Southern Stars

Part 5

A crack of lightning woke Dar up and she was on her feet with hands outspread before she actually knew where she was. 

It was pitch dark, and she could smell dust and canvas around her, and felt the chill of a cold wind coming in from her left hand side and then she nearly jumped when a hand touched her knee and she remembered what the hell was going on. “Crap.”

“Dar.” Kerry’s voice sounded, low and burry with sleep. “What’s up?”

“Me.” Dar sat back down on the pile of old tent material they’d laid down on and leaned back against the shack walls, aware of rustles and motion around them.  “Sorry folks.”

Sokay blast woke everyone up anyway.” Rich said, in a muffled tone. “And I think I’m sleeping on a cam shaft.”

Dar blinked a few times, and then looked down, to see Kerry’s hand pat her knee. She covered her partner’s hand with her own and relaxed, listening to the rain thunder down around them. 

It meant nothing good.  Not for them, or for the kid trying to hike out to get them help, or to Doug wherever he was.  They didn’t really have any supplies, and if they had to walk out they had nothing to travel on except for the remains of the soup.

Which they had no way to keep edible for any period of time.   Dar exhaled a little, then turned her head as she heard motion, and saw shadows moving to the door and the shine of a flashlight coming from the back half of the shack where the crew had all taken shelter.

“Make sure the lines are tight.” Janet was saying in a low tone. “Check the water level.”

“Got it.” A deeper, male voice answered. “I can hear the banging from here.”

Dar felt Kerry’s fingers contract and a moment later she was sitting up as well, her profile now visible in the faint light entering the shutters. “That doesn’t sound so good.”

“Mm.” Dar grunted in agreement.

The door opened, and the sound of rushing water entered with it, along with a blast of cold air and the smell of the river, and then light flared as the small gas lantern hanging in the center of the shack was ignited, providing a reddish gold illumination.

Everyone blinked into it, sitting up from where they’d bunked out in all corners of the shack on boxes and bundles, and cramped corners.  Janet moved under the lamp and rubbed her hands, looking around at them.  “Sorry to wake you all up folks.”

“Is everything okay?” Sally asked.  “Except the weather, I mean?”

Janet glanced at the door. “I just sent someone to check. The river’s rising again, and we may need some help pulling the raft up higher.”

Everyone started scrambling to their feet, and Dar reached down to grab her boots and Kerry’s, handing her partner’s over to her.

“First time they asked for help, huh?” Kerry said, as she swung her legs over the side of the stack of tents and started pulling on her socks.

“Yep.” Dar tugged one boot on and started lacing it. “You know what just occurred to me?”

“What?”

“Our dogs are having a better time than we are.”

Kerry muffled a snort of laughter.

“Seriously. They are in a spa, swimming in warm water, playing with other dogs and getting massages every day. Here we are getting our asses kicked from every direction. What the hell, Ker?”

“I know hon.” Kerry stood up and reached for the jacket she’d hung up next to them. “We should let them plan the vacation next time.” She zipped up the front of the jacket and pulled the hood up, glad of the warmth as Janet had left the door to the shack open. “Worst thing we’d deal with is liver snacks.”

“I’d take it right now.” Dar grumbled. “I miss my milk dispenser.”

Kerry reached over and gave her a one armed hug.  “Hang in there. We’ll get through it and have some great stories to tell.”

Peh.”

Thunder rumbled overhead, and another flash of lightning lit up the sky outside, sending a flare of silver into the shack as they moved towards the door, joining the crew as a wet figure came running back towards them from the river.

“Hurry!” He yelled. “We’re gonna lose it!”

They all piled out into the rain, a crowded clump in the darkness bumping into each other as they hopped off the shallow porch onto the wet ground.  “Careful.” Rich reeled for balance. “It’s gonna be slick.”

Gonna be?” Sally circled him and everyone moved out towards the river, the crew running on ahead with flashlights and yells starting to go up.

“Fucking women stay the hell back.” Todd shouted suddenly. “Go back to the shed!”

No one paid him any attention as they spread out along the gravel filled ground.  Dar strode ahead and realized after a few more strides that she was moving through rising water and she looked down to see about an inch of it covering her boots. “Uh oh.”

Kerry was at her side and reached out to latch on to the back of her jacket.  They went slightly to the right of the rest of the crowd and came around a boulder to see the river picking up the raft and yanking it sideways.  The crew was all grabbing onto ropes and looking for an opportunity to hop on.

“Wait for them to tie on, and throw the ropes!” Janet yelled.  “Stay back!”

“Sounds like a great idea.” Kerry put her back to the boulder and raised one arm to shield herself from the pouring rain, as the rest of the crowd spread out along the shore, the water coming up now to their ankles.

Dar braced her boots shoulder width and pushed her hood back, annoyed at the edges obscuring her vision.  She could see past the raft to the river, and it was mostly whitecaps and surge, and the raft itself was bucking up and down and yanking against the ropes that had tied it to the shore.

One of the crew managed to make it on, and he was quickly tying one end of a rope slung over his shoulders to a stanchion, and a moment later a second of the crew scrambled up to join him, almost falling into the water as the raft pitched.

Dar was glad she wasn’t on it. “This is really crazy.”

Janet was standing in knee deep water waiting with her arms outstretched. “Throw it!”

The raft suddenly moved, and careened towards the shore and Janet scrambled back but not fast enough and the edge of the pontoon smacked into her and sent her flying into the water, and the movement of the river pulled the raft and her back out again.

Both Dar and Kerry moved as one, and lunged into the water, Dar reaching out to grab Janet’s boot as she slid past, hands scrabbling for a hold on the slippery rocks.

Dar got a foot up on a rock and pulled backwards, and almost lost her balance against the wash of the water as Kerry hooked one hand on the pocket of her cargo pants and grabbed Janet’s flailing hand and somehow managed to keep a grip on it.

A second later, Todd came past them and got one brawny arm around Janet’s waist and lifted her up and clear of the water, and all of them scrambled backwards to the shallow wash, where more arms were waiting to take hold.

“Catch! Hurry!” The crew on the raft yelled, and Rich hopped past them and lifted his hands to grab the end of the rope hurtling through the rain, catching it and backing rapidly up.

Todd dropped Janet more or less onto her feet and went to Rich’s side to grab the rope, both men starting up the slope as more of the crew also took hold.  “Get out of the way!” Todd barked.

Dar took a step back and looked back at the raft, seeing the aft pontoon swing inward with the pulling of the rope and the two crew onboard hanging on with tight grips.  

“Need another rope!” Janet had recovered her balance, and she had one hand against the boulder bracing against it. “John! Tie off to the midship!”

John hand over handed to the center line of seats and knelt, quickly removing the rope from around his shoulders and getting the end of it around the metal supports.   He had to release his hold to tie the knot and he spread his knees to keep his balance as the raft was being tugged from both sides.

Dar looked down to see the water up to her kneecaps and she turned her head towards where Kerry was standing. “Ker?”

“Yeah?” Kerry had a finger hooked into Dar’s belt.

“Maybe you want to go back a little?” She pointed down.

Kerry regarded the water.  It was inching up her thighs and she could feel the pull against her balance.  “Let’s both go.”  She suggested. “Before they pull that raft right into us.”

