Southern Stars

Part 3

It was dark when Kerry opened her eyes, and though she could hear the river’s rush outside the sound of thunder was conspicuous by it’s absence. She carefully lifted herself up and checked her watch, then she returned her body to her bunk and exhaled a little.

She looked across the tent, and after a moment, Dar opened her eyes and looked back.

Barely visible in the dim light coming from the lanterns parked outside, but even so she could see the faint shift of skin as Dar smiled at her.

They were on the ground.  Cots stacked up against the wall of the tent leaving them with their mattress pads and sleeping bags snuggled up in the center.  Kerry reached out her hand and tangled her fingers with Dar, aware of a sense of contentment that only intensified as they curled up in each other’s arms.

They had plenty of time to relax.  It was at least an hour to dawn, and there wasn’t a sound outside that could be the crew starting to get things going for the day.

It was nice to just relax there together. “Stopped raining.”  Kerry murmured.

“Good.” Dar had her eyes closed again.

“What is today, Wednesday?”

Dar opened one eye halfway, regarding her partner in silence for a moment. “Tuesday” She finally decided. “It’s weird to think we haven’t communicated with anyone for that long.”

“Mm.”

“Should I think about all the possible disasters that could be happening?”

“No.” Kerry rubbed the edge of her thumb against her partner’s knuckle.  “What’s the point? You can’t do anything about it.”

“True.” Dar exhaled and let the one eye close.

They were both quiet for a while, easing closer to falling back to sleep when Dar opened her eye again and found Kerry looking back at her.  

They sighed at the same time, and sat up, untangling themselves from the covers and sitting cross legged.  “Want to go for a walk?” Kerry suggested. “Maybe the clouds are gone and we can see the stars.”

Dar looked interested. “Sure.” She levered herself up to her feet and slid a shirt on, holding her hand down to offer Kerry a boost up. “I suck at sleeping in.”

“I know.” Kerry gave her a good humored smile.  “I live with you.” She got her sandals on and the door to the tent open and they emerged into the cavern, where the cool breeze from outside blew against them.  The gentle slope down to the entrance was a little damp and as they emerged into the cooking area, they noted a cooler left out with cups.

The seat by the edge of the cavern was empty, and against the wall they could see a figure rolled up in a sleeping bag sound asleep.

Outside the sky was, in fact clear.  Kerry sucked in a breath of awe, as she paused and looked up, finding a thick ribbon of stars past the outline of the cliffs. “Oh wow.”

The air outside was chilly, but it made the sky seem even crisper, and Kerry took a deep breath as she turned slowly in a circle, staring up. 

Dar was standing next to her, hands in the pockets of her shorts, a gentle fog marking her breath. “That is cool.” She pointed. “The milky way.”

“That is cool.” Kerry agreed, with a smile. “I’m glad we got up.”

Nearby Dar heard an owl and she studied the scrubby trees growing up the cliff, seeing a pair of yellow eyes watching them.   She took a few steps down the shore, to where the raft was securely tied and sat down on one of the rocks.

The sound of the river was almost hypnotic.  It burbled and rushed along, a never ending cascade of sound and this moment of pre dawn quiet seemed a little magical.   Kerry came over and sat down next to her, tasting the scent of the water on the back of her tongue.

Nice.

Dar cleared her throat, then quietly started to sing.

Kerry smiled in delight, humming along to the nursery song about twinkling stars, enjoying the sound of her partner’s voice and the grin she could hear in the words. 

Then, as she leaned against Dar’s body and glanced past her, she gasped, causing Dar to stop abruptly and stare at her. “Look!” She hissed, pointing to the right past the raft. “It’s a cat!”

Dar slowly turned her head, spotting the animal on the shore past where the craft was tied, looking at them. “Oh!” She bounced a little in excitement. “Kerry it’s a bobcat!”

“You can see that much?” Kerry whispered back, squinting at it. “It just looks like a big cat to me.”

“I can see the whiskers!” Dar stared in fascination at the animal, who agreeably sat down and lifted up a paw to lick it.  “Wow.”

Kerry was explicitly glad.  If the trip itself was being something of a disappointment at least Dar had gotten to see her bobcat.  “Wish I had my camera.” She lamented. “I know if I go get it the thing’ll be gone.”

Just then, the owl lifted off it’s branch and winged away and in the east a faint glow was appearing, making the edge of the cliffs etch sharply.   They sat still and watched as the bobcat paced towards the raft, then jumped up onto it, swaggering across the seats and sniffing the storage boxes.

It looked at them with a touch of insolence, then it jumped down and headed off, down the riverside with a twitch of its stubby tail. 

“Nice.” Dar rumbled. 

“Now I know why they lock all that stuff up.” Kerry whispered, bumping shoulders with her.  “Bet that cat would have eaten anything it found.”

“Bet it would.”  Dar half turned as they heard footsteps behind them, to find Don and Marcia coming out of the cave. “Morning.”

“Morning you two.” Marcia greeted them. “You missed the kerfuffle last night!  That little gal came running out half past midnight and all upset because her fellow didn’t come back.”

“Meh.” Dar snorted. “Glad I slept through it.”

“Me too.” Kerry agreed. “So what happened?”

“Well, I don’t know.”  Don said. “Some of the crew went off, and we went to bed.” He said. “Don’t have to tell me twice, I wasn’t getting involved in it. Silly kid.”

“Jerk went off into the cave around nine or ten.” Dar said. “I heard him jumping over that fence.”

Marcia clucked her tongue. “Want some coffee? They left a thermos out and I heard noises from the crew area.”  She looked up at the sky, where the stars were starting to get washed out by the glow in the east and sighed. “Aren’t those pretty?”

Rich came out with Sally trailing behind him and at their heels one of the crew had a tray with cups on it, stifling a yawn with one wrist.  “Late night, Chris?”  Don asked him.

“We were hunting in the cave.” The young man said, looking a little glum. “Took us five hours to find the guy who jumped the fence. I’m toast.” He offered them cups and then wandered back towards the cave.  “Morning.” He offered the tray to a few other wanderers.

“That’s a shame.”Don frowned, as he walked over to the raft and examined the ground. “These kids work hard enough without having to work all that much harder.” He peered out over the river. “Got some water coming down today, we do.”

Marcia sat down on one of the storage boxes that had been left near the raft, ropes fastening it to the rigging. “It’s pretty this morning isn’t it?” She said. “So clear.”

Dar got up and wandered along the riverside, pausing where they’d seen the bobcat and crouching down to look at the ground.

“Guess what we saw?” Kerry sipped at the freshly made, artisanal tasting coffee.  “A bobcat.”

“No, really?” Marcia said. 

“Really.” Kerry watched her partner reached down and touch the ground, putting her fingers into what she could only assume were the tracks from the cat. “Dar’s so happy. She really wanted to see one.” She looked up as they heard the sound of a motor approaching and watched as a powerboat came maneuvering into the small bay the cave was in.

“Ah hah.” Don said. “I figured we’d get a visit from the native patrol.”

The sky was now a coral pink edged with gilt as the sun got ready to appear over the rocks and Janet emerged with Doug rubbing his face behind her as they heard the motorboat’s roar. 

Kerry got up and headed away from the river.  She went through the entrance as more of the crew came out, noting the apprehensive looks on their faces.  

