Southern Stars

Part 4

By the time they got to the shore Kerry was shivering again, from the waist high water she’d been pushing against.  She was glad to slide off the last rock and climb up the short slope into the small crevice, putting her back against the sun warmed stone. “Ugh.”

Her legs were shaking, a little. The water had been ferocious and the rest of the passengers looked equally shaken, even Todd was hunkered down on a small ledge, his eyes a little wide.   Amy was sitting next to him, hugging herself.

Rich’s feisty enthusiasm was absent. He was sitting down on the ground on the other side of Dar, with Sally and her sister next to him, and both Don and Marcia looking exhausted.

“Don’t want to have to do that again.” Don said.  “Didn’t mind the floating that much, but those rocks were slippery.”

“They were.” Marcia was dabbing a scrape on her leg. “I’m so tired!”

Dar leaned on the stone next to Kerry, ankles crossed, and arms folded, a serious expression on her face. She was watching the crew try to right the raft, and from this angle the damage to it was far more obvious.  

The supports between the pontoons had been ruptured, and most of the gear boxes were bent and some had lost their tops, as the raft had tumbled end over end in the water in a motion it had not been designed to deal with. The mechanics of the craft seemed intact, but it was hard to say how salvageable it was.

Not good.

“Y’know.” Kerry said, folding her own arms and leaning against Dar’s shoulder.

“I know.” Dar responded with a little grimace. She pointed briefly at something. “That was the box the phone was in.”

Shattered, and hanging loose, and very obviously empty.

“Of course it was.” Kerry sighed. “The only way it wouldn’t have gotten munched with us around is if there’d been a puppy in there with it.”

Dar chuckled wryly.

Janet came over to them wringing her hands together a little. “Okay folks.” She said. “We’ve obviously gotten into a little pickle here.”

“A little?” Todd looked up.

“Well, we collected everyone.  No one got lost, and there were only a few scuffs and bruises, so yeah.” Janet looked a touch truculent. “Just a little pickle because this is the wild, and it could have been a lot worse.”

“You could have croaked.” Rich said. “So shut the fuck up.”

Todd just rolled his eyes.

The crew behind her was dragging everything they’d salvaged up onto the shore, sorting it out in piles. Dar spotted their own bags present, though wet, but she kept quiet since there were only six duffels there. 

“Anyway.” Janet said. “We’re going to see what we have, and we’ll try to make you all as comfortable as possible, and see what we need to do to continue our trip.”  She eyed them seriously. “So I’d like you to just relax and rest, there’s a track back into a hollow behind us but I would really appreciate it if you’d stay here, and just let us get things sorted out.”

“Can we help?” Don asked.

“No.” Janet’s tone was definite. “I appreciate the offer, but just please, stay here.” She put both hands out palms outward.  Then she turned and went back to where Doug was coiling up some ropes, with two other crewmen standing next to him. 

“Well.” Don lifted his hands and put them back on his knees. “How about a game of cards?”

“Might as well.” Sally hunkered herself around to face him and pulled over her daybag that she’d strapped around her waist.  “I think I’ve got my deck here.”

Kerry unstrapped her own daybag, which had her camera in its case and had been banging her raw through the water.  She unfastened it and unrolled the top, digging inside and removing a granola bar.  “Want half?”

Dar eyed it dubiously.

“C’mon. it’s the one with cranberries in it.” She opened the bar and broke it in half, handing a portion over. She bit into hers, and chewed it, watching past Dar as the crew started fastening ropes to parts of the raft in a bid she figured to turn it upright.

She heard a faint scraping behind her and glanced back to see Todd idly examining the rock wall they were leaning against.  He put one big and muscular hand on the rock, then pulled it back and examined the palm. Then he shrugged slightly and moved on down the wall, away from the water.

Amy watched him for a minute and then she came over to where the cards were starting to be shuffled and sat down on a flat rock near Sally. “I’m in.”

Kerry suppressed a smile, looking back at Dar, who was licking a bit of granola off her thumb. 

“What?” Dar said, seeing the attention.

“Nothing.” Kerry indicated a small shelf across from where they were standing that was bathed in sunlight. “Let’s do what the lady said and chill.”

“Or warm.” Dar agreeably joined her and they sat down next to each other, the breeze riffling the drying fabric on their bodies. “Yknow.” She said, after a pause.

“You’d rather be doing something to help.” Kerry supplied in a mild tone. “Yeah me too. We’re definitely far too self sufficient and intrusive to enjoy this luxury lifestyle thing to the max.  I just remembered being at my sisters house, you know? And her asking me why we didn’t have butlers, cooks, and maids like she did. “

Dar twiddled her thumbs.  “You want a maid? I mean like all the time?” She asked, thoughtfully.  “I remember your folks had those live in servants.”

“No.” Kerry answered readily. “Can you imagine them there watching us have pillow fights and smearing ice cream all over each other?”

Dar grinned, and folded her arms.

“But it made me think why.” Kerry said. “I mean that’s how I grew up, Dar. We had servants every moment of my life up until I moved to Florida.” 

Dar considered that in silence for a minute. “Too many eyes.”  She eventually concluded.  “You get to a certain age, you stop wanting to justify everything all the time.”

“Mm.” Kerry made a soft, thoughtful sound. “Maybe that, but more than that the staff all knew all the secrets and I was at a point in my life I had secrets I didn’t want anyone else to know.”

Dar’s eyebrows twitched upward.

“Until I announced it in front of half the planet and got my picture in the Washington Post.”  Kerry grinned wryly.  “But hey, they were my secrets so I got to tell them.”

“It was a nice picture.” Her partner remarked mildly. “But yeah, I get it.”

“You do?”

Dar nodded. “Like, screw it. If I want to paint myself with blue frosting in my kitchen, that’s my business, right? No one needs to see that.”

Kerry snorted and covered her eyes with one hand. “Oh Dar.”

“Not to mention you dancing with our dog.”

The crew assembled on the shore and they left off their chat to watch as they all took hold of the ropes connected to the raft and started to pull them taut, in a staggered motion.   “Okay, when it comes up front line get out of the way!” Doug yelled.

Janet was just finished dragging all the recovered gear up higher on the beach and now she scrambled up to get between the crew and her tour group, watching in both directions with her hands half lifted.  “Everyone please stay well back!” She lifted her voice so it would carry.

“I’m glad we don’t do this for a living.” Kerry commented, as the crew started pulling in earnest, their water shoes sliding on the algae slick rocks near the water. “Its hard work.”

“Ours is too, sometimes.”

Kerry took a breath to disagree, then memories surfaced of both her and Dar in sweat and grime and a desperate slide across the floor of a grungy Wall Street back office and subsided, with a wry shrug. “Eh. Sometimes.” She glanced aside as she sensed her partner moving and saw her body stiffen as she shaded her eyes to look at the raft. “What?”

Dar had half stood up, and now she moved quickly towards the raft. “Hold it!”

Janet intercepted her. “Ms Roberts please.” She threw her arms out to physically block Dar from advancing. 

Dar pointed. “if they let that come over the engine’s going to smack on that rock.”

“No, it isn’t.”  Janet said. “Please go back and sit down!”