“Good point.” Dar took hold of the belt holding up Kerry’s pants and started around the boulder, leaning forward as they came around the edge of it and saw a bunch of the crew heading past them at a run.  Resisting the urge to turn around and see what they were doing, she kept walking until the water was just splashing against the soles of her boots before she paused.

John had thrown the second line and Dave had grabbed it, and was coming around the boulder on the other side where Pete from the crew met him and got his hands on it.   On the other side, Rich and Todd were hanging on to the first rope, Todd in the front with it wrapped around his waist and moving backwards with short digging steps.

“Bring them around and tie them behind the rock!”  Janet waved at them.  “Nothing’s going to pull that out.”

The boulder, twice Dar’s height, and half buried in the earth seemed a good bet and she and Kerry went over to help with the second rope, and Sally joined them.

“Pull it tight!” Pete said. “Hey Dar, can you tie them when we get them together?”

“Sure.”  Dar got hold of the front of the second rope as they came around the rock and the first rope was pulled around to meet up with them.

Todd extended the end of the first rope to her and planted his boots in the gravel.

She got the ends in both hands and quickly knotted them together, memories surfacing from lazy summer afternoons spent on the navy base, learning this particular skill on cast off loops of hemp worn from long use.  She briskly tugged against the knot and made sure it was snug, then backed off. “Done.”

The men pulled against the waters grip, and held the lines taut as she got the hitch in place, and then they slowly relaxed, letting the rope take the strain from the plunging raft.  A rumble of thunder sounded over head, and they all looked up, but it was sound only, and no lightning lit up the sky. 

The rope scraped against the rock and made a rickety sound as the knot tightened, then slacked and dropped, then pulled taut again as the river surged.

“Okay.” Janet had moved to the edge of the beach to see the raft.  “That should hold.” She came back over as everyone walked backwards from the shore, retreating up the slope until they were standing on dry ground in a clump of slicker covered figures in the dark.  “Thank you.” Janet concluded, in a quiet tone.  “I really appreciate everyone helping out.”

There was a faintly awkward silence. “Let’s go back and dry off.” Sally finally suggested. “Last think we need is for everyone to get sick.”

“True that.” Rich agreed. “True that.”

“Be nice to have something hot to drink. Except we don’t.” Todd commented in a sarcastic tone. “Nice not to even keep some chickory in that shack.”

They trooped back to the shack and went inside, where JP and Marcia were waiting. “Everything okay?”  Marcia asked, as they started stripping off the wet jackets.  “I made Don stay here.”

“Good move, grandma.”  Todd hung up his jacket and stood there, looking down at his wet fatigue pants. “Fuck.”

Dar went over to the stack of tents and sat down, reaching to remove her boots, setting them on the floor and adding her now soaked socks to them. Kerry came over and sat down next to her, extending her feet out and watching the rain drip from the fabric of her pants.

Rich started rummaging through the boxes stacked near the wall. “Let see if we have something we can boil up.” He said, as Dave and Sally joined him.  

John and Pete came in, looking tired, and Pete came over to the light to examine his hand.  “Ow.”  He grimaced. “Got caught between the raft and one of those rocks getting off.”  

Janet sighed. “Great.”

“You’re lucky that’s all that happened.” Todd said, sitting down and removing his pants, then standing up and wringing them dry as he stood in a tshirt and his boxers.  “Should have just let the damn thing go. We can’t go on the river with it.”

“We can.” Janet disagreed quietly. “But we won’t have to, when Josh gets to the ranger station and calls in. I just don’t like to give up any of my options.”

With uneasy looks, the group all changed into what dry clothing they had, and hung up the wet to dry near the walls, where the ground quickly gained a line of dark wetness. 

Dar fished in her day bag and pulled out a packet of crackers, one of the last few she had, and opened it, offering one to Kerry. 

“I’m going to heat up some of that soup.” Amy decided, standing up and moving to the other side of the shack.

Sally followed her. “We found some old boxes of Lipton tea bags.” She held them up.  “It’ll be a feast.”

Janet drew breath to say something, then she just shrugged and went over to examine Pete’s hand, turning it over in the light, as the rest of the crew wandered around, some taking seats near the walls, a few going back into the area where the cookstove was.

Kerry chewed her cracker thoughtfully, as she listened to the rain outside, wondering how far Josh had made it. Would he have taken shelter and waited it out? Or pushed forward to the ranger station?  What would happen if he, also, got lost or hurt?

What would they do?  She glanced at Dar, who had changed into a dry pair of jeans from their duffel, and was now relaxing, sockless, in the dim light from the lantern.  

They were out of food, mostly.  They had no real supplies.

“Least we’re not outside.” Dar commented, passing over another cracker. “Maybe it’ll stop raining in the morning.”

“Hopefully.” Kerry could smell the soup heating up, and she wondered, for a moment if it would be a better idea to save it.  “I guess you can catch more fish, huh?”

Dar dusted her fingers off. “I can always catch more fish.” She agreed. “As long as we’re near the river.” She folded her hands over her stomach. “But you don’t have that much gas in that stove.”

Kerry considered that. “I’ve eaten sashimi.”

Dar made a face.  “I’d rather we get out of here.” She lowered her voice. “If there’s no sign of Josh, we should walk out.  Staying here is going to be trouble.”

Kerry hiked up one knee and circled it with both arms. “More trouble.”

They heard a rumble of thunder, and then, just after it, the yowl nearby of a cat, sudden and shocking and making them all jump.

Rich went to the door and shoved it closed. “That was a big one.” He said. “Did we throw those fish bones out the window?”

“Anyone got a gun?” Todd asked, as they all went silent.

The cat yowled again.

**

Kerry eased the door open and poked her head outside, looking around before she emerged into the chill of an early dawn. 

The skies had cleared, and the stars were fading from view as she went to the edge of the rough wood porch and looked towards the river.

Janet and Pete were coming back from that direction, and Kerry stepped down onto the gravel surface, taking a breath of the morning air filled with the scent of the water as she heard the door open behind her and the sound of the rest of the group emerging.

She felt a little tired, unable to really get any good sleep after their early waking. They had boiled up more old tea, and she could taste that mustiness on the back of her tongue. 

Janet and Pete stopped, as they saw everyone approaching and a moment later they were all in a rough circle as the rest of the crew also came over.

“Okay folks.” Janet visibly steeled herself to continue. “The river’s running pretty high. I don’t think going further on the water is really an option.”

“What about the kid?” Rich asked. “How long till he gets to the ranger station?”

“That’s our second option.” Janet said. “Depends on the trail conditions.” She washed her hands together. “I think he probably didn’t make that much headway last night from the weather. So I think we should probably start up after him.”

Dar had started nodding, but she kept quiet.

“Don how are you feeling?” Janet asked looking past her.

“Not bad.” Don stated. “Got a headache, but I’m all right.  I just wont be running up that trail.” He folded his arms over his chest as most turned to look at him.   His head was covered in a bandage and there were bruises along his temple, but he had a healthy flush of color and seemed fine.

“Good.”  Janet looked relieved. “So lets gather up everything we can find in terms of supplies, and see what we can pack out.”