Meant nothing good.  She went quickly to the tent and got her camera, then she paused and knelt to stuff her gear and Dar’s into their duffle bags and zip them shut. 

Then she got up and ducked out of the tent, carrying the bags over her shoulders and leaving them outside the shelter so the crew could strike it if they needed to. 

“Hey Kerry.” JP was limping carefully down the slope. “What’s going on?”

“Hard to say.” Kerry joined her on the route outside.  “There was some issue last night and a boat just showed up with some officials or something.”

“Oh that’s not good.” JP frowned. “Tribal police?”

“Not sure.”

They reached the entrance to the cave, passing the four or five of the crew who were cutting fruit and preparing breakfast.  Outside the four people from the boat were standing on the river’s edge, facing Doug and Janet.  “Yep.” JP said. “Was it that dude?”

Kerry regarded the scene. “That’s what I heard.” She shook her head, and turned right, moving away from the confrontation and back over to where Dar was now seated, just watching the sun rise.

When she got up near her, Dar pointed, and winked, at a bighorn sheep that was making it’s way up the side of the cliff across from them. 

Kerry quickly got her camera ready and took a shot. “Did that cat leave tracks? I was going to take a picture of it for you.”

Dar circled her arm around Kerry’s leg, and leaned her head against her hip.  “Thanks.”  She indicated the ground. “I was hoping you’d do that. I put a circle of rocks around it so we could find it again.” Dar leaned forward and looked past Kerry’s kneecap. “They in trouble?”

Kerry took her focus off the sheep and put it on the ground, seeing a rough circle of river stones.  She untangled herself from Dar’s grip and knelt, as a bit of the sun splashed the rocks and brought out their striated colors. “Ooo.”

There were several paw prints but Dar, typically, had found the most perfect one, with the toes and the pad well defined and the sun made the shot even more interesting and she spent a few minutes taking several pictures of it from a few different angles.

Dar watched with an indulgent and pleased smile, glad this bit of their adventure was being captured. She could easily picture a copy of that ending up in a frame on the wall and it made her happy.   She whistled softly under her breath, then glanced up and over as voices started to rise.

The four people who had arrived were in weathered jackets and jeans, and they were tall and had similar builds.  She could see the placating body posture in Janet, and Doug just had his hands in his pockets and was listening in silence.

Almost without thought, she slowly started making her way towards the group. “Be right back, hon.”

Kerry looked up, and a moment later she stood up and followed and they neared the group and the voices became clear. 

“Look, you people know the rules.” The tallest of the men was saying.  “We let you use this place on those conditions.”

“We know.” Janet said. “We didn’t know anyone had breached the fence until someone told us one of the pax was gone and they couldn’t find them.” She glanced aside as Dar approached. “Oh, hey, I think breakfast is ready.” She turned to defer her. “We’ll be done here in a moment.”

Dar kept walking until she was standing next to Janet and paused, regarding the four men over Janet’s head. “I heard him go over the fence around ten.”  She stated. “We were told not to go near the back, he didn’t give a crap.”

The tallest of the men regarded her back with a solemn expression. He had a heavy, rugged face, and lined eyes, with dark, straight hair pulled back in a pony tail and Dar figured he was mostly native. His eyes were dark brown and they met hers in a stolid kind of way.

She stopped speaking and waited.

“About ten, you say?” The man said, after a long pause.

“Right so we didn’t know he was missing until after midnight.” Janet said, hastily.  “Because you didn’t say anything to anyone, did you Ms. Roberts?”

“I didn’t say anything to anyone.” Dar agreed.

“Why not?” The man asked. “Seems like a good camper would want to tell someone that.”

“Because he’s an idiot and I was hoping he’d get bitten by something that would require him to be airlifted out of here and leave us the hell alone.” Dar said, then held out a hand. “Sorry, Dar Roberts.”

A corner of the man’s lip twitched, and then he returned the gesture and took her hand in his.  “Jonny Redhawk.” He said.  “So this guy’s a troublemaker?” His body posture relaxed a little, and he leaned his weight back on his rear leg, as he folded his arms over his chest.

“He’s a pain in our ass.” Dar said. “Got a chip on his shoulder and wants us all to pay for it.”

Janet took a breath, then she paused and released it, remaining silent. Doug put his hands behind his back and rocked back and forth a little.  “He has a beef with us.”  He admitted.  “We were supposed to take him on a private trip, and our team didn’t make the flight out.”

“Ah.” Redhawk grunted.

“Any chance he’s broken enough law for you to haul his ass off?” Dar asked, in a hopeful tone, noting the faint grins on the faces of the other natives.  “Seriously, they didn’t know.” She said.  “Guys just a punk with a rich dad.”

Redhawk nodded a little.  “Seen a few of those.” He acknowledged. “This outfit don’t cater to the blue collar I reckon.” He regarded her with a brief smile. “Lets go talk to this guy.” He indicated the cavern. “Then we’ll talk to you all.”

Janet nodded. “Okay, sure.” She hesitated, looking at Dar.

“We’re going to have breakfast.” Dar reassured her.  “We’re done here.” She held hand out to Kerry and they walked past the group, heading for the table they could see the rest of the company clustered around.  ‘Not sure if that was a good thing to do or not.”

“It was a you thing to do.” Kerry smiled, patting her on the back. “Crusader Dar, even when you decide not to be.”

“Mm.”

“Hey hon I think they have bacon.”

**

They did in fact have bacon, and biscuits and Dar considered her morning pretty well a good one as she sat on the pontoon of the raft and waited for the rest of the company to get packed up and moving. She had her bathing suit on under her shorts and was looking forward to them getting underway.

She kicked her sandals against the pontoon and drew in a breath of the cool air, keeping her ears cocked for Kerry’s approach, as her partner had remained behind collecting some fruit to take onboard the raft for their morning’s trip.

She was looking forward to the swimming, and seeing some of the waterfalls they were scheduled to look at, along with the natural slides the pictures had promised and it all seemed to offer a more active participation in their little trip.

“Hey.” Rich came over and sat down on the pontoon next to her.

“Hey.” Dar responded amiably.

“So you’re a computer person, right?”

“Right.” Dar agreed. “You’re not going to ask me how to clean your mouse balls are you?”

In the middle of taking a breath, Rich paused and gave her a look. “Uh what?”

“Never mind. Did you have a question?”

“Oh okay well yeah, my nephew is just getting out of college and he was wondering if it was a good idea to get into computers.”

Dar regarded him. “What did he go to college for?”

“He was a Tibetan history major.”

“Does he want to make a living?”

Rich grinned sheepishly. “Yeah, it’s a joke, right? Something like that, all you can do is either write books or teach history or keep going to school.”

Dar pondered a moment. “Does he like computers?”

Rich nodded. “He really does. He’s got like, four of them and he’s always doing stuff with them, on the internet, in these chat things. You know.” He said. “But how do you get started for real with them? How did you start?”

“I started by programming the integrated circuits in nuclear submarines.”

Rich squinted at her. “I thought you said you weren’t in the service?”

“I wasn’t. I was ten.” Dar said almost apologetically.  “But seriously if he wants to get into computers he started the right way. Just use the hell out of them. Learn a programming language.  Do some small stuff. Get a job in tech support.”

