The Gift

France, 1918 and Southwest Colorado, 1887 – 1897

The shock masked the pain, all noise ceased and the smoke and heat on his face blinded him to everything around him. He couldn’t feel his body and at some point it occurred to him that he was dead.

Certainly that made sense. He had witnessed dozens of soldiers, ours and theirs, being shot and blown apart. He had even considered that maybe that was a better way to go than dying of dysentery or the flu or being gassed in the trenches that were full of mud and blood and the dead and dying men.

He gradually became aware of a diffuse pain, and the way his body was twisted, but he wasn’t really sure that it was his body. The silence became something physical, then shifted slowly to an ocean roar laced with a pitched whine. He thought his eyes might be closed, and experimentally opened them a bit. There was light and movement. Blinking, he could make out a few shapes shifting in the haze, but the movement spun his world around so he closed his eyes again.

It seemed something was happening to him; parts of his body that he couldn’t identify were being moved and he felt hands on his face. There was another face close to his, apparently saying something that he couldn’t hear. There was more pain, specifically in his leg and gut, intense and all-encompassing. Inside his head, he screamed and screamed and screamed.

He became aware. First, it was a sense that he was somewhere. Physically. He had a body and a dull pain everywhere. He realized that he probably wasn’t dead. Dead meant no pain, no feeling. But he could feel pain; it was tangible and he could locate it somewhere lower in his body. There was light and he thought he could see things. He opened his eyes, only to shut them tightly against the glare. A cloth was placed across his eyes, and he heard muted voices. The roar was gone and only a hint of the whine remained. There were other sounds, but no shells, no machine guns, no screaming.

Someone was near, someone touched his hand and spoke, but he couldn’t understand the words. He was conscious of breathing, and tried to speak. A wet cloth was placed on his lips and he sucked greedily. It was removed and replaced, and he could only get out, “… what?” There was more chatter, then a voice, “You are alive. You have been hurt. Try to stay still.” There was more but he couldn’t understand.

The words sounded strange, and suddenly he remembered it was a French accent, he was in France! He couldn’t understand the words in French. He pulled the cloth off his eyes and winced at the light, and at the pain of moving. She wore white and grey and had dark hair. Above them were wooden beams and rafters and scattered bare light bulbs. The walls were soot-stained brick.

She spoke again to someone else, but he couldn’t understand the French. It made a delightful tickle in his mind, like the wind chime on their porch back home. He went away again.

The canyon walls loomed over the ranch house among the cottonwoods. The river splashed and gurgled and the soft wind rattled the leaves in the trees. There was wood creaking from his mother moving around inside the cabin, and a faint lowing from the cow down by the barn. He leaned against the porch rail, and smelled the earth and grass, and felt the sky mottled blue through the trees.

The Utes had come down that week to trade and get a free meal. His father and mother weren’t afraid of them, but he had a boy’s fascination and fear of their strange attire and behavior. His father and the leader sat and spoke in a combination of Indian language, English and sign. He could pretty much follow the conversation, since it was focused on food and tangibles.

Somehow though, this time, something strange came up that he couldn’t follow. His father appeared to wipe his face several times, then the Indian waved him away. His father insisted and the Indian called another over, who joined them on the grass. The second Indian pulled a small soft rock out of a pouch and the first showed it to his father, who examined it closely. A long conversation followed that involved quite a bit of arm waving and sign, then drawing in the dirt. Something was concluded, and all three nodded and shook hands. His father called to his mother to bring out the food, and they all ate at the rough table under the trees.

He thought he smelled fried beef, but when he opened his eyes he could see the wooden beams and rafters above his bed. It occurred to him that the smell was probably him. He was lucky not to have been blown to bits. Maybe.

He couldn’t lift his head, but he could turn a little to his left. There were more beds with bodies; most wrapped in sheets and bandages. He looked down and saw that he had a lot of bandages on the parts he could see. Some showed streaks of blood. That little movement set off a wash of pain across his back and chest. He closed his eyes and tried not to move.