She motioned to the crew and they scattered to start collecting things, while the passengers stood in their irregular circle, regarding each other.

Todd had come to stand next to Dar, and now he folded his arms, and produced a skeptical expression that actually reflected what Dar was thinking in her head.

They exchanged glances.

“You any good at catching snakes?” Todd asked, in a mild tone.

“No.” Kerry supplied at once.

Dar eyed her thoughtfully.

“Please tell me you aren’t.” Kerry returned the look.

‘Well, I have.” Dar acknowledged. “But not for a very long time, and I didn’t really enjoy the experience.”  She said. “But it was either latch on to a cottonmouth or have him bite me and we were out in the bush and no one wanted to have to carry my six foot plus dead ass back to the base.”

Kerry made a face, and so did Rich and Don.

“In August. In the Everglades.” Dar supplied. “So how about I get a few more fish and we .. I don’t know. Smoke or dry them or something?”

“That’ll beat eating crickets.”  Todd said.  “I’ll give that a try too.”  He motioned Dar to precede him towards the river and with a faint shrug Dar headed off.

Sally was looking up at the sky, then she pulled the one carry bag that her group had salvaged and started sorting through it. “If the weather holds, we should be good.” She remarked to Kerry, who had taken a seat on a rock nearby. “Got to admit I’m not having a real great time now.”

“No.” Kerry agreed. “Not much fun.”  She rested her elbows on her knees, her and Dar’s duffle resting next to the rock.  She watched as a bird landed on a bit of twisted wood nearby, and pecked at it.  I”ll go get that soup pot and get some water in it. We’ll need to carry that.”

“For sure.” Sally agreed. “Boil it first.”

Kerry pushed herself to her feet and went into the shack, past where the crew was tearing apart all the boxes against the wall and into the back section where the cooking ring was.  They had cleaned out the contents earlier that morning and she picked up the pot and carried it out and across the gravel back to where she’d found the cave.

There had been a trickle of water and now when she made her way into the cave, it had become more of a gush, carrying the rain runoff from the previous night.  She wedged the pot into a corner of the stone and watched it start to fill up.

While that was in work, she turned and picked up one of the rocks littering the floor and went to the wall, pounding it against the salt crystals and knocking them off into her hand.    She kept at it until she had several palms full, which she put into her cargo pants pocket and dusted her hands off, letting the rock drop at her feet.

She went back over to the pot and stood watching, then turned as she heard a soft scraping sound behind her.  There was no one there, but she spotted motion and she felt her heart rate pick up as she recalled Todd’s comments about snakes.

But it was just a squirrel.  The small rodent seemed as surprised to see her as she was to see it inside a cave, and it scampered quickly out the opening and raced off.

Curious,  Kerry went over to the corner the squirrel had emerged from and peeked behind the rock, spotting a pile of debris behind it.  She knelt down and fished her flashlight out of her pocket and turned it on, peering warily at the ground, then moving her boot a little and moving the sticks around.

There were bits of stone and fluff there, what appeared to be some nutshells, and she was about to abandon the pile when the light flashed against something and she paused and then leaned closer.  She extended her hand and pushed the fluff aside with the edge of her flashlight then reached down and picked up what the light had exposed.

She stood up and went to the entrance to the small cave and peered closely at the device, a square piece of plastic with two wires extending from it, ending in a pin out cable. “What the hell?”  She turned it over, but it had no writing on it and with a shrug she put it in her pocket.

The sound of water overflowing made her turn and she trotted back over to the now overflowing pot and picked it up, holding it away from her body to keep from being doused.  With a grunt she turned and made her way out of the cave into the sunlight.

**

“Water’s higher.” Todd commented as they got to the edge of the river.  “Look at that thing.”

Dar spared a glance for the raft, which looked sadly battered. She could see cracks along the front of the pontoons, and most of the metal structure was bent.  “Yeah.” She put her hand on one of the struts and then sat down on the pontoon. “Going to change shoes.”

She had her daybag on her back and she unslung it, then removed the pair of sandals from it and started to unlace her hiking boots.   The sound of the river was loud behind her, and she could hear the rush of the water moving past the canyon walls.

Todd had walked over to the other side of the raft and started into the water, moving along the rocks and between the pontoons.  He was wearing shorts and an odd kind of shoes that were melded to his instep and had a slight curve to them.

Dar finished putting her sandals on and tied her boots to her daybag, and the daybag to the metal frame of the raft.   Then she followed Todd’s path into the water, grimacing a little as the chill crept up her calves.  After a moment she paused and took her jacket off, hanging on that on the raft as well as the sun came up over the canyon wall and lit them with warmth.

Dar studied the rocks then picked a spot between two algae covered boulders and got a foot on either side of them.

“How do you know where to stand?” Todd asked.

“Find a gap.” Dar said, briefly.  “We might have to go deeper.” She pointed to the right.  “It’s a lot higher than it was yesterday.”

Todd looked upriver.  “It is.” He agreed. “No way could we use that raft. It’d come apart under us.” He eased sideways and carefully climbed over a submerged rock, getting into the water up to his waist. “Oh shit!” He almost lost his balance and reeled, waving his arms.

Dar grabbed hold of the pontoon strut and swung over, reaching out to grab his wrist and pull back.  For a moment it was touch and go, then he rocked forward and got his footing and braced one hand against the rocks. “Watch it.” She warned, releasing him.  “Let me get a rope.”

“Nah, I got it.” He wedged his feet into the crevices and bent forward.  “Hey Amy!” He let out a bellow that nearly made Dar’s ears ring.  C’mere!”

Dar reached up and pulled a length of rope that was tied off down and circled her waist with it, tying it off before she settled into her spot and let her elbows rest on her thighs.   The early light reflected off the water, it’s rich green color and pungent scent flowing over her.

Todd was staring intently at the water, and then he lunged, grabbing at something.  After a moment he straightened and lifted his hands up, dripping but empty. “Shit.”  He stared again, then plunged both hands into the water, chasing after something.  “Shit.” He repeated.

Dar could feel the water flowing hard against her leg. “Might be going too fast to do this.” She said, in a diplomatic tone, then she felt a bump and without really thinking her body reacted and she grabbed down by her shin and felt a body squiggling there.

She tightened her grip and pulled her hand up, pulling a medium sized trout out of the water.

“Fuck. How do you do that?” Todd was coming back over to where she was standing.  

Dar threw the fish into one of the broken topped bins on the raft.  Its all in the reflexes.” She settled down to wait. “You get in the flow, and you feel the fish hit you. Then you grab them.”

Todd studied her legs, his brow creasing.  “The fish hit you?”

“See the gap?” Dar pointed to two rocks. “Fish come through and I’m blocking their path.” She indicated her leg. “They cant really control where theyre going in the flow, so they smack into me.” She felt another bump and grabbed quickly, feeling a bigger body that thrashed immediately. “Ah.”

Todd got both hands under the water and grabbed and together they pulled a large fish out of the water.  “Nice.” He looked at it with satisfaction, then peered past Dar to where not just Amy, but most the passengers were standing on the shore watching. 

