Southern Stars

Part 10

Dar stood on the shelter’s porch, arms folded over her chest as she regarded the clouds now blocking the view of the sky and listened to the rumble of thunder.

Well, fuck.  She sounded the word in her head as she smelled the rain on the wind. Fuckity fuck fuck fuck.  She felt like irrationally stamping her feet but held off, letting out a long frustrated breath instead as she resisted acting like a cranky twelve year old.

At least the long, uncomfortable night was over.

Kerry came out of the cabin, closed the door behind her and went to stand next to her partner, taking up the same stance.  They stood in silence together for a long moment, listening to the sounds from behind them, loud voices and a long bout of hoarse coughing.

Dar sighed.

“We should go soon if we’re going to.” Kerry said. “Miss as much of the rain as we can.”

Dar sighed again.

“I know you don’t want to.”

“I’m afraid that raft is going to kill us.” Dar said, bluntly.  “It’s not a matter of what I want.”  She pushed the long sleeve of her tshirt up over her elbow and resettled her hands, tucking them against her ribs. “It’s a matter of risk.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t have mentioned the helicopter tracks.” Kerry said, in a mournful tone. “Well, we can let them all go then if they want to. You and I can… “ She paused. “We can do something else.”

Dar eyed her. “Like what?”

After a moment Kerry shrugged, then put her hands in her cargo pants pockets.  

Dar kicked the floorboard with her boot.  “Sorry I’m being an asshole.” She glanced sideways at her partner’s profile.

“You’re not, really.” Kerry sighed. “We’re just in a cornucopia of suck.”

Dar chuckled briefly.  “We are.” She admitted. “I so badly want to be out of here but I also so badly don’t want to have that damn thing capsize on us in the middle of a rapids.”

Kerry pondered that. “Could have anyway.”  She suggested. “Before on the trip.”

“Before on the trip it had a damn engine, and someone who knew what to do with it.”

“Hm. True.”

“And half the people weren’t sick or hurt.” Dar added. “This is just such a mess.”

“Also true.” Kerry acknowledged. “Like I said, a cornucopia of suck.” She removed her hands from her pockets and went behind Dar, reaching up to start massaging her shoulders under their covering of heavy cotton.  “Oh, Dardar. Next time let’s just stay on your island and toast marshmallows.”

Dar could almost taste the sweet, burnt crispiness of them on her tongue. “Mm.”

“Maybe a few lobsters in a boil.” Kerry continued, keeping up her motion. “I’d even take some peach pizza right bout now.”

 Dar half turned as the door opened, and Ira came out, shutting it behind him and moving quickly away. “Hey.” She greeted him. “Getting pretty rough in there.”

The native came over and leaned against the overhang support, which creaked softly under the pressure.  “People get aggro when they’re sick. I know my family always does.”

Dar nodded. “Yeah.” She agreed.  “I’m just not sure how many choices there are so all the yelling’s pointless.”

Ira nodded. “River, or sit tight, or hike another way.”

“Is there another route out?” Kerry focused on Ira with some interest.  “That you know for sure?”

“Not really.” He shrugged. “My dad or my grandad might know. I mean, at some point there has to be an outlet,  you know? The canyon doesn’t go on forever.  Way back thataway is the reservation.” He pointed to the right. “But there’s a lot of dead end slot canyons round here.”

“We saw some of them on the way down.” Kerry said.

“So I dunno.” Ira concluded. “Yeah there’s ways. I just don’t know any of them for sure.”

Dar unfolded her arms. “Okay lets go look at that damn raft again. Maybe it got better overnight.” She started off the porch with the others following her.  “Better than hanging out inside.”

They walked down the slope and around the bend to the shallow canyon they’d landed the raft in.  It was there, lashed to the rocks and shifting with the surge of the river, banging dully against the stone with a sound like hollow melons being thumped.

Dar walked along the shoreline, looking at the pontoons.  There were dents and dings in all of them and the middle one had crumpled inward as though some giant had punched it in the nose.  The upper level behind that, where she and Kerry had sat was sagging to one side the seats bent and the aluminum framing tangled.

After a moment’s pause, she climbed up onto the pontoon nearest the shore and made her way carefully across the deck – now missing several planks.

“Careful hon.” Kerry was right behind her. “You can break a leg up here.”

“You too.”

Dar sidled between the front row and the second row, where all of the rattan seats were gone leaving just a bare metal housing.  She regarded it thoughtfully.  Under the steel structure were metal flaps, and she lifted one up to see stacks of life jackets underneath.

The smell of mildew made her wrinkle her nose. She  closed the flap and latched it, then sat down and braced her boots against the row in front of her, kicking against it.

It was more solid than she’d expected. The metal was welded down to the decking structure and though it wasn’t comfortable she didin’t get a sense it was going anywhere.  “Huh.”  She stood up and started yanking at the rail.

Kerry had gone past her to the back row, where the two comfortable chairs had miraculously survived, and the captain’s station behind it sans the engine of course.  The supply lockers had been taken off leaving open spaces on the deck, but the supports were close enough together she felt relatively secure walking.

She turned and looked out over the river, wanting suddenly and pungently to be gone from the canyon. Despite the ragged condition of the raft, it felt like it was capable of floating and she wanted more than anything to be riding on that current out.

Screw the risk.  Walking out would be a risk. Staying where they were would be a risk.

Life was a risk.

Dar was jumping up and down on the frame, holding onto the rail by the second set of seats, and she looked up and over and their eyes met.  Dar stopped her shenanigans and wandered over, as Ira inspected the pontoons on the side.

“Let’s just do it.” Dar and Kerry said, at the same time.  “The rest of them want to and what the hell we can swim.” Dar concluded. “Lets get our gear.”

“Done deal.” Kerry agreed.

Ira looked up as they approached. “Hey, I was looking at this and..

Dar waved him off. “Yeah, we think so too. Let’s get moving.” She said. “We wasted enough time.” She hopped off the pontoon to the ground and turned, offering Kerry a hand as her partner prepared to do likewise.

Kerry’s eyes twinkled a little, and she accepted the clasp, leaping down to the rocks then starting off towards the shelter at a brisk walk.

“Sure.” Ira followed them. “Only live once, right?” He lifted his hands in a shrug as he followed them, head shaking slowly back and forth. “Shoulda gone with the GF to the mall, damn it.”

**

“So for you guys let me see if I can rig up these tarps.” Rich rambled around the back row, where Todd and Marcia were sitting in the comfortable chairs.  “Keep the rain off ya.” He started opening one of the somewhat worn and tattered plastic sheets and Dave went to help him.

Marcia had gotten quite sick, quite fast. She was coughing almost continuously, and huddled in both her jacket and Don’s, with the sleeping bag they’d used tucked around her. She was clutching a steaming cup, the last bit of the tea.

Though the clouds were building overhead, and the wind was coming up a little, so far the rain had held off as they humped all the gear down the slope to the shore and maneuvered it onboard, finding places to stow it amidst the wreckage.

Petey and Janet were huddled near the back of the craft with Ira standing by next to them and most of the rest were in the second row trying to find a way to tie things down they’d dragged onto the raft from the shelter.