Rich put his hands in his pockets and regarded her in silence for a minute. “You were ten?”

“Nine and a half.” Dar’s eyes twinkled a little.

Two of the crew moved past them, carrying gear. Both were shaking their heads. 

Yeeo. Guess it’s time to get going.” Rich got up and climbed up onto the raft, chuckling a little under his breath as he went to his favorite perch on the front of the middle pontoon. 

Dar chuckled a little herself, remembering being that precocious brat, earning Hershey bars tweaking sensors for her father’s skipper and him telling her father his kid was some kind of genius.

That had gotten her ice cream to go with the Hersheys, and it all had seemed a little silly to her, doing these things that were so basic and common sense to her and magic to everyone else.

She got up and went to the two seats she and Kerry had claimed, arranging the day bags she’d taken out and carefully positioning Kerry’s so her camera would be handy on the right hand side.   Then she took a seat and hooked her feet on the rungs of the steel supports, removing her sunglasses from her bag and sliding them into place over her eyes as she watched the entrance to the cave.

The four natives emerged, and Janet walked them down to their boat.  Amy and Todd came out behind them, and Todd looked both sleepy and disgruntled, his head half turned watching the visitors get into their boat.  After a moment he lifted his middle finger in their direction, then shifted his duffel on one shoulder and headed for the raft.

“Nice.” Dar kept her eyes forward as the two mounted the raft and crossed behind her, hearing Todd drop the duffel onto his seat and then detecting the scuff and creek of footsteps approaching her.  She kept her hands relaxed and on her knees, but was aware of a tension coming into her body and a faint increase in her breathing.

“Hey.” Todd stopped next to her.

“Hey.” Dar responded.

“You tell those fuckers I jumped the fence?”

“Yep.” Dar turned her head slightly and regarded him through her sunglasses.

“Why?”

“Because I felt like it.” She dropped her head a little, letting the glassed slide forward enough for her to look over the top of them and they stared at each other for a long moment in silence. 

He took a step forward and Dar stood up in response, her hands coming to rest at her sides half curled into fists, but after what seemed like a long, breathless pause he just moved back and went to the drink cooler, flipping it open and removing a can from it.  “Asshole.” He tossed back over his shoulder.

“Pipsqueak.” Dar responded, with a chuckle.  She resumed her seat and pushed her sunglasses back up, then realized that Rich had seen it, had stood up in place and now he walked across the pontoon and came to her side.

“What was that?” Kerry asked, arriving from the other direction at the same time. 

“A moron.” Dar inspected the selection of fruit her partner was carrying and removing a pear from her grasp. 

“That guy was going to hit you.” Rich said, in a serious tone.

“He thought about it.”  Dar agreed, taking a bite of the pear.  “He might have taken a swing at Ker.” She added. “But I’m six foot four and not a little girl pushover.”

“Hey.” Kerry eyed her. “Who’s the registered gun owner in our family?”

“Neither are you, slugger.”  Dar said. “But he doesn’t know that.” She wiggled her toes in contentment. “Bullies pick targets they figure they can roll right over.”  She nibbled around the seeds. “But we better check around our tent from now on, hon.”

“Ugh.” Kerry stuffed the rest of the fruit into her pack and sat down. “Jerkity Jerk Jerk Jerk.”

Dar got up and put the pear in between her teeth, miming a drink and moving off towards the cooler, as the rest of the party were getting settled.

“That guy is trouble.” Rich told Kerry. “She should be careful.”

“Yeah.” Kerry grinned wryly.  “We both should be careful. But we’re not.” She admitted. “Problem is, Dar’s got brass ovaries the size of  watermelons.”

Rich started laughing.

“Seriously. She’s got no fear in her.” Kerry said. “And, though we really prefer to be mild mannered derfy nerds, we honestly don’t take any crap from people so hopefully the danger dude back there will just chill out and start enjoying the ride.”

She got her camera out, and inserted it into her waterproof casing. “Looks like a beautiful day.”

**

“So here we get to relax for a couple of hours, and then have lunch.”  Janet announced, as the raft coasted through a ripple of white ruffled waters, and they emerged into an area full of sculpted rock.  “Look at those natural slides!”

Rain and erosion had modeled the sandstone into loops and whirls, with water surging through them making a natural playground.   Dar was already standing up as they approached the rustic landing. “Nice.”

“Water’s high from that storm.”  Sally commented, from her seat next to Kerry.  “Should be fun!”

It looked it.  Kerry grinned, already damp from a run through a small rapids they’d just shot through and looking forward to the ruffled jade green water ahead of them.  The breeze had picked up a little, and it ruffled her hair, as she got her daypack settled on her shoulder and prepared to follow Dar off the raft.

They docked and everyone scrambled off, walking down the driftwood landing and up onto a flat space where the crew were already offloading the tables and gear to prepare for lunch. 

“You can put your stuff up here.” Janet indicated a rock shelf just above that.  “And go have fun!”

With a pout, JP settled herself to watch on a flat rock, putting her bandaged foot up and spreading tanning lotion out along her skin.  She looked up with a smile as one of the crew offered to help, and handed over the bottle. “Kerry, you want me to take some pictures of you guys? Since I can’t swim?”

“Sure.” Kerry handed over the camera.

“Hot damn.” Dar glanced over her shoulder at them. “Now I’ll get some pictures with you in them.”  She grinned, as she stripped out of her long sleeve t-shirt and shorts. 

“Hah hah.” Kerry good naturedly joined her, giving her a poke in the hip as she removed her own shirt.  They were both in one piece suits, hers in an eggplant purple and Dar’s royal blue and she half turned as the sun splashed over her chest picking out the colors of her tattoo.

Golden light touching the vivid eyes and claws of Dar’s, there on the cap of her shoulder, blending a little into her tan skin.  Familiar to Kerry’s eyes now and impulsively she leaned over and gave the cat a kiss.

Dar glanced at her, and smiled, then reached out and tickled Kerry’s snake with the tip of her finger.  “Let’s go have some fun.” 

“Go on, I’ll be right there.” Kerry started to remove her shorts. “Wow, that water looks nice.”

“Yep.” Dar put her sunglasses and clothes inside her pack and went to the edge of the water.  The landing was at the outer end of a long, deep curve in the river, and there was a set of lines that blocked off the bay, making a protected swimming area.

It looked cool and fresh, and without hesitation she went to a flat rock at it’s edge and dove into it, judging the depth sufficient.

It was.  She opened her eyes and saw the whiteness of the rocks and a few startled fish splurting out of her way as she reached the bottom of the dive and started up again.  It was just as refreshing as she’d figured it would be, and as she surfaced she heard the muted screams of the others jumping in.

She could feel the current, milder than in the main part of the river, but still a bit of a tugging at her as she turned and started swimming back and the exertion felt good.   She switched her stroke to a butterfly and stretched her body out as she angled her motion towards where Kerry was making her more casual entry into the water.

Ooo. Chilly.”  Marcia was saying as she eased into the water up to her knees.

Kerry took a breath and steeled herself, then she waded up to her hips into the water before she just threw herself forward, stifling a reflexive inhale at the temperature. 