Dar measured again with her eyes. “It is.”

“Please just get back.” Janet sounded more than a little frustrated. “Just let us do our jobs. Get back!”

Kerry just watched, knowing the body language, and knowing Dar like she knew her own heart she also knew what was going to happen next, because Dar was who she was, and there was no changing that part of her. 

“No I won’t.” Dar said and pushed past . “Doug!!!”  She let out a bellow. “DOUG! Hold it!!!!”

Now Kerry got up and bolted, because she saw Janet go to make a grab for Dar.  “Whoa whoa whoa” She got hold of Janet’s arm. “Don’t do that.”  She planted her feet and arrested Janet’s forward motion, jerking the woman off balance.

Doug paused, hearing his name and half turned, but the team kept pulling so he quickly turned back around, and at that moment the raft reached the halfway point and started down amidst a flurry of yells and warnings.  “Not now!” He yelled at her. “Get away! Get back!”

Too late.  Dar cursed internally.  The raft was too far gone for the crew to stop it’s motion and she skidded to a halt as she realized it, making both Janet and Kerry collide with her as they hauled up a second too late.

Dar hopped once and reeled, almost losing her balance but regaining it and moving backwards as the big craft came rolling over and off the rocks and slammed down onto the ground with a crunching thump of the hard rubber hitting and a scream of metal as the engine crunched down onto a clump of boulders.

“Shit.” Janet tore herself loose from Kerry’s grip and ran over to where the crew was gathering hastily round the raft, running over to inspect the damage, while a few of them went chasing off after the gear that had been flung off when it hit.

Kerry joined Dar and Rich came running over, with Sally and a few others right behind him.  

“Holy crap what happened?”  Rich said, shading his eyes. “What did they do? What’s wrong?”

“What morons.” Todd had joined them. “Snapped the freaking engine in half.” He glanced at Dar.  “You saw it was going to happen? That what the yelling was?”

Dar sighed. “I did.” She admitted. “Just not in time.”

“They’re done.” Todd stated. “Full refund for everyone. What a bunch of idiots.”  He turned and wandered back over to the wall, flexing his hands. 

“What does that mean?” Marcia asked, with a concerned look.

The crew was huddled around the raft and now five or six of them took hold and lifted the back end up off the shore, while Doug squirmed under it to inspect the outboard engine he used to control the craft.

“Mean’s he’s got no way to drive that thing.” Don said. “Gotta agree with the kid, much as I don’t like to.  That was a bonehead move.”  He said. “They should have listened to you Dar.”

Kerry sighed. “If I had a dollar for every time I have heard someone say that I could buy this canyon.”  She took hold of Dar’s elbow. “C’mon, no point in all the I told ya sos.” 

“They didn’t really have time.” Dar said. “It was already tipping.”

“Shoulda planned that move better.” Don shook his head. “Don’t know what they’re going to do now, they can’t take the raft down the rest of the river like that.”

“Oh dear.” Marcia frowned.

Janet had part of the crew around her and she was giving directions, as the rest of them were carefully lowering the raft to the ground as Doug emerged, with a grim look from under it.   He stood up and looked over at Dar, then he lifted his hands and said something to Janet, who nodded glumly.

“We’re screwed.” Rich groaned. “What the hell? I thought these guys were pros. That was bush league.”

Dar folded her arms but remained silent, her expression somber.  

“Yeah.” Kerry finally said. “If Dar could see it from this angle, they should have probably checked huh?”

The ring of crew broke apart and started pulling open the gear, as Janet visibly squared her shoulders and started towards the clump of watching passengers. 

“Here comes the bad news.” Sally remarked. “Poor Janet.”

“Nice enough woman, but that wasn’t good judgement.” Don stated. “Don’t care for being treated as a mindless mark.”

“Let’s wait to see what she says.” Sally responded. “C’mon.”

She fell silent as Janet arrived at their group and paused, waiting for everyone’s attention.

“So.” Janet said. “First off, my apologies, Ms. Roberts. You were spot on.” She said, very straightforwardly. “We thought we measured, and the water pushed the raft aside enough that we were wrong.”  She glanced behind her. “Not really sure…”

“I’m an engineer.” Dar gently forestalled her.  “Let’s just move on. No point in talking about it.”

Janet took a breath. “Folks, we have a real problem here.  As you can see, we’ve got the raft right way round, and my team is going to get things sorted out as best they can, to make you all as comfortable as we can. We lost a lot of gear.”

Todd had come back over, and was now standing behind Amy with his arms folded. “You’re idiots.”

“Thanks, that’s so helpful.” Janet shot back.  “We’re going to make camp here, and Doug is going to take the kayak downstream and walk up to an outpost and get us some backup.”   She said. “They can lift us down another engine, and we’ll be on our way. In the meantime, we’ve got some hikes planned from here.”

“They going to lift all the gear you lost?”  Don asked. “Might as well just lift us out of here if not. I’m not sleeping on the ground for the rest of this trip I’m too old for that.”

Janet hesitated. “Well, not all .. but we’ll get enough to make everyone comfortable.” She said. “So, they’re going to see what we have left to make for dinner, and get camp set up. Okay?”

The group remained mostly silent, and that went on until it became awkward and uncomfortable. “Sure.” Kerry finally said.  “We’ll make the best of it.”

Janet just turned and went back to the crew, shaking her head a little in silence. 

“Well, we’ll see how that works out.” Don said. “Let’s play some cards in the meantime.”  He went back to the flat rock with Rich and Sally, where JP was sitting and waiting for them.

Todd had removed a small bag from the waterproof sack he’d been carrying and he dusted his hands with the contents of it.  He went over to the wall and studied it, while Amy went back to join the card game.

Dar and Kerry settled back on their ledge.  “Well, it could be worse.” Kerry finally said, after they’d sat in silence for a few minutes.

“Shh.” Dar reached around her shoulders and covered her mouth with her hand.

MPfof.”

“Shh.”

**

It wasn’t good.  Kerry chewed on a stick of jerky, hoping it was the beef it was claimed to be and not anything more esoteric. 

They were clustered around a driftwood fire, and the crew had put up a tarp that partially blocked the wind between them and the raft, and the small collection of food they’d recovered had been portioned out to all of them.

Of the crowd, probably only Dar was happy, as she had on her lap three peaches, two pieces of beef jerky, a peanut butter sandwich and a bag of potato sticks.

All they had to do, Janet had told them, was make it through to the morning because by then the re supply would be here and it would be all right again.

Kerry hoped so.

They had another assortment for the morning, but it seemed heavy on granola bars, so Kerry determined she would enjoy her jerky and peaches and hope for an early helicopter tomorrow.

There was no real shelter, and most of the tents and pallets had been lost.  All they had to drink was water, that had been boiled over the fire to remove the impurities of the river and they had gone from a relatively luxe experience to rock under the butt bare bones.

At least some of the duffels had been salvaged and theirs were some of them, so after they finished their scraps they were able to unroll the sleeping bags and get as comfortable as they were going to.

“Should we use one and share?” Kerry whispered into Dar’s ear.  “Don and Marcia lost their stuff.”  She watched Dar’s profile, outlined in the light from the fire as her partner pondered the question. 