Dar produced a somewhat pained smile, then turned her attention to ridding herself of the large, squiggling and croaking fish.  From the corner of her eye she spotted Kerry arriving at the back of the crowd, and she handed off the animal to Todd for him to pose with as Amy focused her camera.

The fish were a little slimy.  She stuck her hands into the water to wash them off, and a fish actually swam into them, making her eyes widen a little as she simply closed her fingers on it.  “Hey.” She told Todd. “Get rid of that I’ve got another one.”

“What the fuck?” Todd stared down.

“Throw it.” She jerked her head towards the raft. “We must be in the path of choice this morning.”

Todd laughed, lifting the fish over his head and aiming for the cooler.

**

They assembled outside the shack, ready to leave.  The fish had been packed in salt from Kerry’s cave find and the cooler rigged so that two of the crew could carry it, along with the rest of the salvaged stores. Water bottles had been filled by the now boiled runoff and they were as ready as they were going to be.

“Okay.” Janet had a walking stick.  “Let’s move.”

Dar had put her hiking boots back on, and had their duffel rigged for her to carry on her back, while Kerry had both their daybags.  It wasn’t too uncomfortable, and she bounced a little on the balls of her feet as she waited for the group to get going.

Todd and Amy were the first to start, both of them using backpack mounted water sacks and with the odd shoes that someone had explained to her were for rock climbing.

Kerry had her camera around her neck, and a brimmed and ventilated hat on her head.  “Might as well make the best of it, right?” She commented as they started walking, just behind Rich and Sally.  “At least you don’t have to be bored on the raft.”

“True.” Dar acknowledged, as she flexed her hands, and fell into the rhythm of the hike as they headed up and around the corner of the rock wall, following a faint path up a short rise.

It was a nice morning, at least, the rain the previous day leaving clear skies and cool air behind as they continued upward, in the shadow of the canyon walls and the pungent blue sky contrasted with the striated rock and the gravel strewn ground.

Dar found herself thinking about work for the first time, her mind drifting back to the database structure she’d been working on before they left.  She sorted through the tables in some content, as the scenery promised to remain the same at least for now.

“Hey a bighorn sheep.” Kerry interrupted her with a touch on her arm and pointing.  “Look at it climb.”

Dar watched the animal scale apparently without footing right up the cliff. “How in the hell does it do that?”

“It’s got sticky pads on it’s hooves.” Rich supplied knowledgably.  “And it keeps moving.”

The animal gained a ledge and then trotted out of sight, and they kept moving between the walls, the sound of crickets suddenly loud around them, as grass about knee height grew in dusty tufts around ground that was visibly damp.

They were still climbing up, and Dar leaned forward a little, shifting the duffel to a more comfortable position.  She heard a scrape behind her and glanced back to see the crewmembers repositioning the gear, struggling a little with the big cooler.

Just ahead of them was JP, using makeshift crutches that let her keep her weight mostly off her bandaged foot.  Her classmates were staying with her, and two of them went back to help the crew, all of them roughly the same age.

Not even a slight protest from the workers, who gladly shifted some of the load.

Dar returned her attention to the trail, pondering if she should go back herself and assist.  She looked up to find Kerry watching her over one shoulder, a faint grin on her face.

She reasoned Kerry probably had a good idea of what she was thinking and returned the grin, with a slight shrug of both shoulders.

“Hon.” Kerry hooked one finger into the waistband of her pants.  “You did your part by providing food for all of us. Honest.”

Pffft.” 

“And everyone spent an hour scraping salt crystals for it.  We’re all in.”  Kerry continued without pause.  “For a posh luxe ride down the river we’re doing plenty of work.”

“I know.” Dar laid one arm over her shoulders, as the path widened and they could walk side by side. “I had a thought though. What if we’re taking a different path than Josh did?”

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.”  Kerry looked mournful.  C”mon, Dar. Isn’t it screwed up enough without inventing more problems?” She asked, in a plaintive tone.  “What can we do? Split up?”

Dar sighed. “No, I know.”  She fell silent briefly.  “They just haven’t made good choices so far.”

And at that, Kerry had to be silent herself, because that was undoubtedly true.  She sighed.  “Well.” She finally said. “They know more about this than we do.”

Yrg.”

The canyon was angling to the left, and they were on a steeper path, on gravel that was damp and as they spread out a little Dar noticed that there was standing water in some places.  

“Folks.” Janet was standing ahead of them. “Be careful, there’s some runoff up here and it can get slippery.”

Dar could feel the gravel shifting under her in fact, and she moved over a little to where there was some scrubby grass growing.  Kerry joined her and they kept their eyes on the ground as they walked in and out of splotches of sun coming between the walls.

Their boots slid, a little, anyway.   Kerry reached out quickly to grab hold of a piece of rock wall to keep from sliding. “Yikes.”

Dar frowned. “We should have brought those softball cleats.” She suggested. “Not much traction in these.”

“Hold up, Dar. We have those collapsible walking sticks in the bag.” Kerry said, suddenly.  “Let me get them.”

“Great idea.” Dar paused and unslung the duffel, lowering it to sit on a rock and unfastening it as the crew coming up behind them paused for a rest, and JP sat down and flexed her hands, with a grimace.

“What’s up?” Janet appeared next to them.  “We have to keep moving.”

“We’re just getting something.” Kerry fished around in the duffel until she found the sticks.  “Besides, I think those guys needed a breather.” She indicated the crew.  “How much longer is the uphill?”

Janet looked around. “Three or four hours. But once we get to the top it gets tricky.”

Kerry handed Dar one of the sticks and opened one for herself. “Tricky?” She closed the bag and handed it back to her partner.  “What does that mean?”

But Janet just walked past them to the crew, and didn’t answer. 

Dar had unfolded the stick and was now testing it, grunting in satisfaction as she looped the leather strap around her wrist.  “I got a bad feeling about that.” She hoisted the duffel back up and tightened the straps.  “But like you said, not much we can do.”

The sticks helped, and Kerry made her way upwards with more confidence, and they joined the rest of the party up the slope where they all were paused, watching the progress of the load bearing crew who were picking their way up very cautiously.

Don was leaning on his wooden walking stick, and Marcia was seated nearby a smear of mud along one side of her face.

Janet climbed back up and past them, and the group started off again.

**

By the time they got to the top, even Janet didn’t demur when they stopped for a break.  The crew were all breathing hard, and they put down their burdens and went to sit down, shirts drenched with sweat.

Kerry was also glad to stop, her legs tired from the climb even with the help of the stick.  She leaned against the rock wall and crossed her ankles, as Dar stood nearby taking a sip from her water bottle.

The sky had remained clear, and the downside to that was the sun remained bright.  Kerry swung their daybags down from her back and fished inside hers, pulling out a tube of sun block and opening it.

Dar sidled over and lifted her hair off her neck, bending over to kiss her on the nape before she applied more of the gooey stuff.

A little cool air, a little tickle from Dar’s fingertips, and the pleasurable sensation of her lips and Kerry dismissed the discomfort, glancing up at her partner with an affectionate look as she applied some of the block to her exposed skin.

Dar winked at her.

Kerry winked back, and reached up to put some of the block along Dar’s cheekbones.   Her base tan was enough to protect her, but there was no sense in taking chances and Dar stood there motionless, as the block was applied. “You know what?”