Halfway across the lagoon she could see Dar’s head as she swam steadily towards them, her long arms coming up and out of the water as she moved against the current that Kerry could feel pushing against her shoulderblades.

Still, after a moment of adjustment it felt good and she relaxed, rolling over onto her back and letting the current take her briefly into deeper water.  Then turned over and started pushing against the flow.

The crew, half of them, were also in the water in shortie wetsuits, several of them with float bullets and obviously keeping an eye on their clients.  

Kerry found she could make progress, but it took some effort.  But after the last week of just spectating it felt good and she only wished she had her dive fins on to get a little more leg action into it.

She made it back to the shallows just as Dar caught up to her and they both stood together, leaning against the current as the rest of the party got wet.  “Nice.” She ran a hand over her hair to move it out of her eyes.

“Very.” Dar agreed.  “Want to go do the slides?” She asked, pointing to the climb up to the curve of the waterfront, which allowed access to the irregular natural formations.  “I think they’re setting up for some water volleyball.”

“Can I sit on your shoulders for it?” Kerry joked ruefully, as they started in the direction of the shore.

“Heh.” Dar chuckled. “Remember that game at the party?”

Kerry thought a moment, then smiled at the memory. “I do.” She followed Dar as they started up the slope, walking carefully on the slippery sandstone. “Mariana told me she knew for sure that night.” She reminisced.  “About us, I mean.”

“Why, because I showed up for a party half naked and played volleyball with you?” Dar inquired with mock surprise.  “What a sleuth!”

“Mm.” Kerry chuckled under her breath. “I was standing next to Maria when you came in and while my hormones were busy crawling out my ears she was just like, oh isn’t that a nice outfit Jefa has on.” She cleared her throat. “Kerry you should go tell her that.”

“She knew.”  Dar picked a path up the slope, appreciating the sun now hitting her skin. “She’s known me a long time. “

“I liked her from the start.” Kerry climbed up next to her and they went to the top of the first slide area. “Meet you at the bottom?”

Booyah.” Dar picked a slope and stepped into the wash of the water cascading down it, sitting down and letting the force of the current take her forward.  

The slope was mild, but the rush of the water gave it at least an illusion of speed and she slide down the winding curves of the stone, ending in an abrupt plunge in a falling surge of water as she came out and went into the water at the end of it.

Deep enough to be over her head, but she arrested her motion and kicked upward, breaking the surface and turning to see Kerry shoot out the end and tumble in mid air, laughing.

“Woo!” Already Rich and Sally were scrambling up the slope, dripping wet to follow them and even, grudgingly, Amy and Todd were heading in that direction. 

“Let’s go again.” Kerry had come up next to her. “That was fun.”

More than willing, Dar started for the shore, clearing the landing area for the next sliders.  On the other shore, she could see the crew setting up a little canopy and putting chairs out, and from a solar powered radio, there were faint strains of music emerging.

Then she spotted Rich climbing up onto a shelf a respectable distance from the surface, and leaping off, and she grinned.

“Oh boy.” Kerry covered her eyes.

**

It was late afternoon and the sun was turning to a burnished gold as it headed west, the music still chiming over the water as everyone relaxed after hours of water play. 

Dar was stretched out along one of the pontoons drying off, pleasantly tired and enjoying the warmth of the sun after several hours of being in the cold water.  Nearby, Kerry was sitting in one of the forward seats, talking to Sally and JP, and the crew were starting the process of packing them up.

Dar could feel the raft undulating beneath her, and she turned her head and opened her eyes, to see the edge of the water now higher against the rocks. Then the motion settled down and she half shrugged, closing her eyes again.

“No, I used to only shoot film.” Kerry shifted a little in her seat, keeping an eye on her partner out there on the pontoon. “I just switched to digital.”

“My roommate still uses film, and develops his own negatives.” JP said. “Holy bleep that stinks.”

“That I never did.” Kerry laughed.

“He shot things you’d get arrested for trying to get developed these days.”  The young student said, matter of factly. “So there’s that.”

Kerry grimaced. 

“Yeah, it was gross.” JP agreed. “He was selling the pictures but he finally got busted and they showed up at the apartment one morning last month and dragged his ass off to jail.”  She was finishing up a banana, pausing to fold the skin up in a neat bundle. “I was glad he’d paid the rent at least.”

Sally was laying on the platform in front of the seats, her face half obscured by a hat. “This was a blast today.” She commented. “Especially that platform diving. I love it.”

“I think I liked the slides better. I’m not really fond of heights.” Kerry said. “But it was fun watching.”  She said. “And I got some good shots of Dar with her acrobatics.” She gave her partner a fond look, aware of the one, sharp blue eye open now and watching her.

Janet appeared, with a tray.  “Everyone have a good time?” She offered the tray. “Got some lemonade here before we pack up and take off.”

“I’m fine, thanks.” Kerry leaned back to let JP take a mug.  “Today was great, Janet.  I think everyone had a good time.” She put a slight emphasis on the word.

Janet smiled. “Yeah, it didn’t start so great, but I agree.”  She stepped between them and started for the other side of the raft.  Ms Roberts? Want some lemonade?”

Dar waved her hand negatively.  “All good.”  She sat up, then got to her feet and made her way over to where Kerry was.  “Cool day.” She pulled her shirt back on and sat down in her seat, resting her elbows on the chair arms.

“Tomorrow’s full of rapids.” Rich came over, ruffling his hair dry.  “It’s the biggest rapids day, all white water, all the time.” He grinned. “Literally non stop.”

“And we’ve got two hikes when we do stop.” Sally looked satisfied. “Sorry JP.”

JP stuck her tongue out.

Doug jumped up onto the raft and went back to the pilot’s seat, as everyone started to wander back onboard. He blew the raft’s horn gently twice, then started to prepare the craft to leave.

“And there’s a lot of water coming down.” Rich said, looking out over the river they were preparing to pull back out onto. “We’re in for a big ride.”

**

The camping spot that night was a picturesque side canyon that held a winding creek split off from the Colorado and on it’s shores was a big sandy beach that fronted the cliffs rising high over them.  

The tents were all set up along the beach, with tiki torches between them, and the crew had gathered driftwood and built a fire to grill dinner over instead of using their campstove.

Dar sprawled in her chair in front of their tent and drew in a breath of whatever was being grilled, which smelled like meat and peppers.  Overhead was a blanket of stars, only slightly washed out by the fire and she watched with a benign expression as Kerry approached carrying two bottles of beer.

Kerry was barefoot and in shorts and a long sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up.  She put the bottles down on their little camp table and sat down next to Dar with a contented sigh.  “This is kinda more like it.”

“Yup.”

“And tomorrow sounds really fun.”

“Vroom vroom.” Dar agreed. “Seventy five miles they said of rapids? Twenty five? Something like that but it sounds like a nice rollercoaster.”

“Rich is stoked.”

The fire snapped a little as they turned the meat on the grill, sending a wafting of sparks up into the dark night sky, and one of the crew had brought out a guitar and was tuning it, a companion sitting down with a long, wooden flute.

A little ways off they could hear the rush of the river, a reminder of what they had in store tomorrow and Kerry tipped her head back to watch the stars, a smile on her face.

Midway down the beach, someone had pulled out a Frisbee and the younger members of the party were racing up and down the sand, playing catch.  “Hope that doesn’t land in the fire.” Kerry said, idly.