Dar was in the first row, studying the wreck of it, and Kerry was helping PJ wrap her foot up with the last of the gauze she’d found in the aid kit.

“After all that stuff, I dunno.” PJ was saying, stifling a sneeze. “Oh crap.”

“Yeah.” Kerry ripped off a piece of tape and applied it.  “It’s all a mess, but Dar figures its better if we give this a try than stay back there and I’m with her on it. “ She straightened up. “I mean, we almost had a whole mountain come down on top of us, been washed away by crazy rain… “

“What a drag.” PJ said in a mournful tone.

“Yeah.” Kerry finished her taping and put the roll back in the battered kit. “At least that looks like its healing okay.” She gave the girl a pat on her ankle. “One good thing.”

The girl looked at her appendage.  “I should have known when this happened it was going to go downhill.” She glanced around and then back at Kerry.  “Hey can I ask you a question?” She said. “Since we’re still getting ready here?”

“Sure.”

“Is tech really a good career?”

Last thing on earth Kerry expected to be asked, and it made her laugh a little in surprise. “You mean in general?” She countered. “Or for women?  It’s tough in some areas for us.  You go to most of the really technical conventions and it’s a sausage fest.” She admitted. “That gets old sometimes.”

“Is it easier for you being gay?” PJ asked, after a moment’s thoughtful silence. “I mean, with the guys?”

Kerry had to consider that. She sat back and folded her arms, watching Dar out of the corner of her eye as her partner banged a strut into place and was using a bit of the climbing rope to secure it.  “Well.” She finally said. “I never really thought of it like that.”

“Or do they hit on you anyway?” PJ asked, with a knowing grin.

“When I was single, yeah.” The blond woman smiled a little back.  “It happened. But when I’m with Dar, now, no.”  She shook her head. “Dar has such a reputation in the industry most of the time when guys come up to me and talk it’s because they want me to ask her something for them.”

PJ laughed. “Really?”

“Really.” Kerry set the kit down and stifled a yawn. There had been too much coughing and sneezing for good solid sleep and she felt lagged from it.  “It’s kind of funny, actually, because Dar never minds sharing what she knows but everyones afraid to ask her because they don’t want to look dumb so they test the question on me first.”

“Dudes.”

“Yeah, some women too though.” Kerry admitted. “Dar can be intimidating.  And she’s got no reluctance to expose you for being an idiot if you are and most anyone who’s been in the industry for any length of time knows it.”  She watched Dar take a step back and regard the two makeshift seats she’d made for them. “But in answer to your question, yes.” 

“Yes?”

“Yes, IT’s worthwhile to make a living at.” Kerry said, briskly.  “It changes enough so you don’t get bored.  I like it.”  She felt the motion as the crew lifted the last of the supplies, scant though they were, into the raft and then stood by on shore to loose the ropes.  “Whoops I guess we’re going.”

“I guess!” PJ stood up carefully and limped over to where Sally and her sister were tying down gear.  She sat down on one end of the metal bench and tucked her foot up under her thigh, settling herself. Her companions came over and joined her, and Sally moved up to the front row next to Dar.

“Okay.” Janet got up onto one of the steel cabinets in the back of the raft.  “We’re going to get moving.  We have a couple of paddles back here, and a steering pole, and we’ll do the best we can with Ira’s help.”

Ira was standing by with his hands in his pockets, his plaid flannel shirt half unbuttoned, hair braided back and fastened into a knot at his neck. His expression was noncommittal.

“Everyone please put on their safety jackets.  Please tie everything down.” Janet continued. “Please try to be safe.” She got down and motioned to the crew to cast off the lines and board, the raft already half loose and jerking against the final ropes.

Kerry moved over to where Dar was standing, holding a float jacket in her hands and as she came closer her partner opened it up and she put her arms through it.  “Here we go.” She said.

“Here we go.” Dar braced herself as the ropes came loose and the frame of the raft shuddered, creaking and groaning as the water current grabbed them and pulled them out into the river, now seeming strange and dangerous after being off it for so long.

It felt a little out of control, and Kerry wedged her boot against the bare metal frame in front of them as she stayed in front of the lashed down seat, feeling the raft dip and turn abruptly, with no engine to counter the motion.  She felt herself jerked to the side with some violence, and then Dar was taking hold of her and she relaxed, just a little.

They swept around a wide bend and then they were in a relatively straight length of river, churning and rustling around them but with no big rapids.  Thunder rumbled overhead and the wind pushed at their back, and she poked Dar in the ribs. “Put your jacket on.”

For a minute, she thought her partner was going to ignore the request.  Dar had that look about her.  But then she released her hold on Kerry and removed the jacket from the back of the aluminum support and slipped it on.  Kerry helped her buckle it, then she turned again to the front, as they rushed past the towering walls.

This part, at least seemed okay.  “Hope it stays like this.” She said to Sally, who was standing braced next to her. “Maybe we can make good time.”

“Faster than walking that’s for sure.” Sally agreed. “But it wont. There are rapids just past that next curve. I’ve been through them.”

“Bad?”

Sally shrugged. “Class 4’s.  Not really that bad. We’ve been through the worst already.”

“Oh.” Kerry felt heartened. “Great.”

“Yeah, we should have done this to begin with.” Sally shook her head, and her sister did likewise. “Twenty twenty hindsight.”

“This was the worst option couple days back.” Kerry reminded them. “It just became the best option when it was the last one, really.”

“Better than staying in that shack.” PJ piped up from behind them. “At least we’re getting somewhere.”

Don had a long paddle, and he was on the port side of the raft, Rich and Dave were on the starboard. Ira had the steering pole, and as Dar looked behind her, he pushed off some rocks with casual expertise that relieved her slightly.

“Yep, we are.” Kerry answered PJ.  “About time.”

Dar nodded. “About time.”

**

The rain started as they were rolling through a narrow, fast stretch that was rocking the raft with some violence.  Dar was sitting on her makeshift seat with her boots braced against the bare aluminum framing, and Kerry was standing between her knees with Dar’s arms wrapped around her middle.

Kerry blinked into the rain, which was cool and tasted of the clouds now socked in overhead. With the jacket, and Dar’s hold she felt warm and secure, despite the uncertain motion of the raft under her boots as they rolled along the for now straight path forward.

They were at least making good time. The flow of the river was causing small whitecaps but the section they were in had no rapids and she could see a long way in the distance a bend. 

Behind her she heard Marcia and Todd coughing, and Petey was kneeling in a sheltered corner, his elbows braced on a bench and his hands curled around the front of it.

Sally and her sister had gotten a tarp up over the second row of seats, and now Sally was cautiously pulling the end of the tarp over where Dar and Kerry were.  “Want to grab this and tie it?”

Kerry turned around and took the edge of the tarp and tied the bungy cord to the framing next to Dar’s boot. It gave them a bit of shelter and Dar wriggled backwards a little to take advantage of it pulling Kerry with her. “Thanks.”

