Colorado River

September 1867

Geoffrey Scott, Kwanyumai, and Adababa at Hardy’s Landing on the Colorado River, heading North through Arizona Territory into the new state ofNevada (established in 1864).

by Phyllis Barber

The water of the river—a preposterously huge arm wrestling the canyons as it makes its way south. Broad. Brackish. Mostly red with sands picked up along the way, red sand rolling, turning over and over, an integral part of the water. Bigger than life to Geoffrey Scott as he surveys the ferry Hardy’s built for those who want to cross here—thehefty rope stretched across, the flat-bottomed boat waiting on the banks. He holds Adababa’s well-used rope attached to the halter over its head and looks at the narrowing of the canyon above the landing, the never-ending tumultuous water. The Colorado is larger than anything he’s seen before. Humbling. Domineering in a land of mountains looking like piles of stacked, dried mud and valleys of rock and dirt—a barren place for any body of water. On the surface silent, but deadly below. There is a subterranean roar of water over rocks, the conflict submerged by the river. Unseeable forces beneath the surface. Powerful river. Arbitrary. How has it come to be? Why is it here, and yet it is.

Aha Kwahwat,” Kwanyumai says, coming up beside him, surprising him as he always does, jolting his presence of mind. Kwanyumai, the warrior, or at least that’s what he told Geoffrey Scott when asked the meaning of his name—the Mojave who’s a foot taller than most men. Who could mistake Kwanyumai for anyone but a warrior of great magnitude?

When they first met ten years earlier, on the opposite banks of the Colorado, Kwami was a sorry sight. Shaking like a leaf. Pitiful with malaria. A year later, he appeared again—this time a painted warrior dressed in loincloth and a war bonnet, pointing a warning arrow at Geoffrey Scott when trying to get supplies to Lieutenant Beale on the east side of the Colorado. A few years after that, the boy from Kansas saw the Native once again, this time while hammering nails into what would become Fort Mojave. Kwami showed up near the edges of camp at odd hours while everyone else slept or was lost in their cups. The two spent the dark hours learning to talk to each other. To speak each other’s language. And now, standing next to the Kansas boy on the banks of the swift river, he’s a picture of health—well-defined muscles in his chest, not shaking at all, and definitely a foot taller than most in the military. Hell, taller than most any man Geoffrey Scott has ever known. And they are together. Heading north. A Mojave Indian, an Abolitionist, and a camel named Adababa. Friends. Who would’ve ever put them together? 

“Red River,” Kwami says. “Feeds my people. Corn. Wheat.”

“Been rollin’ for thousands of years, I would imagine,” Geoffrey Scott says, glad to see Kwami again, the Indian who appears and disappears without announcement. “Has its own rhythm. Seasons. Hardy must be making a good livin’ from anyone who wants to get across that big river.”

Phyllis Barber has published eight books, as well as short stories and essays in many periodicals, including Agni, Missouri Review, North American Review, Weber:The Contemporary West, among others. This excerpt is from a novel-in-progress, ADABABA—historical fiction. She taught at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in the Writing Program for nineteen years and now teaches workshops in Park City, Utah. In 1991, she received the Creative Nonfiction Award from the Associated Writing Programs and most recently in 2016 was awarded Outstanding Contribution to Mormon Letters by the Smith-Pettit Foundation.