Theodore continued to search through the wreckage for anything that was salvageable.
The only item that survived the crash was a platinum compass. The compass was loaned to him by the physicist Sir Alphin Quisenberry, a colleague and friend of his
from Oxford who was collaborating with the British Admiralty and the American Navy in the Mediterranean. Alphin was staying with him in Gibraltar in a hotel that
over looked the harbor and in fact was one of his only supporters.
Intended as a good luck talisman, Alphin’s compass, heavy and expensive, survived not because of mere chance. Nor was it attributed to its unique and resilient design.
But rather the compass survived because its very importance demanded that he wear it around his neck.
With the compass he began his trek across the lethal desert.
Even though his boots were manufactured from oil-boiled leather and considered to be well made, his feet began to burn after about four hours as he staggered.
After a few more hours he sluggishly stopped. His body waved as if there was a wind. In truth he was simply so exhausted that he could barely stand, practically
collapsing. His head rose weakly as he looked up at the sun.
East he said to himself. East. That is where he must go.
Ripples of sand from the winds surrounded him like waves on an ocean frozen in time.
He shaded his face with his hand and looked about with thin weary eyes as precious, salty sweat bled into them. East. He must keep walking East.
The blazing sun was directly above him, high above the desert plain. He was standing in the middle of a basin as the desert seemed to be rising in all directions.
It was perfectly aligned with hundreds of his foot prints that trailed behind him. He closed his eyes, wavering, and forced himself to wake from this nightmare. Opening
his eyes only revealed the compass with its needle still infuriatingly erratic. He was convinced the compass was malfunctioning and doubted its accuracy entirely.
Upon every breath his throat wheezed. Hot air entered his mouth, practically burning his tongue and gums. As he staggered forward he grabbed the leather band that
hung from his neck and lifted the posh platinum compass in to view. He studied it expectantly. The needle doubled, shifted and then moved in and out of focus as he
blinked. He shook the compass in frustration, cursing, and then he stared at it a final time.
The needle continued to move strangely between south and west.
Theodore was exhausted and couldn’t decide on a course of action. He turned back and saw his foot prints trailing off into the distance, disappearing behind the desert
dunes. He knew the sand storms would wipe away his footprints soon and there would be no evidence of which direction he took or if he was even alive. He also
supposed verifying a direction mattered little. For it was obvious he would die long before he could determine where he was or before he could make it to safety.
With sweat dripping from his head he scanned the gold desert as his compass dangled. It was endless in every direction. How many miles could just be plain sand? A
hundred miles? Two hundred miles? There were no trees or even rocks anywhere and there wasn’t even a blasted cloud in the sky.
He was alone and he would die alone.
After an undetermined amount of time he decided it was just plain hopeless and held his head in his hands. He wasn’t mad, he whispered to himself. He was not, he
screamed. His eyes closed as exhaustion seeped into every muscle, disengaged every nerve, hardening them into iron until he simply collapsed into the sand.
Perhaps an hour later he woke catching the sharp, eternal sun in his eyes. He pulled himself up off the sand. His dangling compass, apparently useless, obliged him to
guess at the proper direction. He had proof of its inadequacy as it seemed to be intentionally driving him deeper and deeper into the desert.
A decision had to be made.
His trembling finger pointed and his crusty voice began with a mad laughter as he spoke.
"This miserable compass will be the end of me. It's cursed. This surely must be East." Theodore said.
His dragging feet caught something and he fell in the burning sand, face first. He rolled over and sat up brushing the sand from his face. His eyes blinked open to a
body lying before him, half consumed by the sands. Its arms, back and head were partially exposed. It looked to be a man dressed in a blue and red uniform. Perhaps a
soldier. When he removed most of the sand and turned the body over he was faced with a corpse that was terribly dried by the arid desert. Its skin had contracted
tightly against its bones. The poor bastard’s face had shrunk, with lips that were taut, which revealed a deadly smile that was slightly ajar. Its yellow, fleshless smile
seemed to allude to a secret in death caused by utter exhaustion. Brushing away the sand he noted the shoulder insignias on the skeleton’s uniform. Whoever this dead
soldier was he was an officer. A captain. He was almost certain.
He searched the body and clothing. Sand, sand and more sand. He fiercely flipped the body over on its back.
He figured the poor wanderer must have dropped all his possessions in his last hours of life to save weight or tossed them aside out of shear madness.
Why was there nothing here?
But wait! There was a leather belt with a leather holster. He tipped the holster and cursed sand slid out from deep inside. If he assumed that he did abandon all of his
possessions, perhaps the pistol was around here somewhere. It could be used to hunt the desert animals at night.