The blue tarp fabric rattled in the wind.  “Best we can do for now.” Sally said, as she took a seat next to Dar and secured the fourth end of the tarp on the other side of her. “Rich you need a swap out?”

“Okay for now.” Rich was sitting at the side of the raft, holding his paddle.  He’d taken a piece of the climbing rope and passed it around his body, and snapped a caribiner to one of the supports with a top piece missing. He dangled his legs over the side, his boots ruffling through the water.

Don handed his paddle over to Dave and got up, going over to Marcia’s side. “How about some tea?” He took a battered thermos and uncapped it, tipping it to pour some of the tea from the camp into the cap. “Before it gets cold?”

Amy was seated on the deck of the raft next to the big seat her fiancé was slumped, wrapped in a hoodie and jacket and cargo shorts that showed the raw scrapes and cuts he’d gotten from the climb.  He was coughing, holding his shoulder to try and keep it from moving.

Kerry eyed him.  “Should I give him the Advil I have left?” She asked Dar in a low tone.

“No.” Her partner answered calmly, tightening her hold. “With our current luck we’ll both get our period and need them for cramps.”

Kerry chuckled wryly.

“Not kidding.”

“No I know.” She leaned back against Dar’s body, ignoring the rain that was dampening her knees. “I just remember what that felt like.”  She let her hands rest on Dar’s thighs, feeling the solid muscle under the denim with a sense of security as she was held in place.

“Besides someone else like Petey might need them more.” Dar said, after a brief silence.

Kerry glanced behind them. “That’s true.” She admitted. “Poor guy.” She faced forwards again. “And I just remembered that jackass kicking him in the back so forget I said anything to begin with.”

Dar smiled grimly.

PJ leaned forward from behind them.  “I heard them talking.” She said. “In the back, I mean.” She lowered her voice. “They’re worried about the rapids just past that turn there.”

“I’m worried about any rapids in this thing so that’s not a surprise.” Dar said. “Is it a big one?”

Sally joined them. “You talking about the whitewater coming up?”  She asked.  “Rich was saying something about it being pretty treacherous.”

“It is.” PJ agreed. “There’s a big rock in the middle of the stream, and if you go on the wrong side they were saying we could easily capsize.”

“Nice.”

“Well they can paddle.” Sally said. “And the guy back there seems to know what he’s doing with the steering pole.”

“True.” Dar said. “We can help too.” She indicated a stack of worn wooden paddles that were lashed under the row of seats behind them. “Maybe up on those pontoons, where Rich and them were sitting.”

“Mm.” Kerry watched the water wash up over them.

“No that’s true.” PJ nodded. “Even I can help that doesn’t need a foot.”  She got off her seat and sat down on the deck of the raft instead, starting to work at the lashing holding the paddles “We should get ready.”

“At least get those closer to us.” Sally agreed and joined her.

Hmph.” Kerry studied the bend ahead, which now seemed a lot closer to them.  “If they do this all the time, how bad can it be really? The other operations use paddling boats.”

“Did you have to say that?” Dar sighed. “Keeerrrreeeyyyyy.”

Kerry half turned around and gave her an affectionate look. Then she reached up to wipe a raindrop off her partner’s nose and tweak it.  “Sorry hon.”  She turned around all the way and rested her hands on Dar’s shoulders, spending a moment just gazing into her eyes. “It is what it is.”

“It is what it is.” Dar smiled in return.  “Just remember, if we get tossed off this thing hold your breath.”

Kerry’s head tilted a little to one side. “You mean under the water?”

“Yes.”

“Should I have to remember that?” Kerry asked, in a somewhat puzzled tone “Isn’t it a natural thing?”

Dar cleared her throat a little, glancing past Kerry’s shoulder to gauge the distance to the bend. “For normal people sure.” She agreed. “Even babies will hold their breath when they go underwater.”

“How would you know that?”

Dar paused, then chuckled. “Probably read it in a book.” She said “Anyway, when you dive whats the first thing you do when you step in?”

Kerry’s eyes went a little unfocused, as she thought about that. She put herself on the back of their boat, hand on the ladder brace, taking that step off into the water in a plunge and…  “Suck in a breath off my reg.” She concluded. “Matter of fact I did that when we snorkeled the last time and didn’t realize I was so deep I got a mouthful of seawater and nearly choked.”

Dar nodded. “Helps not to have the reg in your mouth but think about it if you get tossed in” She said, in a practical tone.

“Got it.” Kerry leaned forward and gave her a kiss on the lips, tasting rain water and a hint of the mornings tea. “Thank you my love.”  She touched her forehead to Dar’s.  “For always keeping an eye out for me.”

“Always.” Dar confirmed. “Turn around.”

Kerry did, and saw the bend coming at them.  She squirmed around and braced her legs, glancing over as Sally handed her one of the paddles. “Not sure I’m going to do anything useful with it, but sure.” She tucked the paddle down between her hip and Dar’s leg.

“What’s the plan?” Dar was calling back to Janet.  “We need to do anything?”

They could hear the roar of whitewater now in the distance.   Janet squirmed up between the two rows, looking more than harried. “Okay so.”  She looked past them. “We’re going to steer hard near the inside wall there, and just ride the right hand side through the rapids. It’ll be fine.” She said. “Just hold on tight.”

The raft started into the bend and both Rich and Dave were paddling like mad men, with seemingly little effect.  Ira was at the back left corner pushing with his pole, and as they came around the corner they could see what the issue was.

It was a short stretch of river between where they were and the next bend ahead, which was visibly lower than they were.  The water was racing and bubbling, and in the center of the passage there was a craggy island of rock. On the right side, a relatively smooth path, but on the left, it went into a circular whirlpool that was all white and green.

“Eh.” Kerry uttered.

“Ho boy.” Dar straightened up and released her, standing up and taking hold of the paddle that almost fell in the motion. 

“Need some help!” Rich hollered.  “We gotta get to the wall!”

Dar got out from behind the framing and scrambled down onto the back of the middle pontoon, immediately soaked as a wash of river water came over the front of the raft.  She ignored it and plunged the paddle into the water, pulling to her right as hard as she could.

Moments later, Kerry was on the pontoon next to her, the paddle she’d grabbed from Sally in her hands, and right after that Don was on the third, and they were all pitching in.

The raft plunged right down the middle, and hesitated, between two flows, sliding sideways in the water as voices raised in alarm.   Dar lifted herself up and splayed forward, digging into the river as deeply as she could as the water came over her.

Ira jumped ot the side of the raft and hooked a leg around one of the supports, reaching out with his pole and catching an underground boulder with it.  He heaved at the last second possible and let out a yell and with a hitch the raft swirled in a circle and took the right path.

They skimmed the center rock and went to the smooth side gliding past the maelstrom and along the canyon wall before pitching downward towards the next bend.

“Yay!” Rich lifted his paddle in triumph.  “We did it!”

Dar shook the wet hair out of her eyes and pushed her hood back, letting the rain drum against her skin. She looked around at the river and then at the rest of the raft, waiting for her heartbeat to settle. 

“Holy crap.” Kerry said. “People pay to do this?”