Finally she nodded and they both got up, Kerry taking her bedroll and moving towards the older couple while Dar unzipped the sleeping bag and spread it out fully to take the place of two of them.

The crew had lost most of their gear and they were huddled near the fire, with their backs to the tarp, passing a large mug around that showed faintly steaming.

Dar sat back down on the sleeping bag, which, spread over a patch of sand wasn’t horribly uncomfortable.  The college kids had also lost a duffel, but they were sharing what they had along with the contents of a bottle JP had taken out.

Todd and Amy were near the wall, just at the edge of the light.

Rich and the rest of that gang were also sharing, and Rich was getting out his deck of cards, as the light faded completely out and the sky went inky dark.

Kerry came back and smiled as she sat down. “I’m glad we did that.” She settled on the bedroll next to Dar and leaned back against the rock wall.  “They’d spread out their jackets on the ground because they didn’t want to bitch.”

“No real point.” Dar said.

“No, but some people would anyway.” Kerry laid her hand casually on Dar’s thigh, a little hyper aware of how close the rest of the people were and a little uncomfortable knowing some were watching her.

Watching them.

Dar draped one arm over her shoulders and bit into a peach, offering her a bite, with slightly raised eyebrows. Kerry smiled a little and leaned over, feeling Dar’s head rest against hers and hearing the small sounds of her chewing.

The crew had pretty much lost their spunk and they looked exhausted, long hours of moving things in and out of the water had worn them out and two of them were already curled up under some towels fast asleep.

Far off, in the distance, they heard a howl and then the fire popped a little and Kerry felt a little chill come over her skin as the breeze blew through the narrow canyon.

The passengers all nudged a little closer to the fire and Janet leaned over and said something to one of the male crew, who got up reluctantly and skirted the encampment, heading back into the narrow area beyond.   They had piled up a stack of wood, but had whittled it down since dark had fallen and as it got cooler it became obvious they were going to need it.

How cozy their tents had seemed.  Kerry pressed herself against Dar’s long body, missing the camp chairs and the mugs of mulled wine and feeling more than a little disappointed that their trip, mixed though it had been, was seemingly over.

Bummer.

“Dogs’ll be glad to see us.” Dar commented. “Want to drive over to Zion, and spend a few nights there in our jazzy camper?”

Hm.  “That sounds fun.” Kerry allowed herself to be distracted. “Do we still want to stay over in that cabin, or just take off?”

Dar’s eyes took on a wry twinkle. “My guess is, better we get out of there.” She said. “Cause I am sure the end of this trip isn’t going to be pretty.”

“Mm.” Kerry rocked her head from side to side a little. “Do we want to press them for a refund?”

“Nah.” Dar predictably said. “I got my money’s worth. The rapids were fun, and the pools were cool.” She crossed her ankles and wiggled one foot.  “But they’ll probably offer. They know they got skunked.” She moved her chin a little towards where Janet was seated a little apart from the rest of the crew.

She looked worried.  Dar wasn’t sure if it was about the financial aspects, or about Doug, or some thing she had no knowledge of but it was an almost painful expression to see, and as though Janet realized it, she scrubbed her face with both hands and then got up and wandered over to where they were lying.

“Hey.” Kerry greeted her. “Sorry things went a little south.”

Encouraged, Janet sat down on the rock near their joined bedroll and leaned her elbows  on her knees.  “I should be saying sorry to you.” She admitted.  “But hey, when the chopper gets here we can get going again. We can make up the time.”

Dar eyed her. “You really think they can bring in enough supplies?” She queried, holding up a bit of jerky. “I don’t mind this, but I don’t think you can serve that the rest of the trip.”

Janet sighed. “They’ll have to make a few trips.” She admitted. “It’s going to cost us more than we made on this trip but we’ll make it right for you guys. I promise that.” She got up and started over to the next clump of passengers.

Dar’s eyebrow was still hiked up. “Hmph.” She made a small grunting noise.

“Well.” Kerry let her head rest on Dar’s shoulder. “Maybe we could make this into a foraging trip. You know, we could fish, and find berries and stuff.”

Dar’s other eyebrow lifted.

“Wouldn’t you like to do that?”

“No.” Dar responded readily. “I forage in Publix.”

Kerry snickered, her body shaking a little with it.  “C’mon, I know you know how to fish, Dar. You bring home the hog snapper at the cabin all the time.”

“Not the same.” But Dar smiled and laughed a little herself, tipping her head back to admire the canopy of stars overhead.  With that, and the crackle of the fire, despite the conditions she relaxed and allowed herself to enjoy the moment.

It was familiar, almost.   Bits of it were, and she wondered if that was just a reflection of some nights camping in her younger years, in some far different place.

She leaned her head against Kerry’s and let the memories such as they were go, focusing on the moment they were in instead.  It was warm and cool combined, and she spotted a shooting star overhead and lifted her hand to point it out to her partner.

“Did you make a wish?”

Dar pondered that. “What in the hell would I wish for that I don’t already have?” She asked after a moment. “Chocolate ice cream?”

“Aw.” Kerry circled Dar’s arm with one hand and gave it a little squeeze.

A soft hooting sound came from a nearby, gnarled tree and it sounded loud as the talking petered out, the river’s rushing and burbling covering even the snap of the fire.

Dar closed her eyes and relaxed, the hoodie she was wearing and the warmth of Kerry’s body providing as much comfort as she figured she was going to get, until the helicopter showed up.

**

But the next morning, there was no helicopter. 

They all consumed whatever was left, and drank some herbal tea from the river water boiled in the one battered pot that had been salvaged.

Their remaining gear was packed up, and everyone was standing around as the sun rose over the canyon wall, bringing no sound of the chopper in the distance.

Janet was standing at the riverside, on two of the rocks they’d pulled the raft off of, arms folded, watching the horizon while the rest of the crew also stood around waiting, glancing occasionally uneasily at the passengers, and the battered raft.

“How long are we gonna stand around here like a bunch of idiots?” Todd finally said in a loud tone.

Josh took his hands from his pockets and cleared his throat. “Should be here any minute.”

“Should have been here an hour ago.” Todd replied. “What if he ain’t coming?”

“Of course he is. They’re probably picking up the engine parts.” Josh said . “Place maybe doesn’t open until nine. I don’t know if they had spare at the shop, so early in the season.”

“Should we take a walk down the canyon?” Sally suggested.  “If he’s right, it could be hours.”

Hesitantly, Josh nodded. “We could do that. Let me just let Janet know.” He trotted towards the river, as five or six of the crew started milling around, getting ready to join them.

“Better than nothing.” Todd had on cargo pants and hiking boots and a tank top, and he picked up a hat and put it on his cropped hair. 

Dar had been leaning on the rock wall, hands in her pockets, sunglasses on.  She regarded the group then glanced at Kerry. “You want to go?”

“Sure.” Kerry had fastened her little daybag over her shoulder.  “Probably give Janet a break with all of us staring at her like a pack of vultures.”

In fact, Janet seemed quite relieved, and a good percentage of the crew started off with them, making their way down the narrow slot of the canyon away from the water.