Theodore searched the sand ahead of the body then circumvented it in a large ring as if he was a frantic archeologist. He stopped as he touched something buried
about seven inches deep. It was cool to his touch. He pulled the object from the stubborn sand. It was indeed a pistol. He shook the weapon and blew air into the
mechanism, rubbing it with his fingers. It was a revolver with dark walnut grips and well preserved by the desert.
There were characters engraved above the grip: "LF". He recognized it as a LeFaucheux Revolver. A French pistol, therefore he deduced that the body must be a
French officer. There was also a lanyard ring at the base of the pistol grip which indicated that this man may have been a cavalry officer. He pulled back the hammer
and tried to release the cylinder. The gun was jammed from age and at last he managed to swing it open. It was a six shot revolver with five cartridges unfired.
A gruesome thought overcame him as he began to re-examine the skeleton closely. He brushed sand off the crusty skull, parted the hair, and found exactly what he
suspected. There was a finger sized hole in the side of the dead man’s skull, just above the right ear. Just like he suspected. He shot himself. Or did someone shoot him
and toss the pistol down after the deed was done?
Theodore gazed about the empty desert and decided he would never know the answer to that question. Suicide seemed to be a plausible explanation for the
Theodore began to laugh in a resonating cackle. He felt it was amusing that his first discovery after the crash was in fact simply an offer of suicide. As if the desert had
presented him an alternate escape somewhat of his own choosing.
Was the Captain the last person he would ever see? No, he was determined to live and to push himself along until he made it. Theodore put the pistol in his pants and
wondered if he could resist the temptation and began his journey again.
Looking back at the poor Captain he decided to make good use of the find. He dug down into the sand until it was cool and he buried himself well and deep. He left
his head peeking out of the sand and covered it with the Captain’s uniform. His leather boots provided the support for the uniform which created a miniature tepee
and was pitched where the Captain took his last step.
In his death the captain could still be a hero.
One way or another he knew he wouldn’t last long out here and he had practically given up the fight. Perhaps if he was lucky he might make it a few more days. Sleep
came fast and he wondered if it would be his last. Either way seemed agreeable to him.
Under the cover of the tepee Theodore awoke and opened his eyes to the captain’s blue uniform faintly lit from behind by the crescent moon. He lifted his arm from
under the sand and brushed it back to reveal an extraordinary view of the stars. The sky was immensely clear and he could see the band of the Milky Way. It was
brilliant and a cool breeze entered his makeshift tent and touched his face.
Oh god, he gasped! A cool breeze! He suddenly felt rested and vital. He would make good use of the cool air this evening. He unburied himself and decided to march
as long as the sun was down.
The sand was lit strangely by the moonlight with a blue tinge and, as he gazed, he speculated how a French cavalry Captain could possibly get caught out here alone.
Judging by the decomposition of the body and recognizing that the desert sands tended to mummify tissue. He presumed he must have died years ago. Perhaps more.
How far did he walk out here alone? Why was there no evidence of other soldiers or horses?
Just then something occurred to him. He remembered the original position of the Captain’s body. The Captain, as he continued to call him, was on his stomach with his
head pointing nearly west, he reckoned. Which was the opposite direction he intended to travel. With a quick survey the stars happily concurred. Theodore could see his
faint foot prints and he shivered. The Captain came from the direction he intended to go and suffered from dehydration that was so terrible that he felt that the only
alternative was to put a bullet in his head.
So it was suicide then, he concluded.
Therefore if he traveled back along the Captain’s path he would surely die a horrible death. He looked in the direction the Captain came from and saw seemingly
endless rolling sand dunes lit by the moonlight.
Back the other way would only lead him to the wreckage. He decided to gamble on continuing his journey perpendicular, or to the south. It was a direction encouraged
by the constellations relative to the Captain’s body. But in his state he wasn’t sure of his judgments. He simply called it a calculated guess.
Under the guidance of the dreamy light of the moon and starry sky he followed that calculated guess and walked south with the Captain’s uniform slung over his
shoulder. His feet were like iron and he was still quite weak but at least the night air was cool.
From atop of a dune he could see the disturbed sand where he had camped and his irregular foot prints twisted back to where he stood.
As if the moonlight quivered, faintly, he saw shadowy movement below the horizon. His eyes strained in the weak moonlight. Widening they refocused. Yes, he could
see it. There was something moving in the sand where he had camped. His eyes narrowed as his heart faltered.
The Captain’s skeleton was moving! The god-damn thing was crawling!
He panicked and staggered backwards in uncertainty, instinctively clutching the dead Captain’s pistol. In that fleeting moment he doubted that a second hole in the thing’
s head would kill it. He wasn’t even sure if the revolver would fire.