“Better a fire than the teeth of a barracuda.”  Dar responded. “Though the plastic burning will ruin those nice steaks.”

“I think we’re going to have some fajitas. I saw them unpacking the tortillas.” Kerry mused. “And I thought I saw them frying up green tomatoes.” She took a sip of her beer and hiked up her ankle on one knee. “And, danger boy has been quiet the whole damn day. Maybe you scared him.”

Dar chuckled. “I doubt it.”

They heard a loud whistle to the left near the water, and spotted Doug outlined against the glow of the fire, pulling back on a fishing line. 

“Maybe fish tacos too.” Kerry smiled.

‘Won’t be as good as yours.” Dar pronounced loyally.

“My catcher of fish is cuter.” Kerry winked at her.  “So naturally the tacos taste better.” She reached over and tickled Dar’s ear. “You got some sunburn.”

“I did.” Dar agreed. “I had a really good time today. I liked those slides.”

“You liked jumping off that rock.”

Dar grinned.

“I got some great pictures of you diving.”

“Oh no, not more bathroom art.” 

They clinked their beers together and took swallows of the cold beverage, falling silent as the guitar player started to pluck out a melody.  It was Spanish sounding, and quite beautiful and after a moment the flute player joined in with a reedy counterpoint.

“Pretty.” Kerry commented. Then she half turned her head to regard her companion. “Were you ever into music when you were a kid? I was forced to have piano lessons that were never really successful.”

“No.” Dar admitted. “I mean, aside from singing Christmas hymns with dad.” She listened to the music.  “I kinda wanted to play the guitar, but just never got around to it.”

Behind the players, the rest of the crew were bringing platters to the tables and they got up to walk over, strolling across the sand along the waterside.

Today they had set up the tables in a line rather than scattered them, and Dar and Kerry took seats a little ways from one end and relaxed as the rest of the party joined them.

The platters held, as Kerry had suspected, fajitas and fixings, and were served family style with everyone sharing. They had toasted the tortillas a little, giving them a bit of a smoky flavor and Kerry contentedly piled hers up with roasted veggies and some strips of grilled chicken, along with a dusting of cheese.

“What a great day.” Marcia commented.  “I managed to get a nice sketch in of that cove, how lovely that was.”

Todd and Amy had taken seats in the end of the table, and had pulled one of the platters over to their plates.  Amy stood up and was assembling dishes for both of them, the fading marks of poison ivy still visible on her arms and hands.

JP, with an air of taking one for the team, leaned closer to them. “Hey, you guys want some lemonade?”

“Yes, please.” Amy answered before Todd could.  He subsided in his chair, picking up the folded tortilla and chewing it.

JP handed over the pitcher.  “Here ya go.”   She turned back to face Kerry across the table. “You want to take some sunrise shots tomorrow? From this angle, it’s going to be awesome if its clear out.”

“Sure.” Kerry enjoyed the earthy taste of the grilled peppers, and leaned back in her chair, extending her legs out under the table and crossing them at the ankles. “You mean over the ridge there?”

Behind them Dar could see the crew working on the raft, stringing out more guide ropes and tightening down the lashings.   She studied them for a few minutes, but they didn’t seem worried, they were laughing and relaxed as they worked so she returned her attention to the table.

Her peripheral vision caught Todd watching what was going on behind them as well, and a faint smirk appeared on his face that immediately made her hackles stand up and she chewed more slowly, listening to Kerrys banter while keeping him in view.

What had the little bastard done? She pondered. Poisoned the food?  She stopped chewing and sucked in a little air over her tongue, but tasted nothing unusual and she could see he was focusing on the crew busy at work.

Could he have done something to the raft? Something to the crew? Did the little jerk put a snake into one of the boxes?  Dar was unsettled enough to get up out of her chair, and put down her half eaten fajita. “Be right back.”

Kerry was watching her alertly, her pale eyebrows hiking in question.

Dar gave her a pat on the shoulder, then she moved away from the table and around the firepit, feeling the heat of the campfire against her skin.  She spotted Janet walking around the other side and aimed for her, holding a hand up slightly to catch her attention.

The trip leader spotted the motion and paused, squaring her shoulders visibly as she waited for Dar to approach.

That was not an attitude Dar was unfamiliar with, and she muffled a wry smile as she slowed to a halt next to the woman.  “Just want to let you know something.”

“Okay.” Janet responded agreeably.

“That jackass likely did something unpleasant to some piece of your business.” Dar said. “Just keep an eye out.”

Janet regarded her in pensive silence for a moment. “How do you know that?” She asked. “Don’t get me wrong, Ms. Roberts, I really do appreciate you wanting to look out for us, but we’ve done this before, you know?”

“I know.” Dar said. “Lets just say I’ve had a lot of experience in my lifetime of jackasses. Maybe because I’m in IT? Maybe because I am one?” Her eyes twinkled wryly.  “He’s the kind that wont rest until he gets the last laugh.”

Janet cocked her head and her brow puckered a little. “He’s not a stupid guy.” She finally said. “He’s just a kid, you know?” She exhaled. “I’ll have the guys check things twice, but really, I don’t think he’d do something to cause that kind of trouble.”

“Okay.” Dar said. “Had to say it.”

Now, Janet smiled. “And believe me, I appreciate it.  Go on and enjoy your dinner.  We’re almost done rigging and we’re going to join for the music.”  She waved her hand, and watched as Dar retreated back to the table, resuming her seat.

“What was that?” Doug paused and asked her.

“Gypsy warning.” Janet sighed. “Thinks climber boy is going to screw with us.” She shook her head.  “I mean, c’mon.”

Doug frowned thoughtfully.  “They had some words this morning.” He said. “He knows she told the tribals about his little trip over the fence.” He shifted a rope over his shoulder. “She could be right Jan.  He’s a vindictive little jockstrap. I still think he put the glass in the loo.”

“That makes no sense, Doug. I told you that. JP didn’t do anything to him, that’s psychotic.” Janet shook her head. “C’mon.”

He shrugged. “Well, let me tell you this, I’m going to check everything twice anyway, because I get the feeling that lady is kinda clue full.”  He moved on towards the raft, leaving Janet to stand on the other side of the fire, hands in her pockets, frowning.

She regarded the table of clients through the fire and judged the relative satisfaction, seeing most plates emptied and sighing in a bit of relief at the smiles and laughter.   She could see Todd and Amy at the end of the table, but even they looked okay and she dismissed the thought of them doing damage as somewhat overcautious speculation on their fellow travelers part.

With a faint shrug of her own, she continued around the fire and went over to the cooking area. “What do we have for dessert tonight, Chris?”

“S’mores.” That night’s cook grinned. “Including roasted marshmallows.” He indicated a container.  “Want to help assemble them?”

“Sure.” Janet opened a box of graham crackers. “That should cap the night off okay.”

“Yup, and tomorrow should be fun.” Chris grinned. “Looking forward to it.”

**

Kerry lay down flat on the ground on her stomach, getting her camera about as even with the surface of the water as she could.  She focused on the slanted red spear of light coming over the escarpment on the east side of the main river, catching dust motes and insects outlined in crimson.