Dar had filled a water bottle with some of the boiled river water, and she put it in her day bag, along with it’s dwindling store of peanut butter crackers and a pocket knife.  She ambled along at Kerry’s heels, near the back of the crowd as they were forced to go single file.

It was sunny, and there was a nice breeze, and she stretched her legs out and flexed her hands as Josh started pointing out markings on the walls. There were small lizards that scampered out of their way and as they passed a cleft in the rock Dar spotted a snake inside it.

She briefly considered calling attention to it, then decided not to, and passed on, walking in Kerry’s footsteps as they moved from the narrow section into a wider one.

The group paused, and looked around.  The canyon walls were curved and shaped by the flow of the waters and full of striated layers in a range of colors.  Kerry already had her camera out, and as the sun poured in behind them it turned the space into something beautiful.

Dar could see a small stream ahead, and the stone arched over it, as it trickled through past them into a small cave that ultimately would lead to the river.  “Wow.”

She went over to the arch and put her hand on it, next to small yellow flower growing out of a crack and felt Kerry come up behind her, camera in hand.  “Look at that.” She pointed at the flower.

“I am.” Kerry was taking a close up of it, framed by her partners long fingers.  “This is beautiful.”

Dar regarded her, then tipped her sunglasses down and smiled, as Kerry poked her tongue out at her in silent response. 

They walked under the arch and past it, and Kerry turned to get a shot in the other direction outlined by the sun. Then the joined the rest of the group in moving on, walking up the narrow waterway further into the canyon.

The walls grew over them, allowing strips and squares of light to come down splashing over the light green of the stream and the ochre of the walls, causing sparkles of sun to make patterns over their skin. 

Amazing and it got all their minds off the wreck.  Even the crew started smiling, glad of the rising spirits and eager to show the special parts of the slot canyon off to their guests.  They found a little pool in the rocks that was speared by a bit of sunlight from above and called everyone over for  a picture.

Dar got in the back and let her arms drape over Kerry’s shoulders as she put her hand in the sunlight, sending a brilliant sparkling across the cave as it caught on her ring.

“That’s pretty.” Amy was on the other side of the pool with Todd.

“Thank you!” Kerry turned her hand upmost and cupped the light, as they separated and started around the corner into a darker overhang. 

The water was coming out of the overhang and they splashed through it into the cavern, ducking past a low shelf of rock and emerging into a larger, open space.

“Wow.” Sally said, after a pause. “That’s cool.”

It was a high ceiling split in two that went up to the top of the rock wall, and sunlight was streaming into cave giving them a good view.   Everyone broke up and started to wander around, examining marks on the wall that looked like pictographs.

“Someone used this for shelter.” Don said, indicating a firepit.  “Make a pretty good one.”

Marcia sat down and removed a small pad and pencil from her daybag, where it had been rolled up and stashed.  She started sketching the interior of the cave  and Dar went to the back of the space where the water was emerging from a tumble of rocks in a gush.

“Later in the summer that goes away.” Josh came over to where she was standing.  “It’s cold.”

Dar stuck her hand in, and nodded. “It is.” She brought her hand up to her face and sniffed the water. It had a sharp, mineral tang and she resisted the urge to stick her tongue into it.  “What was this place used for? Or is it now?”

“Hunter’s camp.” Josh supplied promptly. “The natives sometimes stop by here, but I’ve only seen them maybe once or twice in the five years I’ve been on the river.”  He tipped his head back to regard the open crack emitting the sun. “I heard they did medicine stuff here.”

Dar straightened, and looked around.  “What?”

“You know.” Josh said. “Spirit ceremonies. Way I heard it, those guys were pretty sharp. They’d come here winter, and make a big yow yow..” He turned and waved his arms, stamping his boots on the ground. “And the spring would start flowing.”

Dar’s brow lifted.

“They knew the rain patterns.” Josh smiled. “Cistern fills up about a half mile away, and ends up here.” He pointed at the spring.  “Made a good show though.” He glanced around, but the rest of the group were examining the back wall. “I’m part native.” He winked at her.  “My mam’s an elder with the Havasupi.”

He had dusty brown hair, and hazel eyes, but strong planes to his face and a thin, angular build.  “They wanted me to go study and be an engineer. Wasn’t my gig. I’d rather ride the rapids and be outside.”

Dar folded her arms and leaned against the rock wall. “Bet this ride’s not one of your better ones.”

He shrugged a little. “Happens. Though I never had something crack the raft up like that before.” He admitted. “I hope Doug’s got that chopper headed our way with gear. Wouldn’t like to have to hike out. Not enough stock.”

“How long would that take?”

Josh also leaned against the wall, his head nearly even with hers. “Week maybe.” He said, after a pause. “Hard to say with all you, and the gal with the hurt foot.”  He shrugged again. “And no provisions. I grew up round here but I ain’t no forager.”

“Hm.” 

“Hey there’s some paths back here.” Amy called out, from the other side of the cave.

Josh pushed off the wall and started in that direction, and after a moment Dar followed, catching up with Kerry who was coming out of another curve in the rock, with Sally and Rich.  

They followed the group as one of the crew produced a flashlight and it’s beam reflected off the sandstone walls, showing lines and patterns and old carvings, Todd and Amy at the front showing their first real signs of enthusiasm of the trip.

Dar hooked one finger into Kerry’s belt loop and allowed herself to be towed along into the narrowing tunnel. “We probably shouldn’t go too far into this.” She commented. “I don’t have any breadcrumbs and I’m not going to waste any of my peanut butter crackers.”

Kerry reached back and patted her hip. “Only one way in or out, Dardar.”

“Mm.” Dar didn’t deny the sense of discomfort that caused, and she eyed the uneven ceiling. “Sounds like a single point of failure to me.” She sighed mournfully. “At least we’re at the back of the line.”

They heard, echoing through the rock, the faintest rumble of thunder in the distance.

**

“Can you put the light there, Dar?”

Agreeably, Dar extended her arm past Kerry’s shoulder and put her flashlight on the wall, where Kerry had discovered a fossil embedded in the rock.  “Whole one.”

Kerry was carefully focusing. “What is it?”

“Trilobite.” Dar answered. “Probably started out in the ocean, a long ass time ago.”

It was oval shaped, with segments along it’s body and a tiny head, and it was embedded in the rock, partially exposed by weathering.  

“Really?” Kerry observed it, reaching out to touch it with one fingertip.  “So this was ocean once?”

“About two billion years ago yeah.” Dar agreed.

Hmph.” Kerry grunted a little. “You know, I remember when I got to college, my first archeology class.” She smiled. “One of those ..ohhh.. so that’s how that really happened’ moments.”

Dar regarded her, a puzzled pucker appearing between her eyebrows.

“Our high school curriculum didn’t include evolution or ancient earth sciences.” Kerry said.  “It’s not like they misled or lied to us, they just didn’t say anything at all. Left us to drag our Sunday school lessons to college.”

“Ah.” Dar folded her arms.

They were in an inner chamber, the rest of the group exploring the cave with the entrance they’d come in through at their backs.   A steady breeze was emerging from it, and on the edges of that Dar could faintly scent rain, which matched the steadily growing rumbling outside.

“Anyway, that’s cool.” Kerry indicated the fossil.

