Once, Eleven

High winds in the night dried the sheer rock cliff dwarfing Irwin. The camp, scuttled and vanished, left no fond memories, and neither would the ascent. Nooks and crannies at skew angles telegraphed a pock marked impression into his vitreous humor. The closer he pulled in the shallower they became, and the more formidable the precipice.

Irwin's sanguine intention to free climb the face shrank like an unwatered petunia in the desert. He would have to wait to abandon the extra weight of the climbing gear. Even if encumbered only by short rations, ammo, a machine pistol and basic emergency necessities, on top of the climbing gear, he was at the limit for an easy climb. With an overweight and unreduced medicinal formula, the task assumed Herculean proportions. He stepped into the full body Alpine harness and ratcheted it up before backing into his pack straps. The image was reminiscent of a bizarre beetle struggling with a hunk of hardened, crusty bread.

Hand over hand he strained up the adversarial surface. Irwin maintained a foot of rope between the belaying decelerator suspended below the anodized carabiners and the pitons he drove into the bedrock. He carried a minimum of hexes and cams, and only two hundred feet of rope. Because the problematic section would take more rope than at his disposal, he cast safety to the wind until over sixty feet into the climb. The lethality of any serious mistake was beyond conjecture. He disregarded the danger.

Irwin Aidan Colton graduated from high school in Olympia, Washington. His mother died in childbirth. He and his father moved around regularly. That capital city provided the lengthiest sedentary period of his youth, and a great classical education. Nevertheless he always cherished the times spent in the remote mountains and bottoms of the Pacific Rim, when they lived outside the confines of society.

Before disabled in Olympia, Eoin Nehemiah Colton worked the timber up and down the Pacific Northwest. They toted dynamite along with them every relocation. Removing ancient stumps on some jobs required it. He witnessed its manufacture more than once, and one significant mistake. That other man's failure set off a lifetime of caution. Like many things, Eoin gathered the know-how but loathed the doing.

Eoin taught Irwin distillation during formative years. Purified water came in handy. A sturdy distillation outfit produced fast quantity. He passed on the lore of edible and poisonous foods of the wild, and volumes of outdoorsman savvy. Eoin saw periods of prosperity in the country come and go. Tracking, trapping, hunting and fishing, reading the signs of dangerous animals, survival in the harshest conditions, those skills could not be spent, and never ran out.

The older man's life traversed oceans of hardship. His experiences created an inheritance for Irwin that could never be lost: The most solid foundation of all, the wiles of bootstrapping. Eoin taught his young son the basics of universal smithing, and refused to let him shirk mastery of the knife. A gun meant luxury existence. At the most primal level the presence or absence of a knife demarcated the line between mortal subsistence and escaping to more balanced settings.

Eoin Nehemiah Colton saved and paid his son's way through college. In his dying days the tininess of his life savings troubled him. Members of the upper class earned as much in a year. That the younger Colton graduated from college eased Eoin's heart and mind at his passage. "Son, I'm very proud of you," were the last words he spoke in the hospital.

Graduated magna cum laude first from Olympia High School and then from Washington State University, Irwin achieved a basis for scholarly greatness. He majored in anthropology with a focus on physical, one backyard of forensic science, and minored in chemistry. He accomplished it in only four years and three months. The student skipped Junior Division and studied the maximum number of hours, finishing a week before his twenty-second birthday.

The death of Eoin Nehemiah Colton intensified feelings Irwin previously never allowed to surface. He wanted to get away from the world he knew, the country where his father labored for thirty-seven years until broken. Irwin's desire to learn and excel was not extinguished, as happened to the character in the Billy Joel song "Captain Jack." Instead the event stoked internal flames of subconscious resentment and a determination to use his education to give voice to them.

Riding a wave of celebrated academia, I. Aidan Colton, already accepted to Stanford, elected to study abroad for a semester at the graduate level. After direct communication with a small circle of wisened English speaking anthropologists in Southeast Asia, he wove interest in that area into his thesis. He obtained a Visa from the State Department to travel to Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon Lao, Laos. A scholarship paid for the bare bones necessities.