His father woke him before dawn and they went out to saddle the horses. They mounted and he followed his father up the river then up a side canyon where they could climb the rim. He pulled out a piece of cornbread and a slice of last night’s beef to eat as they rode. He washed it down with warm water from his canteen as they came out on top of the mesa.

Up ahead, he saw a group of mounted Indians obviously waiting for them. As they approached, the group turned silently and moved ahead. He and his father followed.

Sunrise came slowly at first then in a rush over the mountains. Seeing the sunrise was a bit of a treat for him, since living in a canyon limited their horizon. They continued to ride south, twice detouring through steep canyons that crossed their path. They were far past the range his father used for the cattle, so the land felt a little foreign to him.

The sun had been up a couple of hours when they came to the edge of the deepest canyon he had seen. The Indians dismounted and he and his father followed suit.

Sunlight in his eyes woke him, and he had to struggle to remember where he was. A quick turning movement shot pain through his back and legs, reminding him. He must have made a noise, because the nurse in white and grey came over and spoke to him gently. He tried a smile, but his face felt stiff and awkward. She touched his face carefully and her cool hands brought a sense of relief. As she took his temperature, she spoke softly in French and he felt soothed and safe. He opened his eyes and realized that she had gone, but the sense of her touch stayed with him. His pain was less, and felt remote, like it was in someone else’s body, not his. He felt relaxed.

They stood on the rim and looked down into the canyon. The wall was nearly vertical with only an occasional rabbit brush or Juniper finding a foothold in the steep rock. One of the Indians slipped down and he realized that there was a tiny ledge angling down the canyon wall. His father followed and motioned him to do the same. “Watch your step,” was all he said.

Which was unnecessary, to say the least, since the ledge was barely a foot wide and not entirely flat. You had to walk with your body turned to the side, but keep your feet straight ahead. He envied the Indian his moccasins, since his boots didn’t provide much grip. It was hard to decide whether it was better to face out from the cliff or into it. Where the wall protruded a bit, he started to slip slightly and was caught and pushed back to the wall from behind. He hadn’t realized that the rest of the Indians were back there. They made no sound, while he could clearly hear each step that he and his father made. He nodded a thanks and steeled himself to stay balanced.

Footsteps approached rapidly and conversation ensued near his bed. He struggled to wake up, but by the time he was conscious, only the same nurse was there. She looked worried, but continued to speak to him in French as she checked his various bandages. She avoided touching his leg, however when he shifted his weight, it caused him to gasp in pain. He felt bruised and sore everywhere, and several of what he took to be bandaged wounds on his arms and torso were painful to the touch. But his leg felt like lead, immoveable, dead, petrified, but extremely painful. She brought a cool, wet cloth and gently dabbed his face and neck. He saw that it came away from his forehead and cheek with a pink tinge. He thought of war paint.

The ledge ran about a quarter of the way down the cliff, where it widened out and flattened. They gathered around a certain point facing the wall. The sandstone here was striated with different colors in bands ranging from a foot or so to greater than twenty feet. One of the bands was a yellow-green and seemed softer and finer grained than the surrounding rock.

The leader took out a knife and dug into the wall, scraping at the fine stone, catching the excavated soil in his other hand. He put the knife away, and mixed something that smelled like rancid elk fat into the dirt. He squished it around, then using two fingers, spread it across his cheeks and forehead. The result was yellow bands in sharp contrast to his dark skin. Then the Indian daubed the mud onto his father’s face in the same pattern. They turned to him and the mud felt cool and smooth against his cheeks. The Indians whooped their approval, startling him and his father, who stared at each other foolishly.

There was more conversation and his father was given a large bag which he filled with some soil and rocks. The Indians started back up the trail and he and his father followed. At the narrow point in the trail, his father stopped and looked intently at the protrusion. It looked like a log embedded in the cliff, but was made of some hard and shiny rocks. “Petrified log,” his father noted and moved on.