A few feet away, JP was sitting on a rock with her bandaged foot propped up, taking pictures of the sun as it started to come up over the ridge.  “Nice.”

Kerry could feel a bit of damp coolness through her shirt, and the pressure of some rocks but she remained where she was as the light changed then rolled over onto her side and got a nice shot of the canyon they were in and the river beyond it.  “It’s so beautiful here.”

“Right?” JP agreed. “Like, all dramatic.”

It was dramatic.  Kerry put the camera aside and just watched for a moment, as the shifting light caught on the rocks, and the trees and the moving water.  

Past them to the rear the crew was getting the raft ready to go, packing on the gear and getting ready to tear down the cook pit as soon as everyone had gotten their breakfast. 

Kerry had finished hers, and Dar was wandering down the narrow strip of land between the creek and the cliff walls, strolling casually and looking around at the beginning to glow canyon they didn’t see much of the previous day.

Down the coast the creek meandered and turned to the left, and Kerry could see, at the edge of her vision a waterfall tumbling down the rock face.  She sat up and let her elbows rest on her knees, composing a shot that included the dawn light, the water, the cliffs, a tiny bit of the waterfall and her partner’s profile as she stood quietly watching with her hands in her pockets.

There was a calm to the scene that almost made her hold her breath. 

Then the air around her filled with chatter, and several of her fellow passengers clustered around the fire as the crew moved past carrying the folded tents.  Kerry stood up and dusted herself off, letting her camera hang around her neck as Marcia came up to her.

The older woman was finishing up a breakfast wrap and she had a cup of tea in one hand.  “Good morning.” She took a sip.  “Sleep well?  There must have been some kind of critter near our tent, kept waking us up.”

“Didn’t hear a thing.” Kerry admitted. “We were on the end there.” She turned and pointed to the far side of the landing.  “Maybe the sound of the river washed it out.” 

“White noise.” Marcia agreed, stifling a yawn.  “Oh well, I hear it’s going to be exciting on the water today so it’ll keep us awake.”  She moved past and climbed up onto the raft, going to the middle seats she and Don had selected and set her cup into the cup holder on one of them.

Kerry went over to the cookfire and picked up a cup of coffee, and took a wrap with her as she joined them up on the raft, taking a seat and leaning back against the cool surface. 

The rising sun splashed over her and she fished her sunglasses out and put them on, just enjoying the beauty of the scene and the moment, which only intensified when Dar returned from her stroll and joined her on the raft, leaning over the back of the chair and kissing her on the back of her neck.  Mmm.”

“Mm.” Dar echoed her, as she came around and sat down next to her.  “Pretty.”

The raft rocked as more people joined them.  Todd and Amy climbed on, holding hands, and went back to their far aft seats in silence, and Rich carefully walked forward onto the pontoon and took his spot spraddled over it. 

Looking ahead of them, Dar could already see the whitecaps in the river and she smiled in anticipation, glancing over as Kerry handed her half of her wrap.  She could smell the water, and as the sun dappled over it reflected rainbows popped into view.

“Okay, everyone get your jackets on please, and make sure you all have your things tied down.” Doug came up the center of the raft.  “We’re in for a wild ride! Look at those rapids already just ahead of us.”   He watched the passengers all rummaging for their protective floating vests.  “Please hang on tight today, unless I tell ya not to.”

Several of the crew chuckled a little as they walked around securing the tie downs, and they were all wearing their own jackets themselves.

“So, lets just say this.” Doug was standing just on the front pontoon.   “If we do tip, or if you do fall off, please, please please, just relax. The vests will float you, and if you stay loose, and relaxed, you’ll come through the rapids just fine.”

“He’s right.” Rich said. “I fell off the last time. If you tense up you’ll bounce off the rocks. If you relax, you slide over them. Sliding is lots less painful. Trust me.”

The crew was all nodding, and so was Doug.  “I’ve got a motor, I know how to use it, and every single one of the crew is certified in water rescue.  Soon as we’re clear of the rapids all of us will come after you, it wont be a problem. You won’t end up at the Hoover Dam. I promise.”

Kerry fit her camera into it’s case and sealed it, then settled back in her chair and wrapped her legs around the supports.  “Woo.”

Dar flexed her hands and looked around, as the crew finished loading and the one left on the shore carefully covered up the remains of the fire with wet sand.   

Janet went around counting heads, then she sat down in the small jump seat in the third row and buckled up her own jacket as they were pushed off from the shore,  and moved out into the narrow creek that flowed back into the main river.

As soon as they pulled out into the river Kerry could feel the difference.  The turn almost tipped them to one side, and PJ screamed a little in surprise, and Sally lunged after her coffee cup that went flying.  Once Doug straightened them out they were moving at a rapid clip, and the raft was flexing under them in a powerful, restless way.

“Woah.” Dar re-settled her sunglasses on her nose.

They were in a long straight stretch, and it was full of whirlpools and ruffles, thick rushing plumes showing where the walls narrowed a little.

The sun was lightning the top of one wall, but the level they were at was still in shadow and as a blast of white ruffled green surged over them it was a shocking and breath taking chill.  Kerry felt the water soak into the fabric of her shirt and she shoved herself back against the back of the chair and tightened her hold.

Rich was already soaked and he was yelling in excitement as the raft plunged down and sideways a bit, and a green wall of water washed right over him, and the two others on either side of him, then came up and over the front row of seats and then through the rest of the craft at about knee level.

“Woo.” Kerry grimaced a little as the cold water hit her kneecaps. 

They plunged thorugh another ripple, past a side canyon that let a blast of sunlight through and it felt warm and wonderful but only lasted a moment and then they were pitching up again and sideways.

The raft spun in a circle, unexpectedly, and in reflex Dar reached over to grab Kerry’s arm as they were thrown sideways, and the raft was then going backwards down the river.

“Hang on!” Doug yelled, from his position now in the front.  “Hang on!”

A wall of water came up over him as the back of the raft plunged downwards and he ducked, as the water lifted up over his head and crashed down on top of the back row of chairs.  Then he gunned the motor and it bucked and thrummed as the raft went sideways through another whirlpool and then was going straight again.

“Fuck!” Todd let out a yell.

Sally and Marcia were laughing in delight, and behind her, Dar could hear Janet chuckling as they came straight again and were speeding up, heading for a narrow whose roar they could hear clearly. 

Kerry put her camera down and shook her the wet hair out of her eyes.  “That was fun.”

“Here we go! Hang on!” Doug sang out.  “We’re gonna pop off the top there!”

They were at the narrows, and the speed increased as they approached what they could now see as a dip and then a rise that then dropped down sharply and Rich let out a howl as he scrambled to take hold of the ropes on the pontoon as they dropped and then surged upward.

“Oh crap.” Kerry’s eyes widened.

The raft came up out of the water and then shot off the top of the underwater ridge going momentarily airborne as screams rang out.   Then the front of the raft dropped sharply and went under water, thrusting back up and bucking like a bronco as wave after wave came up over the top of the raft soaking everyone and everything with a frothy green thoroughness.

“That’s just the start!” One of the crew yelled. “It gets better now!”

**

Brr.” Kerry rubbed her arms. “Wish we’d brought our rubber.”