Don let out a wry laugh. “Thinking of a spa next time?”

“Thinking of staying in my living room next time.”

“Bedroom.” Dar corrected her.

“Dar.” Kerry covered her eyes with one hand, the other gripped around the paddle.

There was a sense of euphoria around the raft though, as they swept through the narrows and around the next bend, this time to the left and into a long, wide, straight stretch that had only minimal white ruffles and a much gentler motion.

“Phew! Good job folks!” Janet called out. “We’re golden for now.”

Dar rolled around over on her back and pulled herself back up onto the frame, ducking back under the tarp as Kerry crawled up after her.  “Break out the peanut butter.” She suggested. “Might as well party while we can.”

Whoo.” Kerry ruffled the rain out of her hair.  “Wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”

“Me either.”

Dar stashed the paddle and took her seat, pushing the hood on her jacket back as the raft’s motion moved from a rough rambling to a smoother glide. 

Ahead of them was just green blue water, and the rain had modulated from a heavy sheet to a light mist.  Tracey wa passing around the can of peanut butter, and for the moment things seemed all right.

**

“Dar.”

Dar started a little, coming out of a light doze to find Kerry at her elbow, and the light around them starting to fade. “Huh.”

“Looks like a conference is coming.” Kerry offered her a cup of water. “We probably want to be in it.”

Dar felt a bit disoriented, but she stood up and took the cup, drinking the liquid as she glanced around the raft.  Two more tarps had been strung up and everyone was under cover, even Ira back in the corner.  

Most of the group were hunkered down with cups in hand, but Janet had come up between the first and second row of seats and motioned Rich and Dave over.

“Okay.” Janet said, bracing her hands on two of the frame supports.  “I don’t think we can find a spot to pull off before it gets dark. “ She said. “But on the bright side, we’ve got calm water all the way to probably after sunrise tomorrow. We can keep making decent time.”

They were all silent for a moment. “Not the most comfortable thing, being on here.” Don spoke up. “Got sick people. We need some heat.”

Todd punctuated that by coughing violently.

“Even if we did find a spot, no guarantee we’d find anything to make a fire with.”  Rich said.  “Or shelter, or anything At least on here we know what we have.”

“True.” Tracey wiped her sleeve across her face. “We can put up a few more tarps. Block all the wind.”

“I’d rather keep moving.” Dar said, after a short silence.  “Rich’s right.  Could be worse onshore.”

Janet nodded. “Yes, I agree also. I know its uncomfortable but at least we’re making progress out of here.  Once we get through the rapids tomorrow morning, we’ll be close to a pull out where I know there’s campgrounds.”

“And people.” Ira spoke up.  “Supply shack.”

“Well, that sounds good.” Don agreed reluctantly.  “Sure would be good to see some civilization.”

“Let’s just make it as good as we can on the raft. “ Sally got up and started to pull over one of the coolers they’d filled with supplies  “It sounds great to me to keep going. I don’t want to stop now.”

“Sounds good to me.” Kerry adjusted one of the bungees to bring the front of the tarp a little lower to block the rain. “We’ll just make the best of it.”

They did.  Rich and Dave worked on getting more shelter in place, and as they did, it cut down the wind as well as the rain and with all of them clustered together it got warmer.   

They all changed into the driest clothes they had, and Dar was standing behind her seat, shaking out the rain from her jacket as the last of the light started to fade around them.

Kerry came over with a bit of paper towel, on which two lumps of peanut butter were deposited.   She settled on a piece of the brace next to her partner and waited as she hung her jacket up. “Here you go hon”

Dar took the paper and took a bite of the peanut butter, chewing it stolidly as she watched Tracey offering a cup of water to Pete.  Mmm.”  She licked her lips.  “I remember going through a can of this stuff a week when I was a kid.”

Kerry grimaced a little. “Really?”

“Really.” Dar took another bite. “Didn’t stunt my growth any.” 

“Probably was the gallon of milk offsetting it.” Kerry put a piece of the smoked fish from the previous day in her mouth and chewed it slowly. “Wish I had some milk right now.”

MMmmmmooooooo.” Dar licked a bit of peanut butter off her thumb. “We’re almost out of this, Ker.” She glanced behind her, towards the front of the raft.  “I’m glad we didn’t stop.”

“Oh me too.” Kerry rested her elbows on her knees.  “My god I can’t wait to get out of this damn canyon.” She stifled a yawn. “I want a big cup of coffee, and a doughnut.”

Dar reached over and ruffled her hair.  Then she sat down on the frame next to Kerry and pressed against her, offering the last of her peanut butter.

Kerry eyed it. “Doesn’t really go with the fish, honey.” She nudged it back towards Dar.  “All yours.”

Dar shrugged and popped the last ball into her mouth, savoring the sweet and salty taste as she watched Rich and Sally drag the cooler over and shove it into place on the other side of them, taking seats on it as Dave and Tracey sat down with their backs to them.

“So here we are.” Rich said. “Floating down the Colorado River, in the dark, in the rain.”

“Here we are.” Dar agreed.

“We should try to get some rest.” Janet was behind the second row, in a corner next to Petey who was still kneeling in place, now resting his head on his crossed arms.  “So we’re ready to face the rapids in the morning.”

Ira was seated in the back, legs sprawled out in front of him.  “Should be a nice ride.” He spoke up. “Water’s really clean right here.”

Amy was seated on the arm of the chair Todd was laying in, her arm draped over his shoulders.  Don was on a box next to Marcia.

Janet cleared her throat. “I save this.” She removed a box from her kit and handed it to Tracey. “Pass it around. There’s not much there, but it is what it is.”

Tracey opened the box and peered inside. “Oh.” She removed a piece of something from it an passed it on. “Thanks Janet.” She said. “It is better than nothing.”

Kerry took the box and looked inside, her nose already detecting the scent of honey and sesame.  She removed two pieces of the candy and passed the box on to Sally.  Then she offered one to Dar and put hers into her mouth, savoring the sweet and nutty taste.

It was nice.  It cleared the taste of the smoked fish out of her mouth, and it was a bit of comfort all out of proportion to what it was.  Kerry chewed it slowly, wanting to make it last.

“Mm.” Dar had bit hers in half and was munching on it. “What is that?”

“Just something my mom makes.” Janet said. “Our family’s from Iran, though I don’t’ talk about that much these days.” She had her hands folded and her elbows braced on her knees. “None of us talk about it much. Too many people think we should have been packed up and shipped off.”

There was a little, uncomfortable silence.

“But anyway, glad you like it.” Janet concluded.  “I’m kind of out of I’m sorry’s so it’s the best I could do.”

“Well.” Rich spoke up finally.  “Thanks.” He looked around. “Right?”

“Thanks.”  Kerry said. “We all really needed a pick up, and that was a good one.” She smiled at Janet.  “Especially since it wasn’t expected.”

Janet smiled back.  Then she cleared her throat. “I’ll keep a watch on.  Everyone get some rest.” She got up and went to the back of the raft, sitting down next to Ira.  “Let’s hope for a nice, bright morning.”

