How will the Future reckon with this man?  

     How answer his brute question?

                     ― Edwin Markham, “The Man with the Hoe” 


     Earth could not answer.

                     ― Edward Fitzgerald, “The Rubaiyat”



Like the teeth of some great mythological beast, the sharp peaks of the hills and mountains bit into the morning sky. Puffs of mist and fog blew about against the ominous red of the sun in the morning chill.

       Cold blue eyes sparkled behind the calibrated lenses of the precision-made Steiner binoculars. Lieutenant Mark Chisolm focused upon the gradually evolving detail of the land, animating it with the starkness of his gaze. Reddish-brown hair and a complexion that still radiated the heat of summer sun enveloped a strikingly mannish face with a straight nose, intelligent brow, firm jaw line, and soft lips.

       Perched upon a Munro overlooking the valley that separated him from the opposite sequence of the skeltonic teeth of the horizon, he enacted the motion of a great bird of prey. He scanned the valley below, piercing its morning mist to illuminate its hidden spaces. The binoculars, a gift from his father at the age of seventeen, four years earlier, were superior to any made in the United States or Britain, and had accompanied him on his hunting forays into the Montana wilderness and now into the military exercises across the commando training grounds.

       In a disciplined survey, he glassed the foreground of the valley hundreds of feet below him, which extended for several miles in either direction. From left to right and then back again, Chisolm gradually and systematically reconnoitered the entire field, slowly and progressively moving his sights toward the distant Munros. Only one road lay within his vision, passing by an old inn that had only a year earlier been converted into a command center for high-ranking British officers.

       As he spied the mountains and their various undulations and outcroppings, he noticed sheep on a distant height. This was nothing peculiar in and of itself here in the Highlands. But it was in this particular region since the Crown had forcibly removed or bought out all the land owners and sheep herders in the area. This land was now used for military training only. This had caused some resentment among the locals, who referred to this compulsory selling of their land to the Crown as a second Clearing of the Highlands, an event of the eighteenth century in which thousands of Scots had been forcibly removed from the countryside and their means of livelihood in hopes of quelling the prospect of any further rebellions against English rule.

       Standing on the Munro, high up, memories of home and his father crept up on him. Stretch the sinew and snap the brain; one you do smoothly, the other in pain. Maybe his father was right, but he could never tell which was done smoothly and which in pain. Physical accomplishments were exacting and often done in distressingly unforgiving country, and the idea of a brain snapping into quick thinking didn’t always comfort him with quiet reassurance.

       Snap it like a whip, boy. The brain did not snap—too much in life required reflection. Still, his father’s teachings forced him to confront the moment and respond and not duck the occasions of living forcefully and excitedly.

       Having been born and reared on a cattle ranch for Black Angus at over six thousand feet, he found the training in the Highlands easier than the other soldiers. The thin air of the Highlands seemed downright fat compared to the thin air of the much higher Rockies. As he surveyed the surrounding terrain, the voice of his father, now dead, spoke to him in ways that were as demanding as they were consoling. He knew too that his father’s stealth in the woods came from his own hunting days in the Highlands. He had violated Scottish law by tracking and then killing red deer in retribution for the Crown having sent an Englishman to be the local game warden. In two instances over a period of years, his father claimed to have killed deer by stalking them with his knife, since a gunshot was likely to attract unwanted attention. Moreover, even in his father’s youth, guns were a rarity, except among the few with wealth enough to spare. Venison was a delight that he and his family shared and about which they could keep quiet.

       Could a man really stalk a deer with a knife and bring it down? If properly camouflaged and if the wind were blowing in the right direction, it could be done. Chisolm had done it once as a sixteen-year-old, when going after mule deer. Delicate, soft feet and sensitive muscle control had put him next to a resting buck that ignored his crouched and incrementally moving body until it was too late.

       As he dropped his binoculars to his side, he involuntarily tensed slightly in resentment at his father’s discipline and ruggedness. He thought that his father might have been just fine had it not been for his heritage. He had come from a clan known for their rascals and the fear among family members was that father and son were still too much like their untamed ancestors. These were kin who fought nobly at the Haughs of Cromdell and ignobly at Culloden, on both the English and Scottish side. They had also thought that a distillery was for selling their whiskey, not for paying the king’s taxes. It was a custom maintained by his ancestors in Appalachia and, to a lesser extent, by his father in Montana.

       He snapped from this reverie and again held up his binoculars to survey the mountains of Arran, when he noticed white dots high up on Ben Nevis: three grazing sheep, stationary like painted clouds or lingering mist. His eyes went past them as he surveyed the territory to their left and then back again as he watched admiringly at their surefootedness as they then descended to a kind of plateau that jutted out from the side of the mountain.

       On a level outcropping stood the stone ruins of an ancient church. Perhaps something abandoned during the Clearing of the eighteenth century. The roof was completely gone, but the masonry of the edifice was firm, quietly reassuring in its permanence and blending with the countryside. The stones that made the walls were the color of the terrain from which they were taken: quarries chiseled into the mountainside.

       He scanned the mountain again, left to right, up and down. No sheep. Where there had been three moments ago, there were now none.  

       Life in Montana had taught him sheep don’t just fly away. And even in the mist of the Highlands, sheep don’t just disappear. Everything had to be somewhere. But where were the sheep?

       Unless, he thought comically to himself, these were specially trained sheep that carried weapons and fell upon unsuspecting soldiers. What would they be called? he wondered. The Woolen Warriors? The Mutton Marauders? The Lamb Choppers? Or what about the Unshorn Shearers? His mind moved whimsically as he hummed “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Maybe Mary was really a British commando and she lurked in the Highlands, falling upon those who wore wool.

 X X X X X

       While he continued to scan the terrain, looking in the areas where the sheep had just been, another soldier with dark green eyes trained his binoculars on Chisolm from behind. Where he thought that Chisolm had been looking, he too focused. He watched as Chisolm climbed down into the glen and began his excursion toward the heights and to the ruins. Perhaps, he reflected, he might someday be on the next team selected in the punishing guerrilla warrior games in which Chisolm had already distinguished himself. If he were to do so, he would be Chisolm’s enemy, but not necessarily just another one of the six designated by the command. Chisolm had bothered him, perhaps because he realized that he bothered Chisolm. Moreover, Chisolm’s cordiality and linguistic virtuosity were a cause for envy. He got along too well with too many, and his gift of tongues elicited fires of resentment in the green eyes of this fellow soldier. Smoldering behind his binoculars, his eyes pierced Chisolm’s back like steel daggers.

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Military photos courtesy of SSgt. Daniel Kozar (Ret.), United States Marine Corps