“Okay folks, I think a storm’s coming in so we should go back and see what the plan is.” Josh was at the entrance, beckoning to them. “Maybe we can come back here after we know.”

The group straggled over and followed him out down the dark and narrow passageway, emerging into the split roofed cave that already was shedding sheets of rain down from the opening to the ground, increasing the flow of the small spring already running out of it.

It was cold, and they split around the spring to avoid being rained on, until they came to the front of the cave where the overhang was almost a waterfall.

“Okay, you folks stay here and I’ll run on ahead and see what the deal is.” Josh hunched his shoulders and passed through the falls, scampering through the now near knee high little stream in the slot canyon.   He disappeared quickly around a bend.

The thunder rumbled overhead and then a flash of lighting lit the far wall.  Dar took a step back from the entrance and moved over to the side wall of the cave, finding a rock to sit down on.   She stifled a yawn and crossed her ankles, watching the thin curtain of rain coming down and drenching the inside of the cavern.

With the light coming down it was rather charming, and she was glad to see Kerry getting some pictures of it from different angles. 

Rich decided to suffer the plunge, and he went and stood in the rain coming down the crack in the rock , tipping his head back and letting the water splash all over him, quickly drenching him as Sally came over to join him, turning around in a circle and laughing.

“What the hell right? We’re going to get wet anyhow.”  Don ambled over and stuck his head under the downpour, though his wife came over to sit down next to Dar.

The other crew members circled around and one or two stuck their hands, cupped, into the rain and then pulled them back to drink.

Kerry handed off her camera to Dar and went over to get a drink herself.  The rain water was cold, and tasted a little dusty from it’s transit through the mountain but it had a good flavor and she brought a cupped handful back.

Dar inclined her head to the hands and sipped from them, looking up through her disheveled bangs at Kerry’s face.  There was a teasing familiarity about the act, and she straightened up after drinking her fill to wonder when they’d done that before. “Thanks.”

Kerry wiped her hands dry on her tshirt and took her camera back, turning when footsteps approached and both Josh and Janet came into the cavern.

Both were drenched.  Both looked worried.  Josh just watched Janet’s face though, and kept silent.

“So folks.” Janet put her hands on her hips, as they all gathered around to listen, leaving the water behind them. “As you can probably tell, there’s been no sign of anyone coming after us.  So we’ve got to go with plan B.”

“And that is?” Todd inquired.

“We can’t hike out.” Janet said. “We don’t have enough supplies.  So we’re going to take the raft down river with paddles, and get out at the staging area we sent Doug to.”

Marcia cleared her throat. “Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Less dangerous than sticking around here starving to death.” Todd remarked.

That was true. Dar nodded. “He’s right.” She said. “We’re out of food now. We either go with that, or start scavenging.”

“There isn’t enough around here to support a group this size.” Janet said “So let’s go and pack what we  have and get the raft ready.  We’ll leave as soon as we’re done.”

The crew looked relieved.  They trooped out following Janet, and the passengers trailed after them, out into the rain and along the slot canyon back towards the river.

Two of the college girls were helping PJ along, supporting her on either side.  “This is so not what I was looking for.” One of them sighed.

“Me either.” PJ said. “But I’d rather sit on that raft even in the rain, than try to hop out of the canyon.  That’s a long, long walk.”

Dar and Kerry were the last in line and so they were the last to get back to where the raft was.  The rain was coming down harder, but everyone pitched in, carrying gear and the little they’d salvaged onto the craft.

It looked quite woebegone.  Most of the storage chests were gone, and the two big plush seats Todd and Amy had claimed were also lost, leaving just a metal frame behind.  One of the crew put a piece of wood down on the frame and backed off with a shrug, gesturing them towards it.

Todd rolled his eyes and shoved the board back against the back of the frame, examining it.

Dar gave their own seats a tug, the battered metal bent and in one case broken, but intact enough to brace themselves against.

“This is gonna be scary.” Rich came up and squeezed himself in beside them.  “I’m not on the pontoons this time.”

No one wanted to sit up front. The pontoon seats were all loose and ripped, and Josh was busy lashing the front of them together with some rope, glancing over his shoulder as the thunder continued to roll on. 

“Dar.”

“Mm?”

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”  Kerry had her arms folded over her chest.  “We should wait for it to stop raining.”

Dar regarded her for a moment, then she turned and headed to where Janet was standing pulling on a rope.  “Hey.” She said, without preamble. 

Janet exhaled. “Yes, Ms Roberts?” She paused, and turned. “We really do have a lot to do.”

“Is doing this in a thunderstorm a good idea?” Dar asked. “Not sure if you people deal much with those.”

Janet took a breath, then she paused.  “Do you?”

“Florida is the thunderstorm and lightning capital of the world.” Dar said. “Maybe wait until it’s over?”

Janet studied her for a minute, then leaned closer. “We’ can’t.” She said, in a low tone. “If it keeps raining, we’ll get a flash flood that will come down that canyon and wash us out.”

Dar considered that. “Rock, hard place.”

Janet nodded. “Thanks for understanding.”

“Okay.” Dar shrugged slightly. “Keep your head down.”  She went back to where Kerry was arranging her bags. “No luck.”

“I could tell.”

They both put on their life jackets and a few minutes later, the crew started shoving the raft into the current, jumping aboard as it lunged forward and scrambling on as they began to move.

Josh and Tony the tallest of the crew had hold of long oars, and they were standing near the back edges of the raft braced against the frame.

The ride now had a distinct edge of danger, and the surge of the rapids, twisting the already damaged raft gave no pleasure.  Dar edged closer to Kerry and put her arm around her back, taking a grip on the chair frames to hold them both in position.

They could barely see the river ahead of them, the rain was coming down that hard and the river was a dark, brooding color with a tinge of red mud on it.

The raft was bucking and rolling and they were heading into a narrows, and Dar felt her heart start to beat faster as she tensed, her body reacting to the danger.   She could almost feel the electricity in the air around her and just as that though crossed her mind a blast of lightning lit up the sky as it struck the wall nearest them.

Someone screamed.

Dar jerked hard in reaction, as the hair on her arms stood up straight, and she could feel it even despite the rain.  She pressed against Kerry as she heard her partner gasp, and the raft swerved under them as bits of the wall fell down into the river.

“Oh crap.” Kerry released the hold she had on the seat and put her arms around Dar instead.

The passengers all clustered in the center of the raft, no one sitting, everyone just holding on, looking scared, all keeping their heads down.

Thunder rumbled loudly on the heels of another flash of lighting, but this was at the crest of the canyon and Janet went to the front of the raft, shielding her eyes, trying to see past the curtain of rain.  “Keep right!” She yelled back to the crew. “Keep right, we’re nearly in the pass.”

“Dar.” Kerry had her cheek against Dar’s chest. “How about a dude ranch next time?”

“There’d be a stampede of three headed cows and a pink goat would end up in bed with us.” Dar took a tighter hold as the raft started to pitch, and slide sideways in the water.

“Pink?”

“We're girls”

Kerry had to laugh just a little, despite the fear.  She felt her mouth dry out as the raft dipped to one side and in reflex she closed her eyes as a surge of water came up over the front of the pontoons and hit them both.  It was colder than the rain and she felt a shiver go through her.