**

Kerry had her eyes closed, the burbling of the water enticing her into sleep as she sat on the small metal ledge, leaning against Dar’s body.  It wasn’t really comfortable, but with the tarps it was acceptably warm and she could feel her partner’s steady breathing as she herself slept.

She could taste peanut butter still, on the back of her tongue.

She could hear the wind outside, whistling a little, and it flapped the edges of the tarp but she allowed herself to imagine getting off the raft in the warmth of a new day and then, probably, taking a helicopter back to the lodge.

It would be nice.  In her mind, she drew a picture of them escaping to their RV, unhooking the connections and starting it up, driving up the long road far enough to get the place behind them out of site, and then finding a spot to just chill out together.

Maybe go back to the little barbeque joint they’d passed on the last turn towards the canyon.  Go in, and just share a rack of ribs together in messy contentment.

She could taste the tang of the sauce, and the musky chill of a cold beer and the knowledge she would spend the night in warm comfort wrapped in Dar’s arms in the RV’s cute little bunk made her smile a little.

It was almost over.

She heard a low voice and opened her eyes, to see Janet back in the back talking to Ira, and reaching a hand out to take the steering pole.  The native American got up and then settled on the bench in the back, curling up and putting his head down on his arm with a relieved sigh she could almost hear.

Janet hitched herself up on the far back metal brace, the wind tossing her short hair as she wrapped her arm around the pole and looked over the tarps, down the river.

Kerry could see her face, in the faint silver light, lined and tired and visibly worried.

She’d come around to feeling sorry for Janet, again.  Kerry put her cheek back down on Dar’s shoulder and closed her eyes.  In fact, she’d come around to feeling sorry for all of them, for the people who were sick, and those that had gotten hurt and were miserable, all of them.

Even Todd. Even Amy, who was curled up with her head on Todd’s uninjured shoulder.

She and Dar had just really been inconvenienced.  Gone a little hungry, been a little bored, a little more frustrated, with their vacation gone south. But they were both in one piece, had not truly suffered as some of the others had, and would walk away from the experience with not much more than some more wild vacation stories.

At least these she could tell all of to anyone.  Not like last time.

Eh.  Kerry felt sleep stealing over her and she let the sound of the wind and the river fade out a she felt Dar’s fingers close over hers in a warm sure clasp as she heard the softest rumble of thunder far behind them.

At least they had some time to rest.

**

Dar sensed it before she felt it, her body suddenly tensing and her eyes blinking open seconds before Janet let out a yell that broke the relative silence of the night before the sound of white water followed it, and the creak and hiss of the raft bending against the force of the current.  “What the hell?”

Whats going on?” Sally blurted, coming upright.

“Get up!” Janet bellowed. “We’re going into the rapids!”

“Oh shit!” Rich pulled himself upright. “Crap Crap Crap!!!!”

Dar stood pulling a startled out of sleep Kerry with her as Rich rolled off the bench and crashed against her knees as he grabbed for the aluminum framing.  “Watch it!”

“Sorry!” Rich got up and out of the way, scrambling for the paddle under the frame.

She stepped over him and ducked under the edge of the tarp in time to see the white churn ahead and the flash of lightning  “What the hell?” She turned around. “I thought you said we’d have till morning!”

Ira had scrambled back to the back and grabbed the pole. “Must have let the dam loose again.” He yelled back. “We went faster than we shoulda! “  He craned his neck to look over the tarp. “Ho boy! Hang on!”

Marcia was struggling to sit up and Don was at her side, grabbing her arm, staring at head at the river as Tracey climbed up past them and got behind where Dar and Kerry were standing, pushing herself up to look past them.

The front of the raft was already pitching down and they swung sideways as Rich and Dave stumbled and hand over handed to the sides, yelling incoherently in alarm.

There was thunder and rain and lightning and the roar of pouring water and the raft lurched and went sideways towards a huge hole in the river full of frothing white and the dark black of rocks, swirling around an island in the center with two upthrusts of stone in the middle they were heading straight for.

“Oh damn!” Rich was hanging on to a part of the frame. “This thing’ll come apart!!!!”

‘We’re not going to make it past that!” Janet screamed, real fear in her voice. “We can’t! We’re going  under! Everyone get your vests hitched!”

People started to panic.  PJ was struggling into a vest, her hands shaking and Dave was standing on one side, jaw slack, just staring at the water.

“Oh wow.” Kerry inhaled. “Jesus, Dar. What the hell are we going to do?”

For a moment, Dar felt like everything went still, and she could hear only her own heartbeat as her mind took in all the factors and the potential outcomes and then she was moving across the raft, putting her hands on the frame behind the front row of seats and vaulting over it.

“Dar!” Kerry let out a yell. “What are you doing???”

“Stay here!” Dar yelled back, as she bent and scooped up one of the coiled lines they’d tied the raft to the shore with and ran across the pontoons to dive into the white water ahead of them. 

The impact nearly made her inhale a breath of water and she battled her own instincts before she clamped her jaw shut and forced some air out of her nose as the chill shocked her .

She felt the water close over her head and she fought to the surface, as the river’s force took her and swept her through the huge trough in front of the island and the water went from froth to chill black and the cold water soaked her through.

Yells from behind her.

Dar ignored them as she made a picture in her head of the path she wanted and she rolled over in the water and kicked off against an underground rock just in time to force her way between one boulder and a second, the rush of the current shoving her forward.

She wanted to get between them, then get up onto the island and she squirmed through the opening she’d spotted and then had to stop.

Underwater and suddenly stuck there.

The rope was wedging her in place.  Dar wriggled out from between the coil and opened her eyes, seeing swirling dark green water as she turned sideways and squiggled between the rocks trailing the rope behind her clutched in one hand.

The current helped her along and she got through, almost piling into the rocks head first “Uf.” She grunted, as her head broke the surface of the water and she saw the island edge ahead of her.

She grabbed hold of a boulder and pulled herself up, her boots slipping on the slick surface of the rocks as she propelled herself up onto the island, grabbing the end of the rope and hauling it up with her as she got from her knees up to her feet and bolted for the tall stones in the center.

She got around the nearest, and brought the rope with her, passing it around the rock and coming around the side of it just as the raft came surging past it and the rope pulled hard taut.

Dar felt it start to slide and she got the other end of the rope around the stone again and dropped to her knees, rapidly getting the rope into a knot just as the weight of the raft came fully on it and it twanged like an overstressed guitar string.

It creaked and stretched and Dar paused, hands off it, hoping it would hold and as she thought that it shivered under the strain and she thought getting out of it’s way was a good idea just in case.

A spattering of water from it dusted Dar’s face as she got up and jumped over it, putting her hands on the rock and climbing half up it to see the raft.

It swung around and slammed into the island, and she saw two bodies tumble off it into the water and realized one of them was Kerry.

How did she know in the darkness and the storm? She just knew by the grab at her heart and the sense of shock at hitting the water that she felt and she knew Kerry was feeling and that went past thought.