The captain's arms reached out, clawing at the sand. When suddenly it leaped forward.
He made a gasping noise and turned away, doubling his pace. In the moonlight he looked back and saw a small patch where the shifting figure moved in the sand, still
desperately crawling as if it meant to catch him.
Amazed, as his eyes seemed to be melting from terror, the skeleton stood and staggered forward. Theodore trotted in the opposite direction at a pace that he knew was
impossible to maintain.
After what seemed like forever, he stopped and glanced back.
The distance had become so far that he couldn’t see the camping area anymore and the moving figure had melted into the moonlit desert not to be seen. He breathed
heavily and waited. He did feel paralyzed as he knew it was near, hiding in the trickery of the moonlight and shadows, real or unreal.
He noticed a small motionless dark spot in the faint light. In a jerk he checked his shoulder with his hand.
Oh god! His heart stopped as he realized he had dropped the uniform that he desperately needed to survive. He began biting his lip because of his insane thirst and
now stared at the dark uniform as his fears turned his nerves deaf.
He considered going back for it. But he was far too terrified to retrieve it. He couldn’t even move. A vision twisted in his mind of the dead Captain snapping at his
ankle with its boney sharp claws. Clutching his leg at the moment he reached down to get the uniform.
Theodore was determined to put as much distance as he could between him and the dead Captain and ran to the top of the sand dune and, quite unexpectedly, his body
decided the exertion was just too much and he fell in the sand, collapsing so hard that he lost consciousness on impact.
Lying in the sand he could feel the sun on his back. It increased in heat, burning him gradually. The sun was rising in the east. He had been traveling in the correct
direction after all.
But then he heard footsteps. They began to get very close. He could hear the crunching of the sand and the sand became disturbed close to his face. His right eye
flickered open to see two brown boots with a stick beside them which pierced the sand.
His left cheek was covered in sand as he raised his head weakly.
It was a man.
The image was completely unfocused but then it gradually sharpened. The stranger's face was shadowed as the sun was shining from behind, sharpening the silhouette.
The stranger wore a large circular rattan hat with a leather bag thrown over his shoulder. The man stood and leaned on a carved esteemed walking stick.
Indeed, the stranger was familiar. He knew this man. But a portion of his memory was clouded in uncertainty. He hesitated to speak.
The man smiled kindly as he looked down on Theodore.
Yes, it was him. It was Alphin from Gibraltar! Theodore desperately wanted to ask Alphin how he found him but was immobile with disbelief and simultaneously
overjoyed that he was here to save him. He opened his mouth to speak but he was too weak and only a pathetic murmur escaped.
Alphin tipped his hat which revealed much of his face lit by a checkered pattern of sun that passed through his rattan hat.
By God it was him!
Alphin leaned on this walking stick seemly relaxed and unaffected by the hot morning desert air. Alphin surveyed the barren area with narrowing eyes which in turn
revealed his recognizable profile and he spoke.
“Gotten yourself lost have you?” Alphin said. “We all warned you, Theodore. I also tried to tell you. But you wouldn’t listen to reason. Nor facts. The sand storms out
here can be very unpredictable. Remember? That’s what we said. It was treacherous out here we said. But oh no, no, no. You went along anyways.” Alphin’s gaze
dropped to Theodore lying in the sand. Alphin smiled that besieged Theodore with a longing for home. “The heat is quite unbearable, isn’t it?” Alphin said with a titter
of indifference as his voice resonated as if he was experiencing a collapsing dream.
Theodore didn’t answer.
“Managed to survive out here all by yourself, have you? With nothing but the mufti on your back, eh? That’s a good show, lad. Good work. Yes,” Alphin said as he
looked out over the burning, lifeless desert with the eye of a surveyor. “You wouldn’t ever catch me out here. Meddling about with the threats of nature and God. Not
blooming likely.” and winked his eye at Theodore. “It’s the isolation that gets you isn’t it? Yes, we have a long journey back, you and I. So straighten up, Theo."
As Theodore stood his scratchy throat fought him at every moment. Through a halfhearted smile of joy, and perhaps a tear, answered as best as he could.
“Yes. Yes. I do. I do remember. I—I---I crashed miles back.” Theodore said. He began to laugh at himself at the sheer unruliness of his voyage.
"That's all behind us now, Lad." Alphin said.
Theodore shook his head. “All of it is gone. My, my cameras…and all the data and photos… All burned. Have I been out here so long? It must be days now, Alphin.
Days! Do…do you have any water? I am dying of thirst. Please help me. Please.” Theodore reached for Alphin but he was too far away.
Alphin only nodded.
“Please tell me you have water in your bag? In that bag on your shoulder you must have water? Please tell me that, Alphin?”