“Hang on.” Dar said, in an urgent tone, pressing against her and gripping the metal frame hard. 

Kerry did, tightening her grip on her partner as the raft went sideways and then another lightning bolt struck somewhere above them.

“Watch out!” Rich yelled.

The raft spun and Kerry flinched as a rock hit her on the shoulder, then she felt Dar release her hold and turn both of them. She could hear the sound of impacts around them and then the raft was spinning again and they were away from the wall.

“Ow!” Someone said, with a yelp.

“Stay still!” Janet’s voice now, out of the deluge, and Dar craned her neck to see someone on the deck of the raft with Janet kneeling next to them.

Then they were through the narrows and the raft, rolling and rocking spun around and went forward, into a wider stretch of the river.

“Keep her steady!” Janet called out. “Everyone stay where you are. Don’t unbalance the raft!”

 “Who got hurt?” Kerry asked. “Can you see?”

“Can’t.” Dar faced them back around again and the rain lessened, though the thunder was still rumbling overhead. They could see down the river now, and ahead she saw a wide bend and to one side of it a beach that had a lot of debris piled on. 

“Steer in!” Josh called out. “There’s the landing.. Is that gear?”

The raft started dodging across the river over ruffles and boulders that shook them and made their teeth rattle as the crew worked hard to move the raft sideways towards the far shore.   They were moving fast, and three of the crew ran forward and hung onto the frame near the pontoons, swerving wildly as they fought to stay onboard.

They dipped along a set of boulders mostly buried in the water and scraped against the canyon wall, catching against the pontoon and slamming the raft around and backwards into the beach.

Josh leaped off and ran up the beach rope in hand to get it around a rock and hauling with all his strength to keep the raft in place as two more crew scrambled off, one running to grab one of the crew from the front pontoon that had been thrown into the water and was scrabbling for a grip on something.

They got enough ropes out and the raft was pinned in place,  it’s front smashed against the wall and the rear up against a pile of rubble that had been driven up the beach.

“Fuck!” Todd jumped off, but missed his step and went headfirst into the sand. He rolled over and got to his knees, hands up in a warding off gesture.  “That was insane!”

Janet was still kneeling in the middle of the ship. “Josh after you tie off give me a hand here.” She said. “This guy’s out cold.”

Kerry leaned over. “Oh hell.” She recognized now Don’s stocky form.  Marcia was sitting on the raft bottom next to him, looking terrified.   She scrambled around the frame to get to Marcia’s other side, putting a hand on her shoulder. “What happened?”

“I don't know!” The older woman cried out. “One minute we were standing still the next he was falling!”

Kerry knelt down.  Don’s face was pale, and there was blood all over his head soaking his gray hair and staining his heather colored shirt. Unable to do anything to help, she just reached over to clasp Marcias hand and squeezed it.

“That sucks.” Rich had come to stand shoulder to shoulder with Dar. “Something from up there must have fallen on them.”

“Hit us too.”  Dar kicked a bit of rock off the raft.  “But small ones.” She glanced behind them. “How far did we come?”

“About ten miles. That was the last big rapid on this stretch.” Rich said. “This is the haul out – sometimes they put boats in here for people who just want a quiet ride.”  He pointed up the beach. “There’s a path cut there,and they keep a cache with a sat phone I think.”

“Ah.”

“That’s where Doug was headed. Rich peered up the beach. “Don't see the kayak though.” He frowned. “Unless he hauled it up further on the beach… But where is he?”

“No other place he could have gotten out?” Dar asked. “Or missed this one?”

Rich shook his head. “Doug’s a pro. Like those guys got the raft in here? He could get that kayak in.:

The crew carried Don off the raft and they went up the beach, some of the passengers stopping to inspect the wreckage that had washed up. 

Janet was already disappearing ahead of them and they saw an overhang that they all gathered under to get out of the rain, giving the crew space as they put Don down and Josh started looking at his head.

Kerry was walking with Marcia and they leaned against the wall, the older woman looking exhausted and scared. “We can call for help now.”

Don started to moan and Marcia went over to kneel next to him, holding his hand, while the rest looked on uncomfortably, trying to avoid the rain falling everywhere.

Kerry let her head rest against Dar’s shoulder. “This is kind of getting past us, hon.”

“Yeah.” Dar said, briefly.  Then she pushed off the wall and walked up the small step ridge and back out into the rain, almost inhaling it as she moved past the landing and climbed up the path towards where Janet had disappeared.

The landing looked well used. There were paths worn in several places, and rusty metal boxes on stilts that came into view as she moved further from the river.  Each one had something painted on the outside, some so worn it was impossible to tell what it said.

The different operations, Dar figured, as she came around a last bend and saw a worn building made out of rock and old driftwood that reminded her a little bit of their cabin in the keys.  As she walked towards it, the door opened and Janet emerged, stopping when she saw Dar.

Something was wrong.  Dar had enough experience with oh shit looks to know one when she saw one, and she grimly continued walking until she was up on the uneven porch.

Janet opened her mouth to speak, but Dar lifted a hand in a warning gesture. “Please don’t tell me to just go back with the others and sit down.” She said, in a very quiet tone. “You are getting to a point where you are risking our lives an I want to know what's going on.”

The trip leader hesitated.

“I probably can’t do a god damned thing about it  but I want to know.” Dar pressed her.  “That little trip we just took wasn’t funny.”

For a minute, Dar thought Janet was going to blow her off and she started marshaling her arguments but then, the woman’s shoulders dropped and she stepped back into the little cabin. “C’mon. I might has well tell someone who isnn’t going to rip my head off.”

Dar followed her inside to find what reminded her more of a garden shed than a cabin.  There were bits and pieces of rafting gear and old rags, roughly made wooden boxes with rusty hasps and the slight, but pervasive smell of old gasoline.

“Phones gone.” Janet said, briefly.  “And Doug never made it here.”

Dar stared a t her in silence. “Someone took it.”

“Someone did. Probably another op, who needed it, maybe the end of last season  and didn't bring it back. We all know each other’s combos, and the lock was unlocked, not broken.”  Janet sat down on a dusty table. “So if you got any ideas, let me have em.”

Dar looked around. “No supplies in here?”

“No edible ones. We hadn’t stocked it yet.” Janet said, mournfully. “Just some old stuff from last year.”

They stared at each other in silence for a few minutes.   “Well.” Dar exhaled. “I can fish with my bare hands.”  She paused. “And whatever you got in here, Kerry can probably cook it.”

**

They moved Don into the shack, and set him on top of a pile of canvas tent covers on one of the benches on the edge of the storage area.  

“So.” Janet was washing her hands together.  “We’re going to have to send someone out for help.” She said, in a clipped tone. “Since the phone was stolen,  it reduces our options and probably it’s why  Doug isn’t here. He could already be near the end of the line, and the pickup spot.”

“Or drowned somewhere.” Todd said, sardonically.  He was leaning against the door jamb, arms crossed.

“Doug’s a very capable kayaker. So let's think positive. But we should send someone up the trail in any case.” Janet soldiered on.  “Josh is going to head out in a few minutes.” She looked past him, as the rest of the group wandered up. “So come on in and let's make the best of it.”