So without thought, she vaulted up to the top of the rock and dove back into the river, into the rolling wash, popping to the surface and keeping the bobbing head in view in the darkness and starting into a crawl as fast as she could manage after her partner.

Behind her, she could hear the slam of the raft against the rocks and incoherent yells and she was glad in a way to leave it behind her as she ducked a wave, and let a side wash of the current go over her as she went from a smooth stretch into a tangle of rocks and boulders in the center of the river that tossed her in every direction.

She thumped against rocks and through crevices feeling like a shoe in a washing machine as she was pulled under the surface again and again, realizing suddenly she had no safety jacket on and then she was in mid air, shooting out from the other side of a raceway and into a whirlpool.

No way to know which way was up, just a lot of water, and incredible force but she held her breath and stayed calm, the water being something of a natural element for her as it always had been from her earliest years the pressure and the darkness around her producing no panic.

She rolled over again in the water and flexed her body in an undulating motion, heading for the surface and breaking through it just as the whirlpool grabbed her and threw her out of the side and into the rush of a mini waterfall.

That sent her tumbling and as she stretched her arms out to steady her motion she spotted Kerry’s head about a hundred feet in front of her. “Kerry!”  She made use of the current, dodging the rocks and then sliding over the last of them as she caught up to her partner being kept afloat by her bright orange jacket.

“Dar!” Kerry grabbed on as Dar almost crashed into her and then they were swirling around in the current in each other’s arms.  “Son of a bitch!”  She grabbed onto Dar and they were face to face. “This is nuts!”

“You okay?” Dar went onto her back, using a scissors kick with her legs to steer them.   She looked behind them, barely able to see past the whitewater to the dark outline of the raft stuck to the side of the rock island. “Who came off with you?”

“No idea.” Kerry said. “One minute I was yelling my head off, the next I was in the river.” She took a tighter hold on her partner.  “I remembered what you said though.  Held my breath.”

Dar got a good grip on the jacket straps and managed a grin.  “Me too.”

Kerry turned around and looked over her shoulder.  ”You tied them to the rocks? Holy shit Dar!” She stared into the darkness. “That was crazy! You scared the crap out of me.” She looked back at Dar. “How did you do that?”

Dar shook her head. “Just got that rope around some rocks and got out of the way.”  She said. “Then I went after you.”

Kerry studied her in silence for a moment. “I was a second from going after you before I got thrown off. We’re nuts, you know that?”

Dar smiled briefly.

“But in a good way.” Kerry reached out and stroked Dar’s cheek. “I think you saved them, hon. If some of those folks got tossed in the water they’d been in real trouble.”

“Well, seemed like a good idea at the time.” Dar watched the raft recede in the distance. “Kinda sucks for us though.” She conceded.  “Unless we find a place to get out.”

Kerry regarded the current taking them at a brisk pace down the river. “Yeah.” She finally agreed. “But at least I’m with you.”

It was dark, and the water was very cold, and on her back going down this strange river in a storm Dar accepted that as the only truth that meant anything.  “Back at you.”  She said, watching Kerry’s face, it’s outline starkly plain with her pale hair wet and slicked back.

They went down a raceway and turned in a tight circle, then dropped down an incline and then, for a moment, it was quieter.  

Dar looked to either side of them, but the walls went straight up and the river filled the space between them for as far as she could see, giving them no real way out other than staying in the water.

The water was cold.  She looked at Kerry, and saw the knowledge of their predicament clear in those pale eyes looking back at her and then she watched as Kerry fished something out of her pocket, then used the caribiner she retrieved to clip the straps on her jacket to Dar’s belt fastening them both firmly together.

“Where you go, I go.” Kerry said, after a moment of silence. “Wherever that ends up being.”

Dar smiled, as they twisted in the middle of the river and went sideways.  “Any regrets?”

“Not one.”  Kerry felt the rain getting a bit heavier, the only comfort in it that it was warmer than the river and she tipped her head back and opened her mouth to collect some of it as Dar pulled her closer and put her arms around her.

“Me either.”  Dar watched the clouds overhead and blinked into the rain, as lightning flashed over the horizon and outlined the canyon walls in stark silver and black.

She could hear the roar of the rapids behind them and the sound of the river in front of them and…  Her brow furrowed.  “You hear something?”

“Hear what?”

“Buzzing.” Dar squinted into the darkness, but all she could see was the outline of the surface of the river and she blinked at the pouring rain that smelled wet and stone like and contrasted with the strong green scent of the river. 

She felt Kerry put her arms around her and the sound of the rapids faded behind them, but a growing roaring sound was increasing from ahead of them, and in a flash if lightning they saw another set of rapids approaching churning the water into froth.

“Ah.” Kerry said, after a pause.

“Yeah.” Dar responded. “Well, just stay with me, Ker. I’ll try to get us through it.”

Kerry paused, and bit her lip, turning her head to look at the walls for a moment. “If anyone in the world can, it’s you.” She finally said. “Is that the last one?”

Dar shook her head, as she watched the maelstrom approach.  “Should have paid more attention to the plan.”’ She acknowledged. “Too much the tourist.”

“Well, we were supposed to be tourists.” Kerry could feel the tug now of the current and she took a few deep breaths as Dar fought the pressure to make them turn in a circle.   She felt Dar take a firmer hold on her and then they were in the churn.

They went over some rocks and she got a quick breath of air before they were under the flow and her ears surprisingly popped as they dropped into a gully and then shot out the other side emerging into the air again before being turned around violently.

It became scary then as they were out of control and tumbling over and over until Dar got her feet on a piece of rock and kicked outward, taking them both out of the turmoil and into a clear area of fast running water.  Kerry expelled the air in her chest and sucked in a fresh supply as they tumbled down a series of stepped rocks and then Dar was kicking outward again and they plunged feet first into the pool at the bottom of the rapids.

Kerry felt her vest lifting her upward and a moment later she was popping to the surface and Dar emerged next to her in the outflow going downstream.  “Whoa!”

Dar shook the hair out of her eyes and they both held on as they whirled in a circle. “Wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”

Kerry spat out a mouthful of river water. “Kinda fun, actually. In a scary, screwed up sort of way.” She admitted. “Like a post apocalyptic water park.”

Dar laughed in pure reflex. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and that’s it before the pull out.”

“Maybe our RV will grow wings and pick us up from it.”

“Mm”  Dar kicked and turned them and they were facing forward as thunder rumbled over head and then they were moving past some rocks and then..

And then there was motion, sudden and unexpected very close by and a second later Dar felt disoriented as she smelled rubber and hands were abruptly grabbing her and hauling her up and out of the river and over the side of a rounded surface and into the bottom of a boat whose engine vibrations rattled right through her.

What in the hell? Dar raised her arm to shield herself from the downpour as a figure knelt over her and she was looking up at someone she didn’t know, dressed in dark waterproof clothing with bright yellow stripes. “Uh.”

“Stay down.” A firm, authoritative voice said. “We got you.  You two all right?”

“Yeah.” Both Dar and Kerry answered at the same time.

Hooked together, it was hard to maneuver but Dar managed to get herself hitched up on her elbow as the figure turned a flashlight on and played it over her face.  “Who are you?”