“What?” Dar straightened and leaned next to her, setting down the duffel bag she’d been carrying.

“I love you.”

Dar smiled. “I love you too.” She responded. “Especially at craptastic times like this.”  She remarked, watching the rest of the party find rocks in the shade to sit on as the sun blazed down overhead.  It wasn’t overwhelmingly hot  - she was used to that. 

It was probably around 80 degrees, but dry, and now that they had stopped hiking up the incline the light breeze made it almost comfortable.

She stretched her legs out a little, pushing herself upward onto her toes as she watched Janet talking to the crew, in a low tone she coudnt make the words out in.

Rich came over, holding his water bottle.  “Now we go down and past that next ridge.” He told them.  “Glad we’re up here.  If it starts raining again, we’re not going to drown.”

“Is it likely to?” Kerry glanced up. “Seems pretty clear now.”

“Heard them talking.” He indicated the crew. “That’s why they wanted to hump up here fast as they could.” He made a face. “We better find someplace to stop under cover.”

Kerry pondered that. “How long is it going to take to get to that ranger station?” She asked. “It sounded like a short trip when they were talking about Josh going.”

Rich glanced around casually then lowered his voice. “Three days.”

“Three days?” Dar repeated.

“We can’t go that fast, because of JP, and the gear.” Rich confirmed. “Josh’d gone faster, maybe a day and a half.” He took a sip of his water bottle. “Hope this lasts, or if it rains we can refill.  You’re supposed to suck down a couple of these a day in this weather.”

Dar and Kerry exchanged looks.  “Especially with salt preserved fish.” Kerry said, after a long pause. “Or was the idea, Josh’ll get ahead of us, and we’ll meet the rangers on their way back?”

Rich half shrugged. “Yeah, sure. Why not? Makes sense.” He nodded.

Dar and Kerry exchanged another look. “We sure we’ll all meet up on the same path?” Dar asked, one dark eyebrow hiked up.

“Well, there’s really only one major trail.” Rich said.  He turned and pointed along the ridge. “Goes along there, and then down that set of switchbacks, and then back up to the slope, then back down there.” He shaded his eyes. “The ranger station’s on the other side of that mountain.”

“Nice.” Dar pronounced.

“Should be fine.” Rich said. “I’m glad we’re off the river. I don’t think that raft was going to make it much further, and this way, at least we’re making progress. If we’d dumped off the raft, who knows where we’d end up?”  He looked up as Sally called over, pointing at something and went to join her.

Dar opened her pack and removed a packet of crackers. She ripped it open and handed half the crackers to Kerry, then relaxed against the stone wall, chewing thoughtfully.

“Know what?” Kerry nibbled one of the crackers. “Glad you brought these.”

“Me too.”

**

The path was getting narrower, and now there was a short, but significant drop off to their right hand side.  Kerry peeked in that direction, seeing a thicket of scrub brush and rocks apparently dropped off from the wall on the other side. 

Dar was a pace or so behind her, the soft scuff of her hiking boots audible amongst the silence of the rest of the group, and Kerry looked quickly behind her, past her partner’s tall form to see the crew cautiously picking their way along the ridge. 

Two of the male crew had rigged a sort of sling between them, with the heaviest of the gear suspended by it, and as she watched they paused to trade off their burden with two of the others, the first one swapping the ropes for a handhold on the rough seat they’d fashioned for PJ.

Uncomfortable, and her face showed a discomfort not only for the ride but for the necessity of it. One of her classmates was walking alongside and the other two were back with the rest of the crew, helping carry boxes.

“Watch it.” Dar said, gently, touching her back. 

Kerry re focused her attention on the trail and stepped over the rock in the center of the path before she tripped over it. “Thanks.”

“Those guys bothering you?”

“My helper gene is bothering me.” Kerry admitted. “As in, I want to be able to call in a helicopter or at least a squad of cute llamas to get us all out of this.”

Lllamas are cute.”  Dar agreed. “But yeah, I’m kind of…” She paused, and straightened as yells came from in front of them. “What’s up?”

Kerry stood on her tiptoes. “Hon if you can’t see what’s going on what makes you think I can?” She shaded her eyes but the group ahead had gone past a curve in the trail and were out of sight.  “Should we go find out?”

“Probably.” Dar sighed. “Maybe they ran into a tarantula or something.”

Kerry paused. “Can those bite through hiking boots?”

“No.” Dar started forward, then paused as the sounds started to come towards them, a mixture of boots  and a tattoo of hoofbeats. “Hold on.”

“I was only joking about the llamas.” Kerry said, with a nervous grin. “Honest.”

They could hear scrambling and then, the sound of the hooves moving fast  and more yells of alarm.

Dar absolutely had no idea what was going on.  “Go flat against the rock.” She decided, pulling herself and Kerry back and sliding the duffel around so she could put her back to the wall.

They heard more sounds of thrashing  then a loud, frightened scream and a moment later two large figures came bolting down the path at them at full speed.

“Holy crap!” Kerry flattened herself and grabbed hold of Dar’s arm as the mountain sheep or goats or whatever they were thundered past inches away from them, the one in the lead half turning it’s head as it’s horns brushed Dar’s leg.

Instinctively she kicked out, booting the animal in the ribs and it baa’d loudly, but kept going. 

“Watch out!” Kerry yelled after it. “Get to the side! Big sheep! Guys be careful!”

“Mountain goat.” Dar started after it. “They may need help if it hits them.”

Kerry scrambled after her as the animals reached the struggling crew and in a moment it was a pileup and two of the crew went flailing over the edge of the path down the slope, as the men carrying PJ stumbled and she was almost launched off the seat onto the now confused sheep.

Without hesitation Dar dove off the path after the crew,  landing with a hop as she skidded down the rocky surface and continuing down to where they’d fallen in a cloud of dust and tumbling stones. She kept her balance and just let gravity take her the rest of the way until she was at the bottom of the slope.

“Crap crap crap.” Kerry gave the nearest sheep a shove, it’s pungent, musky scent something she could almost taste o the back of her tongue.  The animal baa’d in outrage but turned and leaped off the path, racing almost sideways across the rocks as it’s companion followed it.

A moment later, they were long gone, and everyone was catching their breaths.  PJ was sitting on the ground, her bandaged foot held up in the air, scrapes visible on both elbows.

“Oh shit.” One of the crew sat down on the cooler they'd almost lost and examined a bleeding cut on his hand.  “Hey are you guys okay?” He called down the slope. “Hey?!”

Dar had just hauled one of the shaken crew  to her feet. “You okay?”

The girl was covered in dust, and her knees now had lurid scrapes on them. “Holy Moses.” She gasped. “What the hell was that!” She turned to her companion, a short red headed teenager still seated on the ground. “Petey you okay?”

“My ass is broken.” The boy grimaced.  “I landed on my tailbone.” He cautiously rolled over and pushed himself to his feet, hissing. “Oh shit.”

Dar went over and grabbed his arm as he started to waver.  “I’ll help you get up there.”   She got one arm around him as he limped forward.

“I’ll help too.”  The girl went to the other side and took his arm.  “I just got a few bangs. I landed on my head, lucky me.”

“That’s not lucky.” Dar frowned.

