At 4 am the alarm started beeping and woke the Barringtons. They’d made everything ready so they could have a quick breakfast and begin their hike ascent back up to the canyon rim. All the Internet information and everyone they’d talked to emphasized how important it was to get an early start. This early departure would allow them to reach the half way point at Indian Garden, the oasis respite for hikers, before eight or eight thirty at the latest. Starting too late would be tempting the kind of fate that happened to hikers every day.
A friendly Ohio couple they’d met at the ranch was also heading out hours before sunrise. An almost setting full moon provided a faint wisp of light. The couple were newlyweds, both somewhat overweight, and the man was what could be accurately called a jolly personality. He seemed to chuckle at everything while he talked. “Yep, my wife is Rubenesque, and I’m a tad rotund, so we joined a gym and worked out months ahead of our trip on a treadmill and one of those elliptical machines. Even took a stress test at the doctor’s office. We’re in good condition for the climb,” he declared the day prior at dinner in his bubbly Midwestern voice, while chewing a large bite of juicy grilled T-bone steak.
The Buckeyes walked out of the Phantom Ranch bidding a fond farewell to a couple of mules that’d been left at the coral because of hoof problems. With a quickened pace they moved along the trail through the campground and onto the suspension bridge, while Benton and Zeta were content to follow behind.
The rushing river was alive and racing through the night. Its eternally raucous voice echoed against the stoic canyon walls. There were no rafts this early filled with screaming eco-adventurers riding upon this section of its serpentine back. Hikers’ footsteps striking the bridge, helped assuage the eerie darkness, menacing sentinel cacti, and foreboding rock formation shadows. This truly was an alien land for the Barringtons.
Benton set the pace and walked ahead on the narrow parts of the trail. The morning was cool, much like an oven before the on switch is flipped and the heating element begins glowing bright orange. The sun would turn on in one hour at five thirty this morning. They didn’t do much talking. Zeta wasn’t in much of a talking mood. She could hear the newlyweds up ahead chattering like excited squirrels and as the trail steepened the chatter lessened. The couple evidently was in shape because their pace quickened slightly, while Benton was just getting his muscles slowly warmed up.
The hike wore on and soon the predawn started to change the sky. The trail grew steeper, and they entered the Devil’s Corkscrew section of the trail with many switchbacks and dangerous drop offs. Sounds from the cheerful love birds hiking further up the trail were now being heard, tempering the Barrington’s inescapable sense of stark aloneness. Finally, dawn was speeding more light into the canyon, and it was easier to see, making the ascent safer.
“Benton, I want to take a picture of you while we’re in these switchbacks. The soft light is perfect.”
“Here, this spot will work, the trail winding above will make an excellent background,” Benton answered while Zeta readied her camera. He stood with his back near the cliff edge and said, “All right, take it, and we’ll get going.”
“Just a second,” and she walked up closer to Benton. “Turn a little this way.”
Then she took a big step back on her left leg, and like a coiled cobra unleashed a powerful kick to Benton’s stomach just below his diaphragm.
“Sorry Bent,” Zeta said, as he fell backward, his mouth gaping wide open in shocked disbelief.
Benton waved his arms, his hands grasping and clawing at the breezeless morning canyon air for any desperate purchase. He reached for nonexistent branches or perhaps a magical rope. Utter panic filled his eyes as he appeared momentarily suspended for several microseconds, and then was ripped by heartless gravity into the void of space. He let out a loud gasping squawk scream that quickly faded as his body raced towards the arms of brutal waiting rocks below. In falling, he performed a slow backflip. One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thousand thud!
Zeta heard her husband’s body hit three hundred feet below. Humans can be killed falling twenty feet or less, so the distance-dosage was more than adequate. There was not the slightest movement or any sound below. In the increasing light, she could see him on his back, bent over a large rock in a backward arch. For a while, she just stared, then took and exhaled a deep breath.
Stepping back on the trail she screamed: “Help, help, help!” “Can you hear me?” No response. She ran fifty yards up the trail, “Help, help!” No response. She ran another fifty yards up the treacherous trail. “Help, someone, help!”
“We hear you!” the male Buckeye finally called back. “We hear you! Hang on!” the reply echoed back down the canyon. Zeta was breathing hard and went down on one knee while she waited several minutes for the hikers.
As the hiking couple came into view of Zeta, they yelled, “What happened?”
“My husband, my husband, Benton lost his balance while I was taking his picture and he fell into the canyon!”
“Oh my god,” the stunned woman responded when the couple reached Zeta. Then they followed her back to the place where Benton became fatally airborne.
“Straight down there,” Zeta said pointing to the transfixed body below.
“Holy shit,” the man gasped, and he carefully crouched down fearful he might suddenly be sucked to his death. He nervously stayed back from the cliff’s edge attempting to absorb the surreal scene. His wife stood behind and gingerly took several hasty looks at Benton below with his arms outstretched and legs apart. She was prone to nightmares and avoided violent or horror movies. She knew she was asking for some nightmares but couldn’t restrain her curiosity.
The trail did not wind around back to where the body was so hiking to make a body recovery wasn’t an option. It would require experienced mountain climbers with ropes and gear to repel down the canyon wall to where Benton lie reposed.