Three weeks later a flight took him to Vientiane. He spent the evening wandering a small circuit with his hotel in the middle. Glitz and lights screened only the top layer of squalor and dinginess. Irwin eyeballed the hardship and drew convenient conclusions, the kind that made him feel better.

After dawn a bus embarked for Savannkhet. He joined with two of Laos' foremost authorities on the ancient cultures of the massive peninsula. They traveled in a jeep over deeply rutted roads to Heuan Hin, the "stone house" on the Mekong River. There they ate a late lunch. The three of them helped themselves to sticky rice, laap and tam som.

Professor Phoumi "Harry" Sengprachanh Soumphomphak and Professor Savang "Win" Xaisomboun Pathammavong made small talk in the hot afternoon sun. Neither one of them showed a hint of perspiration. Irwin sweated profusely and fidgeted while Pathammavong studied him over wire rimmed glasses. Soumphomphak categorized the lanky white man as one of life's infrequent curiosities, like a rare insect.

A precocious Buddhist Bauhinia peered out between tenacious bamboo. A stunted dwarf continental kudzu variety and a few invaders like philodendrons and cultivar ginger also grew around the men. Phoumi spoke to Irwin with an indetectable sarcasm and feigned stereotypical inscrutability. He disguised the monologue with questions but provided no openings for discussion.

Irwin took note of the brush off. He perfunctorily unbuttoned his long sleeved shirt collar and pushed back his hat, unconcerned about solar radiation by then. All the years spent poring over textbooks and analyzing data polished his brilliance. He launched into a speech he practiced in his mind relentlessly before arrival. It revealed nothing of his mental prowess.

"I came here to study the artifacts of the Phu Phan Range and learn from the people of the Dangrek Mountains and northward. I understand that your government will have issued strict orders about what can and can't be approached. Or so I was led to believe.

"To be honest with you, I need a guide to cross the border into Thailand. When we get back to town if you would inform the contact in charge of my case that I plan to leave Laos, I would appreciate it greatly. I'll be happy to answer any questions."

"I don't understand, Mr. Colton. Why didn't you just go to Thailand?" Professor Pathammavong asked him politely. He already knew the answer.

"There are no significant archaelogical ruins in the area where I'd like to study."

"Are you a drug addict, Mr. Colton?" Soumphomphak inquired with a nasty edge.

"No. I am nothing of the sort. I have a thirst for knowledge and a yearning in my stomach to do something extraordinary."

"You have perhaps overestimated our government's level of concern with your presence here, Mr. Colton," Pathammavong spoke up tangentially. "I can assure you Laos doesn't care at all if you live or die, as long as you are no threat. Perhaps you should retract your request that we contact someone."

"What do you think you'll find in Thailand that you won't find here, Mr. Colton?"

Irwin hesitated. He looked both Win and Phoumi in the eyes. He cleared his throat to speak, but was cut off.

"You are more clever than you look. You cast your bones at all or nothing, but hedged by excluding Laos. You've never considered crossing over into Thailand." Pathammavong said with a grin.

"This is much more interesting than I thought it would be. I assumed you were a junkie," Harry added.

The three men hit it off when Irwin came clean about his intentions. Leftist ideology roared into life when Eoin died, and it flowed out of Colton like water from a well. Their conversation continued long after they left Heuan Hin. Their rambling discourse treated the plight of working people, the strict limitations of Western capitalism and the grotesque charade of representative democracy, as Irwin called it. Irwin heralded no new ideals, only a sad lament over the death of all his old ones.

During the duration of Irwin's stay the two aged professors introduced him to a number of obscure members of the Laotian intelligentsia. He traveled to secluded regions where he worked amid ruins missing from the record books in American universities. The people he studied with were secretive and cautious.

One early evening while drinking a sour fermented rice beverage, a man from Muang Pakbéng retrieved an antique looking pistol from the waistband underneath his thin plaid shirt. He set it down on the table in front of Irwin. He leaned back on his heels and crossed his arms.