“Just kidding.” The girl smiled at her. “I landed on my knees and side and rolled. Just road rash.” She indicated her legs. “I ride a bike at home, I know how to fall.”

Above them, Kerry was now standing, watching and then Todd appeared at her side, with a rope circling his shoulders.  “Two more people went down up ahead.” Kerry yelled down.  “One of them was Janet.”

“Oh, fuckety do dah.” Petey muttered. “Maybe she fell on her mouth.”

Dar hastily stifled a laugh. “Toss the rope down.” She called up to Todd. “He hurt his lower back.”

Todd shook his head, but did as he was asked, throwing the end of the rope down and then backing up a step and bracing his legs as he positioned the rope across his shoulders and around his waist ready to belay them up the slope.

Kerry slid past him and started up the path. “I’ll check it out.” 

Dar looped the rope around Petey’s chest and they started to climb, Todd taking in the slack and pulling as they did to help the effort. “Good thing your SO threw that sheep off the track.” The girl said, after a moment. “I’ve never seen one that close.”

“Me either.” Dar took hold of an outcropping and hauled herself up, then she levered her body up onto the path and turned to grab Petey’s hands to help him upward. “Easy.”

“Ow.” Petey grimaced as he got one knee up on the path and then was up onto it and rolling onto his side. “Son of a bitch that hurts.”  The rest of the crew gathered around him and helped him to his feet, and Tracy, the girl, came scrambling up after him dusting herself off.

Amy came trotting down the path. “They’re going to need some med there.” She told Todd. “Not sure we can keep going.”

“Figures.” Dar shouldered past her and moved up the path and the two turned and followed her..  “Let me guess, there’s no place to shelter around here.” 

Todd just laughed.  Amy however, looked troubled.  “I know we’ve been dissing them the whole time but honestly they don’t really seem that prepared.” She said. “They had no idea what to do when that goat came at us.” She glanced at Dar. “Did you get thrown off the path?”

“No.” Dar muttered. “We went flat to the wall. I went down to help.”

“Us too.” Amy nodded, “But most of the rest of them just stared at it.”

They reached the bend in the path and came around it, to a wider area where the rest of the group was gathered. Two people were seated on the ground, Janet and Sally, and there was blood visible. 

Kerry was kneeling down in front of Janet, talking to her, and a moment later she turned and met Dar’s eyes. “Hon, they’re going to need the first aid kit.”

“They need it down there too.” Dar responded, looking around at the watchers. “But I’m sure someone can go get some bandages.”  Her eyebrows hiked.

“Right.” Rich started and hurried past,  and Dar could hear the snort from Todd who was just behind her.  “Kerry body slammed the damn things but not until they’d knocked two people off the trail.”  She concluded, holding a hand up as Kerry started to protest. “I saw you.”

Janet had a cut across one knee, that looked deep and painful and as Dar came closer she could see how pale the woman was.  “That might need stitches.” She suggested.  “Anyone here a medic?”

Everyone stood there, and there was an awkward silence.  Then Dar produced a little sigh, and folded her arms. “Someone want to go up the trail and find a place to camp? I think our treks done for today.” Her voice had changed, a little. Maybe even unconsciously. “Anyone?”

“We’ll check:” Todd said, after the silence had lengthened and become uncomfortable. “C’mon, babe.”  He reseated his rope and moved past them, the rest drawing aside to let him by. “See if we can find a crick, too. Need some water for that.”

And just like that, Kerry suppressed a smile.  Just like that Dar had stepped into the void of leadership and even Todd the asshole had accepted it.  “Let's get you moved into the shade.” She suggested.  “Give me a hand guys.” She waved the rest of the group forward. “Over there, against the wall in case some other wildlife decides to come flying at us.”

Dave joined her immediately and he and Kerry carefully helped Janet up.

“Let's get the rest of the gear up here.” Dar said to the rest of the them. “C’mon.” She turned and started down the path and they all followed, with an air of something like relief. 

**

The sun was starting to go behind the rock walls when Todd and Amy returned.  Rich had just finished an awkward attempt at stitching up Janet’s knee, and it was hard to say which one of them had suffered more from it.  Janet had won points, however, for grit as she had her mouth and eyes clamped shut and made no sound of discomfort.

They were all gathered in the wide area of the trail, the supplies piled up around them for a meager kind of protection.

Todd went right over to Dar. “We’re screwed.” He announced without preamble. “There’s a cave up ahead, but no one’s gonna make it up to the entrance except maybe me and Amy.  It’s thirty foot up.” He concluded.  “This is pretty much as good as it’ll get.” He indicated the wide area.

“You can’t use the cave anyway.” Tracy spoke up. “That’s a medicine cave. It’s off limits.”

“Okay.” Dar said. “Let's make the best shelter we can in case it starts raining again.” She eyed Todd. “Cave nearby?”  She watched him nod. “Let me go look at it.”

“I said you can’t use it.” Tracy repeated.

Dar turned and regarded her. “If it’s between some rule, and survival the rule loses.” She said, flatly. “Besides if they get pissed at us maybe they’ll report us and we can get the hell out of here.”  She motioned Todd to move forward and he did, with a smirk.

“That's not cool.” The girl frowned, but she made no move to interfere, and instead started rummaging in the supplies for a folded tarp.

Kerry looked around. “I’m going to go find whatever wood I can to make a fire.” She said. “Anyone up for that?” She asked, somewhat pleased when Rich and Dave joined her, and two of the crew as well.   They trooped up the path, to where there was an outcropping of weathered trees and scrub grass visible, following in Dar and Todd’s steps.

Dar stared up at the side of the cliff, where the entrance to the cave was very visible. “Huh.”

“No one’s getting up there.” Todd remarked, both hands clenched around the rope still circling his neck. “I mean most of those dipshits won’t.”  He regarded the wall thoughtfully. “There's some handholds.”

Dar folded her arms over her chest. “Yeah, I can’t see it happening.” She said, with a regretful sigh. “What is a medicine cave? You know?”

Todd nodded. “I do. Place the natives went to do their juju stuff.  Talk to the big douchebag in the sky or whatever that crap is.”  He regarded the cave. “Might go up there just to see it. Screw em.”

Dar looked to the left of the entrance, where a splash of green was visible. “That water?”

Todd looked where she was pointing. “Maybe.”

“That might be more useful than the cave.” Dar started towards it. “Let’s find out.”  She started up off the pathway, through a slide of rocks towards the bottom of the wall.

“Right behind ya.” Todd started up the slope after her, his climbing shoes giving him solid purchase. “Don't have to ask me twice.”

Closer to the wall, Dar could now see pictographs, faded and yet with pungent color against the flat part of the wall. “That say keep out?”

Todd just laughed.

**

Kerry gave the rope tied to the edge of the tarp a tug, and stepped back.  The blue fabric was providing a bit of shelter, enough to cover where they were sitting.   Janet was laying on a folded piece of canvas, and Petey was curled up on his side next to her, in obvious pain.

Not good. Kerry went over to where they’d dropped their harvest of wood, and both Rich and Dave were putting stones in a circle in preparation to using it. 

They heard the scuff of boots and looked up to find Dar and Todd returning, both holding water bottles that dripped faintly on the rocky ground.