“What can we do, what should we do?” Zeta sobbed looking at the man. The woman hugged Zeta. Instinctively they were all certain Benton was dead. The man took a pair of binoculars out of his backpack, focused them and commented, ’He’s not breathing.” He could also see a large pool of blood surrounding Benton’s head, but kept the information to himself. Zeta sobbed, and the woman hugged her again. For a second, he considered offering the binoculars to Zeta but decided if she didn’t ask for them he wouldn’t.
“May I use the binoculars,” Zeta finally said after an uncomfortable pause when no one spoke. Mr. Buckeye gave her the binoculars, and she adjusted them for her eyes. Then she located Benton’s lower body first and slowly moved the binoculars up until she saw his face backlit by a halo of red blood. “Ahhhhhaa, no!” she screamed shoving the binoculars back to their owner. She’d seen Benton’s face. His eyes were wide open, and his face a frozen horror mask.
They all tried their cell phones, and none had reception. Zeta calmed herself and said, “There’s a phone at the Phantom Ranch, I’m going back there.”
“Yes, I’ll be ok. You can come with me if you want, but maybe it’d be best if both of you continue your hike up to the half way point at Indian Garden, there’s a ranger station and phone there, call for help.”
“Maybe I should go with her honey,” the woman said to her husband.
“No, thank you so much, but that won’t be necessary, you’ve already been a big help, let’s all just get going,” Zeta said, turning and starting to hike down the trail. None of them thought Benton could possibly be alive. It would now be a body recovery operation for the park rangers.
As Zeta hiked back down the Devil’s Corkscrew switchbacks, she felt detached from her body. It was like she had watched someone else kick Benton off the cliff. Someone else who listened to him scream while being accelerated like a steel ball. Her body was overloaded with adrenalin. This was an entirely foreign feeling for Zeta. The straight arrow had been released from the bow and found its mark. The straight arrow who’d never even received a speeding ticket, a referral to the principal’s office, or made her parents’ life miserable as a teenager, was now a killer, a murderer. So in the split second it took to kill she now became someone else. The new Zeta felt her action met the moral standard of justifiable homicide though she knew the legal system might think differently.
She hiked down through the last of the switchbacks into easier hiking and finally through the tunnel and onto the suspension bridge. The temperature was already starting to rise down in the canyon. Passing the campground she walked into the Phantom Ranch, stopped and took several huge deep breaths. She’d passed some hikers on the way down, but there wasn’t much activity at the ranch. The two lame mules looked up at her looking for carrots or treats as she headed to the phone at the Ranch ranger station.
Walking into the station, the distraught Zeta pleaded to the staff ranger, “My husband fell in the canyon! We need a helicopter right away.”
“Now, just calm down ma’am. He fell and hurt himself and needs medical attention? You know we don’t rescue fatigued hikers,” he asked rhetorically, “There are so many...
“Not injured, he fell off a cliff, and we think he may be dead,” she interrupted the ranger.
“Dead? We? Did you check his pulse, was he breathing?”
“He fell a long way off a high cliff in the Devil’s Corkscrew, no way to get down to him, some other hikers had binoculars, and he looked dead, not breathing.”
The ranger wrote down information about where Benton fell and called South Rim Park Ranger headquarters who called the helicopter rescue unit. There was a cabin, not yet in use by hikers who would arrive later, so the ranger instructed Zeta to wait there checking on her every 15 minutes. Within an hour, he received word the body had been recovered, and they were flying in to pick up Zeta. Then Benton would be flown to the Coconino County morgue in Flagstaff.
It wasn’t long until the sound of the McDonald Douglas NOTAR copter reverberated in the sky over Phantom Ranch. It slowly ascended down to the helipad landing gently as an eagle. The park ranger had informed Zeta she’d be flown up on the rim to the Bright Angel Lodge, and then the flight would continue without her. Coconino CSI would be responsible for conducting a complete investigation of the scene, examining Benton, all his clothes, shoes, and gear. Then the coroner would complete an autopsy.
Zeta climbed aboard the NOTAR 900 while the rotors whirled idling. “Sorry for your loss Mrs. Barrington”, the crew member who made the recovery offered respectfully. He’d ridden a winched cable down, eased Benton’s body off the rock, and strapped it into the rescue basket.
“Thank you,” she spoke too softly to be heard amid the copter noise. The crew member read her lips. There were no menacing wind currents in the canyon, so the pilot flew back to the site where Benton’s body was recovered and was lowered once again near the killing rock. Again he visually inspected the area for anything he’d previously missed. Locating nothing new, he signaled to be winched up.
The copter hovered until the rescue crew member was back aboard, then soared upward. Zeta sat on the floor against a side of the copter with a safety strap around her. On the man-made bird’s other side was a black body bag strapped into the rescue basket that was secured to the floor. She was offered a bottle of plastic water and drank some. Horror filled Zeta when she saw Benton move inside the black bag, but it was only his body shifting when the copter made a turn. She stopped staring at the bag.
Soaring up out of the canyon the craft rose a hundred feet above the rim and headed to an open space secured by Rangers not far from the lodge. As soon as they landed the door was unlocked, opened, and she heard, “Please watch your step and keep your head down, ma’am.” She yelled a loud thank you to the crew and exited. As she hurried away, the copter lifted up, then veered southeast, heading as the crow flies to Flagstaff with Benton.