He heard the vehicle before the doors at the far end of the building opened. Light and noise spilled into the big room followed by a boxy transport truck with a cross in a circle painted on the side. The driver wore a French soldier’s uniform and two women in white sat beside him. The nurse saw him looking and said, “Camion,” and smiled. He thought he heard, “Petit Marie.”

She pointed at herself and said, “Agnes.” Then she pointed at him and said, “Jeem?” He tried to nod and smile back, but the pain came instead.

His father was gone for the next few days, but returned full of excitement. “This may make us rich,” his father told them at dinner. He went on to explain, “That rock out there has something new in it. Something they haven’t figured out, but it’s gonna be worth a lot. I’ve filed a claim and all we have to do is dig it up.”

Jim remembered the steep cliff and the narrow ledge. How were they going to mine that?

Over the next few weeks his father pondered the same question, and they returned at least twice to the spot. His father staked out the area to satisfy the claim filing. Jim’s father tied a rope around his waist and up to the saddle on Jim’s horse at the top of the cliff. Jim held the horse still while his father chopped out pieces from along the cliff face. He took them back into town and came back certain where the best spots would be to dig.

They made a large bucket out of a cow hide that they could lower down on a rope. His father rigged up a stake and rope arrangement that allowed him to dangle down the cliff next to the bucket. “Don’t tell your ma,” he told Jim. Jim would back his horse up to pull the bucket up when it was full enough , then empty it into a sledge his Father had built. In a few weeks it was full enough to drag behind both horses back to the ranch. His father rigged up packs for their five horses and bundled up the rock to fit on the packs. There was some trouble with a couple of the horses not liking that kind of load, but his father got them into shape and took off for town.

His father returned a few days later with some cash, and they went at it again. This time, his father showed Jim how to dig at the rock and sent him down, reminding him not to drop the pickaxe. There was enough space for a small person to work, so Jim was able to dig somewhat productively. They alternated the digging and the loading, and the hole in the cliff got bigger. Jim used one of his breaks to dig out a hard chunk of the petrified tree that made a pretty swirl like a knothole. He kept it as a souvenir.

He was sore all over and his hands and shoulders ached at the end of each day. Any movement he made while lying in bed brought a fresh wash of discomfort, and he had trouble getting to sleep.

Jim shifted in his sleep and the stabbing pain in his leg woke him up with a gasp. He felt hot and uncomfortable, and the pain didn’t seem to subside like it had before. A white and grey shape appeared at his side and the nurse lit a small lamp. She looked him over and dabbed at his face with a wet washcloth. It cooled him briefly, then the heat came back. He moaned inadvertently. He couldn’t find a comfortable position and the leg seemed to be just a lump of pain below his hip. The nurse shushed him and cooed quietly as she gave him an injection. She dabbed his face again.

Quite a few years later, they were still working the mine and one day returned home to see a handful of strange horses tied up by the barn. There were two white tents set up near the river, and a campfire burning unattended. While his father went inside, Jim unhooked the sledge, unsaddled the horses and fed and watered them, and turned them out into the corral. He washed up at the pump and went inside.

Two men sat at the table with his father, and another man was on a stool to one side. There was also a woman seated at the table with bright inquisitive eyes. Every glass and cup they owned was in use alongside a large bottle of dark liquid. The two men at the table wore clothes that Jim only saw in town, and the woman had a new looking riding skirt and vest. His father and the other man wore ranching clothes. His mother was pushing at her hair, listening to the conversation and trying to make some supper.

Jim had never seen that many people in his house at one time before, and he noted that chairs and stools had been commandeered from as far away as the barn to seat everyone but him. There was some serious conversation going on between one of the men and his father about the mine. At a break in the conversation, the woman interrupted, turned to him and said, “Hello, you must be Jeem. I am Marie.” She sounded funny and he had to listen hard to understand her, but he nodded back. “Pleased to meetcha,” he said, and his mother beamed at him. The two men, it seemed, were the people that his father had sold their ore to, the rancher had guided them to the ranch, and the woman was some kind of tourist. She seemed to know a little about the mine and the ore and asked quite a few questions as Jim’s father explained where they found the ore and how it was mined. She was some kind of scientist or doctor, he thought.