“No sense in drying off.” Dar braced herself as they moved through a slightly calmer stretch of water, with at least the comfort of sun overhead and now warming them.  She finished wringing out her wet t-shirt and put it back on, then she raked her fingers through her hair and exhaled.

They were drenched, the raft was drenched, the crew was drenched, water was sloshing back and forth between the seats.  Kerry took the opportunity of some calm to swap out the digital card in her camera, tucking it into the waterproof bag before putting the camera back into its case.

Then she sat down and got herself arranged, tugging the straps on her vest a little tighter. 

It was too rough for mugs, but one of the crew was scurrying around with sealed tubes that were warm to the touch and smelled of hazelnut.   Dar tentatively sipped at hers, and grunted approval, resuming her seat and wrapping her legs around the chair supports again.

Behind her, she could hear Todd griping, but she resolutely remained facing forward, as they moved over a rippling surface at a good clip.

“Once we get past the  next set of big rapids, we’ll find a place to tie up for lunch.” Janet announced as she walked between the seats.  “There are a few slot canyons we can climb up into.”

JP pouted.  

“But there are lots more rapids after that.” Janet assured her.  “We’ll be stopping late tonight and I can guarantee you everyone’s going to get a good sleep.”

A soft chiming sounded, and she turned, with a surprised look. “What the what?”  She went over to the lock box on the side of the raft and unlatched it, throwing it open and pulling out a satellite phone from inside to answer it.  “Hello?”

She listened, then turned away and shielded her mouth with her hand, facing out along the port side of the raft.

“Hm.” Kerry was leaning back in her chair watching. 

“Hm.” Dar agreed, as Sally came up between them.  “Sat phone calls are probably not good.”

“Probably not.” Sally agreed. “Or could just need a supply drop or something.” She smiled. “Sometimes a carrot is just a carrot, you know?”

Janet put the phone back in the box and closed it then made her way along the port side of the raft back to where Doug was leaning against the big rear storage chests.  He leaned closer as she came up next to him and listened as she spoke.

Doug looked sharply behind him, then he waved Janet forward and called over two of the mates.

“Not good.” Kerry said.

They both could feel the nervous energy suddenly surround them as Janet moved to a spot in the middle of the raft and they turned to watch her.

“Okay, folks.”  Janet said. “We just got word they had to release water from the dam, and a lot of it is coming up behind us so we’re going to get past this stretch and see if we can duck into one of the slot canyons to let it pass.”

“What do we need to do?” Sally asked.

“Get up off the pontoons.” Janet directed.  “You three? Come on back up here and stand between the lockers.”

Rich and the other two scrambled up off their perches and climbed up past the first row of seats, coming to stand behind them.

Kerry eyed the roughly frothing water and took her camera off, keeping it in it’s case but putting it into her daybag as Dar slipped off her seat and stood between it and Kerry’s, taking hold of the back rail.

They were in between two tall canyon walls and on a straightaway.   Dar could see a fair way behind them and though she hadn’t much experience she thought she could detect the water behind them coming up into a boil.

“Shit.” Rich muttered. “That’s not funny.”

“What did they do?” Kerry asked.

“I guess the storm dumped too much water down.” Rich was just behind Dar, and he was watching the same direction.  “So they open the gates, you know? Let the run off just come down the river.”

Kerry sensed the nervousness in his voice and she also got up, finding comfort in pressing her body against Dar’s as the raft started moving faster, and dipping from side to side as they lunged unexpectedly towards one wall.

Doug had called over one of the crew and they were standing together, fighting the surge of the water while the rest of the crew scrambled over the raft tightening the ropes. 

Todd had risen and was watching them, for once without a sneer.  He picked up a rope lying nearby and tied it off in front of the seats he and Amy were sitting in, bracing himself against the locker and tightening the straps on his vest he’d only been casually wearing before.

The raft slid sideways and they all were thrown roughly to one side and the next moment it felt like something big was shoving them from behind and they slammed against the rock walls and the raft spun.

“Oh boy.” Kerry grabbed the back of the seat as Dar spread her legs out a little, bracing herself and Kerry as well as the raft tilted to the right and they were thrown together.

“Hang on!” Doug yelled out suddenly.  “Oh shit!”

The raft tilted, and then hit some rocks and the front of it went under water, and before they had a chance to react the craft tipped over and they went with it, in a painful thrash of equipment and water.

It was so sudden and so violent.

Kerry barely had a time to suck in a breath before she was in the water and the raft was riding over her, aware that the back of her vest was gripped when she felt the shock of the cold and then she was under.  She held her breath and tucked her arms and legs into her body as the raft slammed into her back and drove her far down under the surface.

She squeezed her eyes open and saw rocks and branches as she bumped upward and was hit again by something and she could feel the pressure in her chest to breathe starting to mount.

Then she got the sense whatever was over her was gone and she was rising in the water, her arms tangling with boxes and supplies banging against her as her head broke the surface and she sucked in a relieved  breath.

Dar’s arms went around her and they were swirling in the water together as the current pulled them quickly through the rapids turning them around and around in the white froth, tumbling over and over again.

She heard screams.  The water was taking her in a spiral and she kept going under repeatedly until she was pulled over onto her back and she could take a breath again and see the sky.

So blue. So calm looking against the roar of the river exploded into presence around her as the water drained from her ears and she could hear clearly.

Wow.

She coughed a little, then turned her head to see Dar next to her in the rushing flood, one arm wrapped around her body, the other outstretched to ward off rocks, calm and self possessed as always, a little blood on her skin from a scrape just under her cheekbone.

A second later Dar turned her head and met Kerry’s eyes, shaking her head a little and sticking her tongue out. 

“Thanks hon!”  Kerry turned over and kept herself upright, her vest keeping her afloat.  She looked around and saw the raft, still upside down, careening ahead of them and behind them were bobbing figures amidst the white water, along with floating boxes and crates.

“That sucked.” Dar said.  “We lost the whole damn raft.”

“And all our stuff.”  Kerry said. “Unless we can find it and grab it.”

They could see Doug heading after the raft, swimming strongly in the current along with several of the crew, while the others were grabbing the trailing ropes and tie downs and Janet was taking hold of a kayak they hadn’t realized they were carrying and getting into it.

“Looks like they’re on the ball.”  Kerry observed. 

The progress through the water was cold, but less rough when you were in it than when you were on it and Dar found by twisting her body around she could avoid the boulders in the center of the river and let the current take them without too much thumping.

“Shit!” Rich tumbled by, gripping a line that had a box attached to it that was slamming into him.

The water was rising rapidly and though it caused a thunderous roar, they realized that the greater volume of water let them avoid most of the rocks, but that had also made the raft disappear into the distance, around a curve they could just see ahead of them.

“Are you all right?” Janet was paddling with an expert’s touch back and forth and now she neared them.

“We’re okay.” Dar answered. “We got a plan?”

Janet shook her head and paddled past. “Just stay together and stay on top!” She yelled over her shoulder, moving on to the next clump of passengers, four together that were holding onto each other, and a second group of six ahead of them.

Dar had swiveled so she was facing forward and had her legs out, with her sandals bumping them off rocks slick with algae as they moved quickly downstream.  She kept one arm around Kerry and Kerry had taken hold of the back of her jacket. 

“This is going to be a mess.” Dar observed.