“We’re friendly.” The man assured her. “Just relax.” He turned the flashlight off and straightened up. “Go to the right, Jack.  See if we can pick up anyone else.”  He turned back around, swiveling on the gunwhale.  “You with one of the river groups?”

“Yes.” Dar agreed. “We ran into some trouble.”

The man chuckled shortly.  “More of you back there?”

“Yes, there’s more.” Kerry spoke up.  “At least one other person went over the side with me, and there’s a bunch on a raft two rapids back.”

The man turned and regarded her. “Thank you ma’am.  Save my ass the trouble. Jack you hear that?”

“Heard that.” A very low rumble came from behind them. “Give em a jacket, Ronnie. Like some drowned rats up there.”

Dar managed to get herself unhooked from Kerry and sat up, as she was handed a safety jacket and the shape and smell of the craft suddenly became familiar.  “This is a zodiac.”  She told Kerry, who was trying to get herself sorted out.  “Its military.”

“I figured.” Kerry leaned back against the rounded pontoon, resting her forearms against her upraised knees. “Any bets on which kind?”

“Hm.”

**

It was still short of dawn when they got to the pull out, the boat they were in landing first greeted by several anonymous men in dark rain gear who pulled the craft up onto a short sand beach and allowed them to climb out.

Behind them was a large dark green tent, and halon lights and as the tent flap opened there was the welcome scent of coffee wafting out of it.

It was organized and there was a sense of purpose and order about it, and in response to gruff orders men with stretchers came hustling out heading past them to the shore. 

Someone else who knew what they were doing was in charge here. 

It was a relief.  Dar and Kerry entered the tent and moved to the side out of the way, pausing to look around. Inside there were boxes of gear and one part was cordoned off with mesh partition where bags with red crosses were hung.

A woman in green came over to them. “You need any first aid?”  She asked, briskly.  “They said the first boat didn’t but it’s always worth the asking.”

“No, we’re okay.” Kerry answered. “Just wet and cold.”

The woman nodded. “Good to hear. You can get some joe over there, and there’s blankets.” She said, then hustled off before they could ask anything else.

Kerry lifted a hand in a brief wave. “Thanks.”  She went over to the table with thick stacks of green fabric and regarded them. "It's funny they won’t say who they are." She said, as she took off her jacket and folded it, picking up a blanket to wrap around her.

"They will eventually."  Dar did the same. “Lets find a seat. I really don't care who they are. Even if they're bozo's dad's private troops I'm glad they found us."

"True."

They spotted some canvas chairs to one side and went over to them, claiming two and sitting down to take off their sodden boots and socks to let them drop to the wooden platted floor.  Dar stood up again and took off her pants, wrapping the blanket around her waist before she sat down.

“Good idea.” Kerry felt the shivers receding as she followed suit.  There were portable heaters in the corners of the tent and stacked along the edges were utilitarian folding cots.

Two of the men were going around offering up some cups of coffee, and as Kerry sipped hers, without sugar or cream and strong as all get out she appreciated it none the less.  it was hot and she savored the sensation of it going down into her stomach only realizing after it had that it had some alcohol in it. “Oo.”

Another woman came by, offering them dry tshirts. “It’s not fancy.” She winked at them. “But it’s dry.”

Kerry took both and waited for the woman to continue on to where Rich and Dave were now sitting. “I don’t care who they are. I like them. They have common sense.”

Dar was taking her wet long sleeve shirt off. “I think they’re Army.”  She concluded, setting the garment aside and pulling the tshirt on.  “Ah.” She ran her hands through her hair to sort it and leaned back in the chair.

Two more men were going from person to person with a notepad, asking questions.  Todd and Marcia were on stretchers, in the cordoned off area and Petey was there as well, leaned over a chair with someone looking at his back while Tracey looked on, a blanket wrapped around her body.

Don was seated near the partition, talking to a man with a medical kit at his waist, who was nodding. The older man looked utterly relieved, and briefly he pointed to where Dar and Kerry were seated, saying something emphatically.

PJ limped in, with her dorm mates all talking to the two men supporting her.

“Looks like everyone made it.” Dar commented, as Ira and Sally came in, with Theresa behind them. “Good.” She concluded. “Makes all that half assed crap worth it.”

Kerry nodded a little bit. “In the ends justifying the means department.” She agreed. “It turned out okay.” She reached over to take Dar’s hand in hers. “As our shenanigans often do. We must have a guardian angel, Dar.”

For a brief moment Dar found an image in her head, of a towering figure with dark wings and a deep, throaty chuckle. “Sure.” She commented, with a smile at the thought. “There must be a patron saint of nerds. Which one is it?”

“Not my denomination, honey.” Kerry squeezed her hand. “But I know there must be one because you and I have squiggled out of more horrific situations than anyone else I’ve ever heard of.” She exhaled and regarded the interior of the tent.

Another man had Janet in the corner and it looked like she was being grilled, the man’s body language tense and aggressive.  “Now what’s that about?”

She was crying. Kerry nudged Dar and motioned towards her. "Like she needs to be smacked around."

Dar put her coffee down and got up, heading across the sandy floor towards where the group leader was being questioned.

Kerry took a sip and put her own cup down, then got up to follow. “And then you know?” She said under her breath. “Sometimes we just bring this stuff right down on us. We’re nuts.”

"Look, I told you. A lot of stuff happened. Nothing was on purpose."  Janet was saying as Dar arrived at her side. "Oh, sorry, um.. "

"Can I help you?" The man asked Dar, shortly.

"Can I help you?" Dar asked him back. "Why are you messing with her?"

The man regarded Dar briefly.  "Why is it your business why I'm asking her questions?  You people were doing stupid things on the river and we had to risk a lot to go rescue you. I can ask anyone anything I want."

"Captain, really, we owe this lady a big round of thanks. She's the one who tied us up onto that island." Janet spoke up. "We would have been toast in the rapids."

The man looked at Dar. "Really?"

Dar shrugged.

"You should still stay out of this business." The man said. "Has nothing to do with what you did or didn’t do.”

Which actually was true. Dar had to admit in her head. "I'm a jackass and I make things my business." She agreed readily. “It’s a reflex I can’t help. Glad you showed up, but nothing that happened calls for you to be a jerk to her or any of us."

The man folded his arms. "Lady, you have no idea who I am."

Dar smiled. "You have no idea who I am."  She responded. "Bet we'd both be a little surprised."

Janet put her hand on Dar's arm. "It's okay."  She said. "Thank you, but let him get it over with so I can go and sit down and maybe get a bandage on my leg."

The man eyed her. "Are you hurt? Why didn't you say so?"  He motioned another man over. "Get this one over to the docs."  He said. "We can talk later."  He watched one of the medics hurry over and help Janet to a stretcher.

Then he turned to Dar. "Now as for you."

Kerry arrived at that moment and took up a position next to Dar, arms folded. "Now as for us." She pronounced.

"Stay out of this, for real." The man said, seriously, his attitude moderating perceptibly.  "Those people are in a lot of trouble, and you can't help them so just go back over there and sit down and let us just do what we do."