“Good news.” Dar said. “We found some water.” She held up the bottle. “Might want to get everything filled up.”

Several of the crew stood up and came over, looking relieved.  “We’ve got purification tabs.”  Tracy said. “Where is it?”

“Just below that cave.”  Dar said. “It’s coming out of a crack in the wall. You can see the green stuff near it.”

Tracy grabbed her water bottle and headed off, with the rest of the crew behind her and a scattering of the passengers.  Dar came over to where Kerry was and they stood together in silence for a few moments.

“Really hope it doesn’t rain.” Kerry sighed.

“Me too.”  Dar agreed, in a mournful tone.  “Now we have three people we have to carry out of here.  Don’t need any other bad luck.”

Mmph.” Kerry regarded the stone circle. “Do you know.. oh, yes, that’s right you do. I remember you started the fire on the island when we were there the last time.”

“I do.” Dar agreed. “But most of these people do too and I’m better at using a soldering iron.” She steered Kerry back over ot the shelter, sitting down on a bit of rock outcropping near where she’d spotted their duffel bag.

They were at the end of the tarp, in a small bit of ground that had been cleared of pebbles and they sat down next to each other regarding their surroundings with simultaneous sighs.

Janet heard them.   She eased herself over, keeping her leg outstretched and waved them off as they started to get up to go to her instead. “I’m sitting on a branch.”

They settled back down and waited, as she got herself arranged.  Her leg was covered with thick bandages but there was a line of dried blood that had seeped through. “This sucks.” She said, simply.  “Thanks for finding water and getting things sorted out. I hope my severance pay is going to cover taking out these stitches.”

She seemed resigned.  “I just wanted to tell you both how sorry I am this happened. I know what it’s like to wait for a vacation and have something go wrong.”

Dar removed one of the remaining packets of crackers from her bag and opened it, handing two of the crackers to Janet and two to Kerry.

“Well.” Kerry paused to consider.  “Yeah, it does kinda suck, not only for us, but for everyone else, and your crew as well.”

“It does.” Janet agreed.  “I’m worried about Doug, and Josh, and now Petey.” She glanced over at the young man, curled in almost a fetal position. “That must really hurt.”

“Janet.” Dar cleared her throat a little. “This stuff doesn’t happen much, does it?”

The woman sighed.  “We have rollovers, sure.” She said. “It’s a wild location, you know? We have stings and knee cuts, and that sort of thing.  But all this?”  She looked around and shook her head. “No. In my ten years on the river I have never had anything close to this happen.”

“Hm.” Dar grunted thoughtfully.

“Hm.” Kerry echoed her.

Far off they heard a soft rumble of thunder, and Janet sighed again, resting her head against her hand. “Just bad juju.  I should have listened to my gut when that other team didn’t show. Just started everything off wrong.” Janet said. “But you know, everything was fine until the flood.”

“It was.” Kerry agreed. “We were having a great time. You all were doing a great job.” She reassured the woman. “And the weather, that wasn’t your fault.”

“Or the jerk going up into that cave.” Dar said, suddenly. “That night.”

Janet lifted her head. “What jerk.. oh.  Todd.” She said. “Getting the natives pissed off at us…” She regarded them thoughtfully.  “You know there is something to all that stuff.  Tracy wasn’t wrong saying not to mess with the medicine cave.”

“Yeah.” Dar said, after a moment. “You can call it medicine, or mojo or karma but what you put out in the world is generally what you get back from it.”

Thunder rumbled again, and as they all looked out from under the tarp, dark clouds were now gathering and obscuring the deep blue sky.

**

Kerry pulled her waterproof jacket more tightly around her, huddling against the stone wall as the rain pelted them, the tarp providing little shelter against its wind driven deluge.  

Dar was behind her, and as she shifted, her partner put both arms around her bringing a very welcome warmth against her back abating the shivers that had started.  “This sucks.”

“This sucks.” Dar confirmed. “As in what did we do to deserve this kind of sucks.”  She glanced past Kerry, where all the rest of the group was looking miserable and wet, and the fire they’d hastily cooked some fish over was now washed out and down the slope.

It was cold. Most of the rest of the group was shivering and Dar could hear the sound of teeth chattering even from where she was.   She looked out in to the darkness and tried to think of some reasonable plan of action and found herself coming up empty.

Even climbing up into the cave at this point, was a non starter. 

Even in dry weather, it was probably a non starter.  Dar started to consider the very real possibility that they were in true trouble, and with limited amount she could do about it.

On the other side of them was Janet, and beside her was Tracy and two more crewmembers, then Todd and Amy, then Rich and his gang, then PJ and the college kids, then the rest of the crew. They had pulled down the front of the tarp as much as possible, but there was no real protection from the weather even with all the coolers piled in front of them.

No one was sleeping. Everyone was miserable, even Todd, who had put on a waterproof poncho and was sheltering Amy under it.

No smartass remarks.  Everyone in fact looked more than a little scared.

Dar considered that. She hugged Kerry a little more firmly, watching the faint outline of her profile in the weak light from the lantern they’d left going.  Her expression was calm, dealing with the discomfort in a stolid kind of way characteristic to her nature.

Kerry wasn’t a whiner.  Never had been.  Dar had recognized that from the start, from the beginning when she’d thrown all kinds of business bullshit at her and had only gotten back either determination or anger.

There had been a toughness there she hadn’t understood until much later, after they had fallen in love with each other and become partners and learned a little about their respective backgrounds.

Hard to say really whose had held more little surprises. 

“Know what?” Kerry said, half turning so she was facing Dar. She snuggled up next to her and reached over to wipe some rain off Dar’s nose, gazing at her damp profile with gentle affection.

“What?” Dar smiled a little.

“So freaking glad we timed this to avoid our periods.”

Dar started laughing in pure, surprise reflex. “Wasn’t expecting that comment.”

“Could you freaking imagine?” Kerry sighed. “C’mon, Dar.  Gotta take the good where you find it, you know?”

Dar touched her forehead to her partner’s.  “I know.”

“What’s so funny?” Janet asked, softly. “I could use a joke.”

Kerry looked over her shoulder. “I was just telling Dar I was so freaking glad we missed that time of the month.”

Janet also reflexively laughed, reaching up to cover her mouth.  “We use birth control pills.” She murmured. “But yeah, what a horror show that would be.” She pulled her hat more firmly down on her head and looked out at the weather, shaking her head. “Shit.”

Kerry relaxed a bit, the shivers working out of her as Dar’s body heat drove them out.   She leaned her head against Dar’s shoulder, catching a scent of sun block she now wished they still needed to have on.  She looked up to watch Dar’s face, as her partner looked out at the storm, when a lightning bolt struck somewhere relatively close by and lit the area up in silver.

She saw Dar’s eyes pop wide open, pale blue pupils ochre in the dim light. “What?”

“What?” Dar was pointing past her. “What the hell was that?!” She asked Janet.

“What?” Janet repeated, in a flustered tone “I didn’’t see anything.. what did you see?”

Dar’s whole body had gone tense, as she peered out into the rainy darkness, the muscles around her eyes tensing, and on the side of her face moving her ears forward.