Everyone clustered inside, dripping and uncomfortable, and spread out inside the two room shack finding places to stand and drip.  “We should bring all the gear over here. No sense in it sitting over there getting wet.” Sally said, motioning to the college students. “C”mom.”

Janet opened her mouth to interject, then just stopped and turned to Kerry. “Want to help me scrounge? Your SO said you could cook.”

“Sure.” Kerry agreed, and they moved into the second part of the storage cabin, filled with boxes and dust and smelling of old tents.

“”I'm going to see if I can grab a fish.” Dar said, ducking past the crowd and going out the door back into the rain.  She was glad to be out of the musty smelling space even though the weather didn’t show any signs of letting up.  She passed Sally and friends on the way back, each woman dragging duffles and gear.  “Thanks guys.”

“Where are you heading?” Sally paused, blinking the rain out of her eyes. “We got everything.”

“Trying my hand at fishing.” Dar responded, continuing on her way with just a wave. “Wish me luck.”

Sally watched her go. “But you don’t have a fishing pole?”

Dar just waved again.

With a shake of her head, Sally continued on.

 

 Kerry and Janet rummaged around seeing what they could find.  “Wow.” Janet surveyed a bag of dried venison. “I’d probably need a hammer to make that edible.”

“This help?” Rich came in from the outside wooden shelves with a large, dented, but whole pot in his hands.

Kerry pointed to the one single ring gas burner. “Put her there, Rich.”   She stacked several packages of dusty dried fruit, six cans of navy beans, a package of barley, a package of rice, and a number ten can of white potatoes on the bench. “This is going to be interesting.”

“What is?” Janet came over with a case of shelf stable milk boxes.

Kerry eyed them. “Even more interesting” She remarked. “Only thing I can think of to do with all this is make a big soup.” She stated. “I can’t even think about what it’sgoing to taste like, but it’ll be hot and it’ll be enough for everyone.”

Janet nodded. “Good idea.”

Kerry picked up the pot and headed outside with it, as most of the rest of the group sorted through the duffels and started hanging things up inside to dry.  

She set the pot outside in the rain and scrubbed it, then rinsed it out and set it down again to fill.  The rain was about as clean a source of water as she could imagine and it was coming down hard enough so that it wasn’t going to take long.

Past the raft she could see Dar moving slowly into the river and she hoped her beloved would have some luck so the soup would taste of something other than dust and old rags given she had no spices to work with.

All the condiments had been lost in the wreck.  Kerry sighed, and peered into the pot, which was half full already. Then she straightened up and looked around, lifting her arm to shade the rain off her face. 

A small overhang was just visible on the far wall and she made her way over to it, ducking under it to get some relief from the rain. 

Inside she was surprised to find an irregularly shaped cave, and she moved a step or two inside to look around.  The walls were rough and scarred, and the space was cramped, but she amused herself with peering at the surface looking for more fossils.

The walls had some marks on them, and it looked like they’d been impacted with blunt objects at some point or other.  She could see one area that had almost been excavated, and she ran her hand over it, leaning closer in the gloom to see more clearly.

Didn’t seem like anything. She shrugged and pulled her hand back, examining the dust covered skin, then she looked back at the wall and saw what seemed to be a little reflection.   She tilted her head, then she reached out to rub the surface.

It seemed flat, and planed.  She curiously put her thumb into her mouth to get some moisture to clean off the edge with and then stopped, and removed her digit, staring at it, her tongue licking her lips.  “Holy crap.”  She gingerly licked her index finger.

It tasted of salt.  Kerry looked around and spotted a few river rocks, and she went an picked one up that was cracked in half.  Bringing it over to the wall she scraped at the surface, holding her free hand under the area to collect the scrapings.

It took a while, but she eventually had a full handful of the substance and she went back to the overhang, to look at it better in the light.  Sure enough it was a crude crystal,  and with a slight chuckle she closed her hand went back to the now full pot.

She tipped a little of the water out, then emptied her hand into the remainder and stirred it to clear the debris off her skin.  Then she picked up the pot and headed back to the shack, shaking her head and laughing as she went.

Dar edged carefully into the water, keeping to the line of rocks that the river was flowing over near the landing.  There was a relatively shallow space there, and a line of boulders that gave her something to lean against and brace against the current.

She wasn’t really sure this was going to work. She thought the rush of the water was too fast, but she’d opened her mouth about it, so she figured she better at least give it a try.

Janet had seemed very skeptical.

Dar herself appreciated the skepticism.  She saw a narrow break in the flow a few feet over, and she cautiously edged that way, not wanting to do something stupid and end up getting swept downstream.

As she thought that, she realized she hadn’t put on a safety jacket and cursed, then she got herself wedged in against the rock and figured she was safe enough for now.

It was cold, and upstream she could see the ruffled gray green water surging down towards her, and she took a moment to appreciate again the power of nature.

Humans always thought they were so all powerful.  But she had been on the ocean enough to understand that Mother Nature could bitch slap you into hell and not even realize she’d done it.  In this case, she could see the raging power of the river, and the walls on either side of it that it had cut through the millennium.  That river had created this canyon.

Mile by mile, eon after eon, just the water, just that river had cut through the rock and made the scene she was looking at and there wa an awesomeness to that Dar readily acknowledged

But.

She tested her footing and leaned over a little, bracing her elbows on her thighs as she focused on the water rushing past the rocks, trying to tune out the roar of the rapids.

We're there even fish? She remembered seeing them where they’d stopped to swim, but in these long stretches of white water?

Then her eyes caught a brief flash and she looked down just in time to see a fish swingle past her between her legs, it's tail brushing her calf as it went by.

Ah.

She settled down to concentrate, aware from the corner of her eye motion on the shore.  She glanced briefly over to see Todd standing just out of the water, watching her.

“Hey.” Todd called out. “What the hell are you doing?”

Oh yay.

“Catching fish.” Dar responded.

“No way is that working.” Todd scoffed.  “Waste of your time.”

 Dar focused past him, blinking a little as she let her vision become adjust to the colors and motion of the water going between her legs, sorting out the ruffles and curls from the rock they were rushing over.  She could see some algae on the downstream side of the rocks facing her,  and then a minute later she could see a movement coming down.

A flash, and a ripple in the water and in reflex she plunged her hands down between her calves and felt her fingers fasten onto a moving body.  With a grunt of satisfaction she pulled her arms back and straightened up, holding a reasonably good sized fish in her hands.

“Fuck!”

Dar looked aside to see Todd standing up straight himself, shading his eyes.  She held up the fish. “Wanna grab this if I throw it at you?”

“Did you just do that?” Todd said, in an astonished tone. “Holy shit.”

Dar lifted the fish. “Catch it? You’re wasting my time.”

He looked around. “Hold on.” He said, without his usual sarcastic tone.  He went over to the raft and picked  up a battered metal tin that had once held beer cans and brought it back over.  He put it down and then held his hands up. “Go for it.”

Intrigued, Dar readied herself, and then she extended her arms over her head and threw the fish as hard as she could towards him, watching him grimace a little as he caught it, then dropped it immediately into the bin. “Nice catch.”