His mother was able to serve up some steaks that the group brought with them and beans and cornbread from the ranch. She improvised on the plates and forks, but most of the men carried a sharp knife that they used on the steak. The food and warmth soon took hold of Jim and he crawled up to the loft. He drifted off to the sound of their voices, the strange lady’s accent floating up into his sleep.

“Non, non!” a woman’s voice rose above the rumble of deeper men’s voices. There was a brief silence, then the woman proceeded to speak aggressively in what Jim now knew was French. He couldn’t see them or understand the responses in several men’s voices, but the argument quickly ended. Agnes came to him and said, “It is fine. It is well. We will see.” She checked his temperature and gave him another injection.

As he drifted, there was a bustle as several people came up to his bed. He was conscious of being lifted up in his sheet, and carried across the room. There was pain, but he couldn’t really feel it through his numbness. The room seemed to swing back and forth. There was a table and strange equipment and several white coated men grumbling off to one side. A woman in a white coat brought something to where he lay. She turned, and he exclaimed weakly, “Marie! What are you doing here?”

There was a bit of consternation and fussing, then she came back and leaned over him. “Who are you? How do you know me?” she asked. Her accent was a little different from Agnes’, but her English was good.

“It’s Jim, from the ranch and the mine. Colorado.”

She looked perplexed. “But I have never been to Colorado,” she replied, looking up at the others.

“No,” he said urgently, feeling the numbness creeping into his mind. “You were there, we took you to the mine, and you took some rocks with you. You said it was beautiful.”

“Shh, now. We have work to do, and you must be still and quiet.”

They rode side by side, and she was interested in nearly everything. He named the strange-to-her vegetation and several critters, and told her how the Indians used the various parts of nature. She remarked that in Poland where she was raised there were no Indians, only gypsies. To him, they seemed similar.

At the mine, she wouldn’t be lowered on a rope, but climbed down the ledge with the rest of them. She studied the different rock in the cliff face, and was particularly intrigued by the petrified tree.

They returned to the ranch and left the next morning. As she was mounting up, Jim came over with a small heavy object wrapped in a piece of cloth. “A gift from Colorado,” he said, “a souvenir,” and tucked it in her saddle bag.

The room was a tent and bright lights shone down on him, making it hard to see. As a nurse came over holding a strange mask, someone else stepped in, bent down and whispered, “Thank you. This is a gift from France.” She kissed his forehead, and the mask was placed over his nose. A strange smell gagged him and he felt the darkness closing in.

It became light again. He felt sick and the room seemed to wobble around him, the rafters and beams warping in his vision. He moved and was conscious that there was no sharp pain in his leg. It was tightly bandaged, and he could feel his foot.

Agnes appeared at his side, “Welcome back, Jeem.” She made him drink a bit of water, and watched to see if he would keep it down.

As they carried him back to his bed, he saw that the truck was gone. There was no sign of Marie. He asked Agnes where they went.

“Gone. Petit Marie and madam go to more hospitals, more to be X-Rayed.”

He shook his head, “What do you mean?”

“The Petit Marie, the truck, has the X-Rays for the hospitals. Many are hurt.” She looked him over. “The docteur wants to take off the leg,” she pointed at his bandage, “But Madam, she will not let them. She shows where en metal, the metal is inside,” she touched his leg gently, “so they cut it out, not off.”

She smiled down at him, “Madam Marie, she said it was a gift for you.”

Postscript: Marie Curie pioneered the use of X-Rays during World War I using trucks, Petit Maries, that drove to field hospitals. The English and Americans followed suit. There is no record of Marie Curie visiting Colorado, but rumors have persisted.

"French Camion" Paris, France 1918

“French Camion” Paris, France 1918

Photos by Ervin Earl Putnam