"Why are they in trouble?" Kerry asked. "It was just a river rafting trip."

"Lady, go sit." The man gestured. "Please. We got work to do and it's been a long night."  He looked around and both his voice and attitude changed even more. "Besides I do know who you are. Do those guys know?" He indicated Janet.

"Just a name on a credit card."

"That's what I figured." The man said. "Please do me a favor and just go relax. You really really don't want to know what the deal is here." He paused. “Honestly.”

Dar and Kerry exchanged looks. "Okay." Dar said. "Guess we'll find out later."

“I’m sure you will.”  His nose crinkled in a somewhat appealingly wry grin. “Just please don’t hack my paycheck, okay?”

They walked back over to their seats and sat down.  "This is a little weird." Kerry stated.

"This is a little weird." Dar agreed. "But I think that's tuna noodle casserole so for right this minute I don't care."

"Tuna what?"

Dar leaned back and exhaled, the long night finally catching up with her too. "Tuna fish, mayo, spaghetti and peas."

Kerry closed her eyes.

"No, it's good."

“You said that about peach pizza.” Kerry sighed. "I'd rather have some crackers."

**

They set up the cots as they were finishing up their meal and it was like heaven to lay down on one.  Dar stretched out her long body and was happy to close her eyes, feeling the warmth of Kerry's hand clasping hers in the next cot over. 

She was full and finally dry and in some comfort and now they just had to wait for a break in the weather.

Overhead the roof was being pounded by rain, and there was a lingering scent of noodles and coffee in the air as thunder rolled outside and the occasional crack of lightning was visible, but the tent was waterproof and secure  and the generators that had been dropped with them kept right on rolling.  

"That really wasn't as bad as I expected." Kerry said, in the muted darkness of the shelter. "That noodle stuff. It didn't really go with the Gatorade though."

"Needs milk." Dar said, stifling a yawn.

Kerry chuckled a little.  "Doesn't everything?"

“Mm. But pretty much anything’s good if you’re hungry enough.”

More thunder rumbled, and they could hear the rush of the river past the rain but it was hard to even remember being stuck out in all that now. 

Dar briefly thought about the cave shelters, and the wood fires, and beyond that to the comfortable glam camping they’d done at the beginning of the trip and it all seemed faded and unimportant now.

Now was this, and the smell of canvas, and the comfort of dry cotton and looking forward to getting into their RV and seeing their dogs.

Looking forward to going home, and the heat and sunshine of Miami and the strong smell of salt on the air and the thousand shades of green that was so different than this place they’d come to that it was almost like a different planet.

The canyon was beautiful, but alien.  Dar was glad she’s seen it, glad they’d had the experience no matter how crazy it had been.  Whatever it was, she certainly hadn’t ended up bored.

“Hey.” Ira was sprawled in the cot next to Dar and his head was turned as he looked at her. "That thing you did was crazy."

“What thing?”

“Jumping off the boat into the rapids. That was seriously insane.”

Dar nodded. "Looking back at it, yeah.”

"Were you scared?"

Dar regarded him thoughtfully.  "Wasn't time to be scared. I didn't want that raft overturning. Wouldn't have been a good thing for anyone." She shifted a little. “Only choice really was that island I just was hoping the rope would hold.”

He was watching her with serious intent, his dark eyes equally thoughtful.  "You have a good spirit in you." He finally said. "You should come meet my grandad."

Did she?  Dar thought about all they'd been through.

"I don't think your spirit animal has rabies, either." Ira continued. "I'm glad we got to work the water together."

Kerry kept silent, just listening. There were layers under the young man's words she could sense, and a truth.

"Yeah." Dar answered. "This is a beautiful place."

"It’s a fierce place." Ira crossed his ankles. "The earth here is very sharp, and very angry because it wants to stop the river and it never can. The river just keeps changing it."

"Humans can change the river." Kerry said. “And they have, with the dams and all that.”

"They can, but you know, that won’t last forever." Ira said. "The land has a long tail. It's been here way before us, and it'll be here way after we're gone. It's permanent. We're not."

Dar nodded. “That’s true.” She listened to the rain for a minute. “But you can feel the time here. You can see it.”

“Yep, you can.”

Kerry closed her eyes and let sleep take her, the long and exhausting day fading finally out to the sound of thunder in the distance and the rattle of rain on the tent roof, and the low conversation next to her that stopped having any sense to it as it finally faded away.

**

It seemed like seconds before the sound of helicopters were rattling the air in the place of the storm and they were being shook awake by the soldiers.  Kerry sat up, blinking her eyes feeling soggy and almost as exhausted as she had been before sleep. “Whoa.”

“Sorry, time to go.” The man who had shook her shoulder moved on. “Get ready.”

"Buh." Dar grunted. "Be stupendously glad to see that damn RV." She stood up and stretched, glancing across the tent to where the medics were preparing to take Todd and Marcia out, along with Petey and PJ with her bandaged foot.

There was coffee in a big oatmeal colored thermos on one remaining table and they headed for it, along with Rich and Dave, who were rubbing their eyes and looking a bit somber.

"Something's going down."  Dave said, as he dispensed coffee into paper cups standing by and handed them over. "They took Janet out first and Tracey's really freaked." He said. “Not sure what’s going on.”

Remembering their earlier conversation, Kerry just kept silent and sipped her coffee, hoping it would clear some of the fog.

“I’m sure we’ll find out eventually.” Dar said.  “Right now I just want to get the hell out of here.”

“Heard that.” Rich said emphatically.  “Want to get out, and get to civilization and have a hot shower.” He said. “Hope they got that ready back at the ranch.”

The soldiers were packing things up, and as they took their coffee out into the canyon they found a cloudy but not rain filled sky and nearby two helicopters bearing Army markings.

Kerry had her dry bag, all she'd had on her when she'd fallen off the raft but in it she had her camera, and Dar's book if nothing much else.  Dar had nothing at all, just the clothes she’d jumped in the river with now dry, and smelling like the river.

"Ended a bummer." Rich said. "But we were lucky there finally." He took a sip of his coffee. "Next time I go with one of those paddle ops."

Sally looked at him. "Next time I go to Cancun."

"Next time we stay home."  Kerry added wryly.

They  watched the stretchers be loaded, and Amy and Don climbed into the first helicopter along with PJ and Pete.  They were all silent, and as the door closed the soldiers motioned the rest of them towards the second chopper, and they ducked under the wash and climbed onboard.

Hard seats and webbing, not at all like the helicopter that had dropped them to the canyon floor.  Dar slid to the last seat and grabbed hold as Kerry tucked herself in next to her and the rest found space as they closed the door.  A moment later they were lifting and rising up past the canyon walls.

Then they were in free air, and the chopper went from vertical to horizontal flight and they were moving across the rim of the canyon heading back towards the ranch.

After a moment of silence, Kerry put her head next to Dars. “Can’t wait to call home.”

Dar snorted faintly, the motion jerking her shoulders a little. “Bet they cant wait either.”

**

Concluded in Part 11