Todd examined the fish in the bin, then he dragged it up a little further and turned, coming back down to the shore and coming  into the water up to his knees. “How did you do that?” He demanded. “Fucking A.”

Dar regarded him.  “You just see and grab” She wiggled her fingers. “My father taught me how to do it.”

He made his way over to where she was standing. “Do it again?” He demanded. “I want to see that.”

Dar went back to her crouch, resisting the urge to elbow him in the jaw. She took a deep breath and released it, then rested her elbows on her knees again.

A flash.  Her hands moved before she even thought about it, and the next minute she was pulling a larger fish up and out of the water, it’s scales reflection the gray light as it fought her grip.

Todd reached out and grabbed her to keep her steady. “Holy son of God.” He said, in a honestly reverent tone. “That is the most useful thing I’ve seen a woman do in my whole life.”

Dar felt a sense of the ridiculous.  “Wanna grab this? We’ve got a crap load of people to feed.”

He hooked his fingers into the fish’s gills and relieved her of its weight.  Then he made his way over to the shore,lifting the fish over his head as he used his other hand to balance against the rocks.

Dar shook her head and went back to her fishing.

**

“Okay.” Kerry gave the pot a stir, and adjusted the gas burner.  “Let’s let it cook a while and see what we get.” She glanced around as there were footsteps at the door and saw Dar following Todd inside, and Todd was carrying a beat up metal bin.  “Ah. The protein component.”

“Fuckin A.”  Todd put the bin down. “Never seen anything like that in my life.” He indicated the bin.

“Wow.” Janet was looking inside. “Ten? Is that ten fish?”

Dar had retreated to her pack and had removed a packet of peanut butter crackers and opened them.  She popped one in her mouth and munched it, as everyone gathered around her bounty.

“Wow.” Rich echoed Janet. “Where did these come from?”

Kerry turned and regarded her huntress, who winked at her with a droll expression.  “Nice work, honey.” She smiled. “Too bad you couldn't grab any shrimp I could have done some gumbo.”

“She fucking caught them with her hands.” Todd said. “Fucking amazing.”

Janet glanced at Dar, who issued a tiny, modest shrug.

Kerry went over and fished into Dar’s pocket for the pocketknife she knew was there. Then she came back over to the table and peered inside the bin herself.  The fish inside were all big, and she reviewed them. “We can either add this to the soup, or grill them.”

“Too wet to grill.”

“Put it in the soup.” Rich advised. “It’ll last longer.”

“Sounds good.” Kerry pulled one of the fish out and started gutting it, and a moment later Sally joined her and then Rich and Marcia came over. 

“How’s Don?” Kerry asked.

“He’s better.” Marcia looked relieved. “Has a bump on his head, but Janet fixed that cut up for now. He’s mostly hungry.”

“Great.” Kerry half turned. “Okay everyone? Take the guts out, and cut off the head and tail, and then cut the into cubes like this.”

“We should use the heads.” Rich observed. “My mother always did.”

Gnu.. Not the eyeballs.”  Sally grimaced. “C”mon.I’m making a vegan sacrificed here as it is.”

“Those are better roasted.”  JP commented. “Fish cheeks – mm”

The fish chunks went into the soup pot and Kerry gave it another stir, it’s contents now starting to thicken up.  She judged that even if it wasn’t as savory as anyone would like, it would fill everyone up, and they could at least be dry and full.

“Okay.” Janet rubbed her arms. “So let's get settled as best we can, and Josh’ll hopefully be on the trail head by now.” She leaned back against one of the workbenches.  “Thanks everyone.  We’ll get through this.”

“No thanks to you.” Todd was seated on a box. “You’re gonna owe us double for this by the time we get out  of this mess.”

‘Let’s deal with that once we’re back at base.” Janet said, sharply. “Then we can talk about what you’re owed. In case you don’t remember you signed a liability release saying you accept al the risk of the travel.”

They had.  Dar remembered it. “True.” She spoke up before Todd could.  “But you also took responsibility for safety and organization.”

Todd nodded. “She’s right.” He said. “And you all know my dad’s a lawyer.” 

Amy came over and stood next to Kerry, regarding the pot of soup. “Thanks for doing that.” She said. “I think it would have been good even without the fish.”

“Thanks.” Kerry smiled. “I got lucky. I found some salt crystals in a cave across the way  otherwise it would be pretty darn bland.”

“You found salt crystals?” Amy looked at her with more interest. “Can you show me?”

“Sure.” Kerry joined her and they walked outside, crossing quickly over the rocky ground and around the slight bend to where she’d found the overhang.  It was starting to get dark as the sun started to drop behind the canyon walls but there was enough light yet to see the inside of the cave with some clarity.

“Here.” Kerry pointed out the area, and swiped her finger over the crystals then put it in her mouth. “Salty.”

Amy pulled a flashlight from her pocket and examined the area, then duplicated Kerry’s motion. “It is!” She knocked off a sample, a bit of slanted clear crystal with uneven edges and put it in her pocket. “This is really cool. It means this cave once was under ocean water, and probably the crystals made this split.” She indicated the walls.

Kerry was standing with her arms folded. “I was just glad to find something for the soup.” She admitted. “You like caves, huh?”

“Geology It’s my major” Amy agreed. “I love it. I want to be an archaeologist after college.  Todd just likes climbing. I met him in class.”’ She gave Kerry a sideway s look. “He’s really a nice guy. He just acts mean a lot.” She paused. “He thought you guys were so faux before the trip but now he thinks you’re pretty cool.”

“Faux?” Kerry's eyes twinkled with amusement.

“You know like some of these people. Just all pretentious stuff, like look at my North Face backpack and things like that. No one ever really did an outback, like Todd and I did”

Kerry sat down on a rock. “Oh.” She said. “Well we never did white water before.”  She admitted. “Some of the rest of them did.”

“It’s true.” Amy sat down as well. “But this stuff, this glamping and all that, it's faux.” She said. “Todd and I did the real thing. We climbed Half Dome.”  She said, proudly.  “We did real camping.  We went on this, because we wanted to just relax getting from climb to climb. That what the trip was supposed to be.”

“Ah.”

“The guys that didin’t show? They were climbers.”  Amy said. “So this whole thing turned out to be a scam to us, you know what I mean? Then with all those other faux types glamping.” She eyed Kerry. “Look I know Todd’s been an asshat, but we saved up for months for this. His dad didn’t buy it for him.”

“They would have given you your money back, I thought?” Kerry asked, cautiously.

“They would, but we’re out of time.”  Amy said. “This was the only break we were going to have before going back to school. “

“Ah.” Kerry repeated. “I’m sorry about that. I know what it’s like not to have time for vacation.  This is our first in a while.”

Amy nodded. “You guys are cool. We talked about it last night, and that fish thing today was outrageous.” She stood up. “I’m sorry it turned out such crap for you guys too.” She said. “But now it should be okay. That Josh guy’s a good hiker.” She grinned a little. “And I like fish.”

With a wave, she started back out of the cave, leaving Kerry to ponder things for a minute, before she, too, got up and left, shaking her head almost continuously.

**

Continued in Part 5