Alphin offered a great smile. “Why yes, I do have some, Theodore. I do. But tell me,” Alphin kneeled. “Where did you crash land? I would very much like to see the
wreckage. After that you can drink all you like.” He laughed and tapped Theodore on his back. “You can drown yourself, old boy.”
Theodore turned and pointed back to his disappearing footsteps.
“Back there about eighty miles I think. No point in going back. There is nothing to see. It is only the remnants of a careless madman.”
Theodore turned back to Alphin in mid-sentence and simply stared into the space where Alphin should have been. The area was simply empty and he could see nothing
else. He turned around and looked everywhere. His voice trailed off in an odd mutter. No one could move that quickly. He looked down at the sand and saw only his
own tracks and no others.
Alphin had vanished.
He cupped his face and let out a wail of agony. His brain was being ripped to pieces by dehydration, shriveling it without water. He was crumbling and powerless as
insanity was approaching.
He was alone. He had always been alone.
Theodore cackled to himself as the vision of the crowd in Gibraltar materialized in his mind. He raised his head to view the desert.
“How could I have been so stupid?” he whispered.
He walked, and walked across three more dunes until on the top of the last rocky dune he found a small canyon on the other side with a deep dry riverbed. He stood
motionless with a handful of sand falling through his fingers. He knew he shouldn’t trust his vision and finally decided not to believe it.
Was he actually seeing this? Was this dream? What the word, a mirage?
Theodore marched down the dune into the canyon. It was indeed real and not a dream.
There were scarce signs of vegetation. A few dead bushes were scattered about the quiet river bed and some crawled up the rocky cliffs. A single, half dead olive tree
was the only real indication of life here.
Theodore recalled some maps of the region in his mind, scattered as it was. No canyons came to mind. He especially was aware that this region was essentially
uncharted and that it was entirely likely he was the only human to set foot here in many years.
Theodore sat at the base of a large rock with the olive tree in front of him as a mute friend. His throat was painfully dry and his tongue was shriveled like a walnut. He
just didn’t have the strength to wander off in uncertain directions anymore. So this quaint canyon would be his last stop? A fine coffin this canyon would make he
thought. It would do.
Theodore pulled the pistol from his belt and forced the stubborn hammer back until it locked. With his eyes open staring at the rocky canyon walls he pressed the
barrel against his temple and pulled the trigger.
There was a click and he quickly took notice that he was still alive.
"This confounded, blasted, cursed pistol!" he yelled into the canyon.
He furiously advanced the cylinder one click, forced the hammer back, and again raised the gun and pressed the barrel to his temple.
He looked at the pistol with blazing eyes of fire and was completely disgusted with its quality. He tried and tried until he finally threw the pistol into the sandy river bed.
"This desert annihilates everything." He said. "Even brave men and they're pistols."
The sun was setting and the air began to cool. The cool air gave him added strength and he decided, since he was alive, that he should survey the canyon. It was a small
canyon with cliffs about five times his height with a rocky edge base that bordered the sandy dried river bed. Back tracking he passed the olive tree and searched the
In the crumbling heavy sand stone he found a natural cave which was well hidden by a group of forlorn bushes.
Theodore entered the cave following a beam of sunlight that cut into the dusty darkness. The air was cool but dry but with an odd smell.
Theodore stopped in his tracks at the sight. Caught in the beam of light Theodore saw a frightening crypt of leathery skinned bodies. The bodies were lined along the
cave walls. Some sitting and others were on the ground, evidently lying where they had collapsed. All of them were dressed in blue and red uniforms.
Theodore realized the Captain must have left his weak troops in search of water. He must have blamed himself for stranding his men in this god-forsaken desert and
evidently just couldn’t bring himself to return without good news. On perhaps his last day alive the Captain, drowning in his grief, walked into the desert alone. He
accepted the responsibility and ended his misery by introducing a bullet to his brain, ending himself quick.
Theodore’s fear lifted as a perceivable tranquility flowed through him as if a spirit had entered his being and calmed his aching body. And he knew the reason why
terror didn’t grip his heart as before. The dead soldiers accepted him not because he was a savior, but because now he was one of them. Dead, as they were.
Two bodies. On the left was a private and on the right was a lieutenant. There was a gap between them. Theodore sat between the two, crossed his legs, and took his
place among the dead.
He was quite comfortable, actually. The sand was soft and the air somehow seemed richer inside the cave.
He didn’t know the date or the time and he didn’t know where he was or what to call it. In his mind, as a scientist, all questions simply ended. Indeed, his days of
science were over as it was with him.
Theodore closed his eyes and soon passed into his eternal sleep.