"We're going to teach you something few Americans ever learn. You won't ever be able to harm us with the information. You can decline the education or continue. If you continue you should never open your mouth about it.

"If you have a desire to spread the knowledge, then pick up the gun and kill yourself now. It would be easier for you. You may suffer a lifetime of hardship at the hands of your own government for what you will know."

"My extensive field work in the ruins here will be applauded back home. I have gathered data and recorded discoveries never before available to a broad spectrum of American anthropology. The Laotian government has even been kind enough to allow me to take rare artifacts with me when I leave.

"This trip has been a stunning success. I have enough material to write an extensive treatise on early culture in the Eastern Phu Phan Range. I have nither the time nor the venue to discuss the minutiae of our interactions."

"Are you sure you don't need the gun?"

"I don't need it to commit suicide."

"Then you don't need it. Having it for anything else would likely lead to something far worse than death." Khaek, the thin man in the plaid shirt, parted his lips in a smirking grin. "When it gets dark we walk. Fourteen kilometers from here a small coalition of farmers have an encampment."

Four trooped down a densely forested gorge trail fornent a Lancang Jiang feeder, Irwin one from the front. After two hours, sparks from a campfire and bird calls broke the monotony. A field hospital sized canvas canopy over substantial hardwood poles loomed before them as the trek ended.

Beneath the canvas more than a dozen strong, wiry men sat and stood in a circle. They had waited for the ingress. The oldest among them wore a well combed, chest length, gray goatee. He stepped forward and clasped Irwin's outstretched hand between his.

"We have something to show you. Something to remember Laos by."

The men of the circle reached to their sides and behind them and pulled plastic lined burlap sacks into the forefront. Knots sealed the sack tops. The old man stepped to one of them and untied it, motioning Irwin to step forward.

An overpowering sour fruity smell filled the air. The sack contained lumps and cakes of a sticky, browning, cream colored substance. There must have been five hundred pounds of gathered sap in the gathering.

Before Irwin quit Asia he accrued the refining method for the world's most expensive commercial substance. A dragon tattoo embossed his left shoulder blade, a memento acquired while huddled with the farmers. Acrid odor burned his nostrils while the artist whacked an ink covered bamboo spike into his flesh as the sun rose and set. The clan escorted him to fresh air during the second cooking stage, so he would live to remember it all. He forgot none of it.

Six months after landing stateside Irwin, apprehensive time would blur the finer details of the recipes, preserved them in a brown card stock covered notebook. That action itself catalyzed an adrenaline rush. He expanded the original notations and added reams of observations meant for his eyes only. The scrawled archive included insurrection strategies to fit any locale, addenda to standard military field manuals on explosives and weapons, recipes for medicines and poisons, everything his father taught him about survival turned on its head for warfare.

Irwin lost passion for the project after only a couple of years. He met Jaina. They got along very well together. He earned his master's degree. Life became full and pleasurable rather than hard, empty and unrewarding. Everything changed, and changed even more when Jacob was born.

Every muscle in his body groaned by the time Irwin reached the apex of the ridge. The wind stopped altogether during the climb. Nothing mitigated his proximity to heat fatigue near the top. When he reached sturdy ground he flopped onto his back and drank in air for long minutes. With so far left to go he knew he couldn't lollygag. He stood and surveyed the next leg of the journey.

Irwin's troubles in Peru arrived courtesy of intelligence operatives. Of that there could be no doubt. Whether or not the people had anything to do with the United States government remained open to conjecture. Looking down from the top of the high ridge, Colton compared his map to the terrain below. He immediately discovered discrepancies.

He didn't want to dwell on the Indians and Latinos gunned down 40 clicks to the southeast, but he would. He didn't want to worry about the danger his family might be in, because it wouldn't help. He could not help but weigh the danger of his activities as he progressed. Concerns about where he was going lurked in the corner of his awareness too, since the map was wrong. He abandoned the climbing gear and twenty pounds worth a fortune to prepare for the hike down into the next valley, and he knew that thinking could not be avoided. His active mind kept him sharp. He had no shortage of things to ponder.
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