“Mm.” Kerry wiped the hair out of her eyes. “But this is not as bad as I though it might be if we tipped over.” She admitted.

“It’s gonna get worse if they can’t catch that raft.” Dar said. “We’re gonna have to walk out of here.”

“Or just float.” Kerry took a breath as they went between two sets of rocks and a wash of water swamped them as they whirled in a circle then came out the other side. “Pppffpfpbut

JP and Sally both waved at them. “Hey catch up to us guys!” JP called out. “Let’s stick together!”

Rich had just joined them and just past Kerry could see Don and Marcia in a clump that included Amy and Todd. “Better the kids. “ She nudged Dar.  “I can only imagine what crap is coming out of his mouth.” She pointed at Todd, who was in fact flapping his jaws.”

Dar pulled them in a circle then shoved off an underground rock as they neared the small group and joined them. “That wasn’t funny.” She said, as they fit into the circle of floaters. 

“No it wasn’t.” Rich agreed, in a serious tone. “We could have really gotten hurt. I think Janet head counted everyone though.”

“So, what happens now?” JP asked. “I mean.. like, to us?”

They swirled through a gap in the rocks and went in a circle as the water level increased again.  “Janet caught up to Doug.” Rich said, after they could hear again. “So they’ll paddle down and get the raft. I’m sure it’ll catch up on something.”

“What if it gets wrecked?” JP lifted her foot up out of the water and looked at it. “Not looking forward to hiking.”

Everyone looked at each other a little awkwardly.  “Let’s wait to see what the situation is.” Dar finally concluded. “Maybe we’ll get lucky.”

Kerry had been looking up at the sky.  Lets hope they don’t get bit by our vacation curse.” She muttered low enough for just Dar to hear her. “At least there aren’t any pirates on the river.”

Dar eyed her.

“We hope.”

**

Kerry was starting to get really cold, and she licked her lips suspecting they had a blue tinge.  Despite the sun lighting the surface of the river she could feel shivers in her core. 

They were close to the bend now, though and she was hoping to see something after that which would let them at least take a break and get out of the water.  She could see that JP, and Sally were also looking uncomfortable. “Brr.” She said, giving them a wry look.

“Yeah.” Rich spoke up. “Hope we can catch a break out of here soon. Slot canyon or something.”

Janet and Doug had disappeared around the bend about ten minutes previously and just as Kerry was about to comment on that she felt a warm pressure against her back and glanced aside to where Dar had just pulled her closer.

Dar winked at her.

Now, how did Dar do that? Kerry studied her partner, who was still watching the river with some interest, seemingly at ease in the rush of the water. “You really are part marine mammal aren’t you?”

Dar chuckled.

“What’s that?” JP asked.

“Dar is warm.” Kerry said, simply.  “I have no idea on earth how she manages that, but even when we dive in the ocean she never gets cold.”

“Really?” Rich asked.

Dar extended a hand to him and watched his eyes widen as he reached over to touch it.  They had used a rope to link them all together using their jacket clips.  “Probably because I’ve spent time in the water since birth, pretty much.” She shrugged off the anomaly.

“Nice. Kind of like a seal.” Rich said. “Right?”

Both Dar and Kerry laughed.  “Your dad would agree.”  Kerry said.   “Oh, hey I can see… oh.” She made a face as the rest of them turned. “Wow.”

“Crap.” Dar echoed her groan.

They were halfway through the bend and they could see the raft ahead, tilted up and caught on two large rocks where water was gushing in all directions.  The gear containers were cracked and many were open, tops hanging with bags and supplies dangling.

“Oh boy.” Rich grimaced. “That sure doesn’t look good.”

“No it doesn’t.” Sally agreed.

The kayak was tied off nearby, and Janet and Doug were climbing carefully over the rocks towards the craft, while several of the crew had just finished running a rope across the open cataracts and were waving at the oncoming floaters.

“Grab the rope!” Doug yelled at them, seeing the approach. “Grab it and hang on! We’ll get a tow on you!”

Two of the crew were working to set a lower rope and one leaped across from one rock to another and slipped, falling hard and then tumbling into the water, the current sweeping them downstream.

Dar was the closest to the top rope and she reached up to grab it as Rich lunged to do the same next to her.  The surge of the water nearly ripped the line out of her hand but she got her other one up to take hold and tensed her body as it came up out of the water.

The rest of the group tried to help, but the current grabbed them and it was just Dar and Rich for a minute until one of the crewmen, Toby, got hold of Richs jacket and snapped a climbing ring to it and to the rope to take the pressure off.

Another crewmember was hand over handing down the line to where Dar was grimly hanging on and a moment later he had her hooked in. “See if you can pull over!”

Dar ducked to the other side of the line and pulled as hard as she could, allowing the crewman to move past her and get a ring into the jacket straps on Kerry’s jacket. 

That gave her a moment to just hang there, half in and half out of the water, and watch as two of the crew fought to pull the man who had fallin in back to the rocks.  She could feel the surge of the water against her legs and knew a new sense of respect for it.

“Holy crap.” Kerry was holding the rope next to her, one foot braced against the rocks.

“Watch out!”  Sally suddenly yelled. “Doug!!!”

Doug was scrambling across the rocks as a clump of the passengers rushed towards the rope, and Don was trying to get into position to grab it.  His wife was hanging on to the straps with a frightened look on her face and one hand clasped with Amy’s who looked equally scared.

Todd reached out as they got to the rocks and grabbed a hold on them, curling his fingertips into some cracks and shoving one big foot out to hold them in place.  His shoe slipped on the algae after a second and he was twisted around as Don grabbed the rope.

They all slammed against the rocks as Todd kept his grip, his jaw smacking the stone as the muscles stood out under his wet shirt.  Amy let out a shout and reached for him, as Toby lunged and got hold of Don’s vest. 

Doug had a large caribiner snapped to the rope and he released his hands off it to grab Don’s arm, reaching down to snap a hook around the straps as Todd’s swinging on the rope pulled him off the rocks and he plunged into the water up to his waist.

Cursing, Toby turned around and pulled another caribiner from his belt, stretching to snap it onto Todd’s vest just as the crewmember being hauled in reached them, bracing himself against the rocks to catch his breath as Toby got the rope from his hands and squirmed across the rocks through the heavy flow to a fallen trunk lodged midstream to tie it off.

“Okay start working your way to the shore!” Doug yelled. “Use the lower rope!”  He gave a tug on it as Toby yelled something the wind ripped past them.  “C’mon! Hurry before the rest of them get here we need space to catch them!”

Don was the closest and he turned to help Marcia get to the rope before they started to inch their way to wards the shore while Todd reluctantly released the rock and rubbed the visible bump on his jaw, before he grabbed the straps on Amy’s jacket and pulled her up behind him.

“Got you.” Toby grabbed JP around the waist with one arm. “Take it slow.”

Rich and Sally were right behind him, with Dar and Kerry waiting to bring up the rear, as they fought their way through the white water towards the shore just past the upended raft.

Beyond was a small beach and overhang in an indent of the canyon walls, that was mostly rock continuously wet by the rapids, beginning to be burnished by slanted sunlight, and not altogether welcoming in appearance but at least, Kerry thought, they could get dry.

She hoped.

**

Continued in Part 4