Kerry just watched her in fascination.  It was pitch black past the lantern and she knew there wasn’t anything there for her to see if she looked. “What did you see?” She whispered.

“Some big cat.” Dar said immediately. “Big as in, bigger than me.”  She started to untangle herself from Kerry, hand scrabbling in her pocket for her folding knife.  “Like a panther or something.”

“WHAT?” Janet yelled, hearing her.  “Did you just say you saw a cat?” She started to haul herself to her feet, grimacing in pain. “Mountain lion! Everyone watch out!”

“Fuck!” Tracey and Rich both stood up.  ‘Smell that?” Tracey said. “She’s right!!!”

Now they could all smell it, a musky scent brought in on the rain and in a moment the camp was in chaos. Dar got to her feet and got in front of Kerry with her small knife unfolded and in one hand.

“What are you going to do with that, Tarzan?” Kerry muttered. “Where’s my shotgun when I need it?”

Todd had staggered to his feet, bleary eyed and he and Dave went to the front of the tarp and looked nervously out.  “Don’t see anything.”

“Maybe we scared it off.” Dave suggested.

Todd stooped down and picked up one of the rocks, about the size of his head, and hefted it, throwing it overhanded into the darkness. They heard it hit the ground, and on the next flash of lightining, all eyes stared hard at the path and found it empty.

“That was a good idea.”  Kerry remarked.

“The rock?”

“Yeah.” Kerry moved out from her somewhat ineffective knife wielding partner and used her boots to kick over a few rocks towards where they’d been sitting.

Dar folded up the knife and put it in her pocket then went and joined Rich, Dave, and Todd at the point in the tarp, closest to the firecircle, where they were all standing and staring out into the dark. 

“You sure it was a big cat?” Rich asked. “Not just, like a bobcat I mean?”

Dar half shut her eyes.  “It was kind of either silver or goldish.” She said. “It was hunkered down, but it had a round head not the whiskery kind.”

“Huh.”

“And it had a tail.” Dar concluded. “It was moving back and forth.”

“Definitely not a bobcat.” Rich said sadly. “But boy, you’ve got a pair of eyes on ya.”  He looked at Dar with respect. “Even with the lightning.”

Dar was still studying the path, as lightnining flashes periodically lit in the distance now. “Photographic memory.” She answered absently. “Useful sometimes.”

“I don’t smell anything now.” Tracey came over to them, pulling her hood up around her face.  “Holy shit that was scary.”  She added. “Good job throwing that rock, sir.”

Todd glanced at her. “It’s still out there.” He said.  “What if it comes back?”  He picked up another rock and went out into the rain, heading for the spot Dar had seen the cat in. 

Rich folded his arms. “Guy has balls.” He commented. “Would not catch me going out after something ike that.” He looked over at Dave. “But he’s got a point – should we do something? Put up some… “ He looked around. “Well, there isn’t much we can do I guess.”

Dar was also looking around. “Not much.” She agreed. “We’ve already piled up the supplies best they can. I guess we can… “ She paused. “I guess we can hope the sun comes up sooner rather than later.”

“Mm.” Rich went back to where Sally was crouching next to Janet, the rest of the group now on their feet and moving around.  “Least it’s warmer now that I’m up.” He remarked back over his shoulder.

“Point.” Dar retreated back to where Kerry was still studiously piling rocks and looked around in their gear.  She picked up the folded hiking sticks and assembled them, propping them against the wall as Kerry straightened up next to her. “Probably more useful than my pocket knife.”

Kerry leaned against her. “Hon the fact that you got out there with that thing and would have done your best with it is truly a definition of your macha.  Kind of like you going after that ghost in the buff.”

Dar had to start laughing, a low chortling noise that was almost obscured by the rain.

“Oh my god are we going to get ribbed by the staff when we get back over this vacation.” Kerry sighed, folding her arms and leaning next to Dar against the rock wall. “Almost as bad as our last one.”

“Yeah.”  Dar draped one arm over her shoulders.  She looked down the wall as the rest of the group was repositioning, moving closer to each other and the crew shifting the heavy coolers that had their supplies in, making sure they were closed tightly.

She checked her watch.  “Three AM.”  She sighed and ran her fingers through her damp hair as she felt Kerry put both arms around her and give her a hug.  She returned it, and they stood together in silence as Todd came back under the tarp dripping rain from every surface .

Nothin.” He said. “I checked both ways.”  He paused. “Found this up the path.” He held up a sodden piece of fabric, bringing it over to Janet and handing it to her. “Guess the cat was chewing at it.”

Janet examined the item. “Bring the lantern over, will you Tracey?”

Everyone drifted over and watched as Tracey unhooked the light and brought it over, kneeling next to Janet.  “What is it?”

“Backpack.” Janet said, briefly.   The items was torn and tattered and covered in mud, and she was carefully straightening and turning it around to inspect it.  “Could have been one of ours.” She said, in quiet tone.  

“Let me see it.” Tracey took the item and leaned close, squinting at it.  Then she shrugged and handed it back .”It could be, but half the whoohah out here uses these.” 

“It’s true.” Janet agreed.  She checked all of the compartments, but they were empty.  “Nothing there.” She put the ragged pack down. “We’re about three hours from dawn. We better keep a watch.”

“I’ll light the other lantern.”  Dave went to the pile of supplies. “Too bad it’s raining. Fire’d be better.” 

The crew went to the line of supplies and picked up whatever they could in the way of sticks and poles.  Todd went back to where Amy was seated and took a seat himself,  smirking a little when she squeezed his bicep and patted it.

Everyone slid to the center a little, closing ranks. 

Dar and Kerry slowly took a seat again, the damp and soggy bedroll at least giving them some padding on the hard rock ground.  After a moment Dar took hold of their hiking sticks and handed one over, then put hers on her lap,  putting one hand around it’s handle and the other arm around Kerry.

“Everyone get some rest if you can. We need to move tomorrow.” Janet said, with as much authority as she could muster.

“If we don’t get eaten tonight.” Todd said mockingly.

“Got a better plan?” Janet shot back. “Since you’ve got an answer for everything?”

The rain pattered down in a sudden silence. Kerry turned her head to watch Dar, since she felt the faint shift in the body next to hers.

Dar cleared her throat. “C’mon people.  We don’t have enough crap flying you need to upchuck into the wind?” 

“Yeah.” Rich said immediately. “Just shut up.”

Silence fell again and Dar waited a moment,, then she settled back against the wall with a sigh, as Kerry gave her a little pat on the side. “Peh.”

“We’re in a tough place, hon.” Kerry nestled closer.  “Usually when you and I are in tough places we just let our brains do the heavy lifting.”  She looked out into the rain.  “It’s really annoying not having all the skill sets, you know?”

“But we do.” Dar responded in almost a whisper.  “At least as much as the rest of these people do.”

Kerry thought about that in silence for a few minutes.  “You got those fish.” She mused.

“You found that salt. You cooked the fish.” Dar responded. “You herded that sheep.”

“Oh Dar, I shoved the sheep, c’mon.”  Kerry chuckled.

“You put your knee into it’s ribcage and made it move. How did you know that?”

Kerry frowned, her eyes narrowing a little as she remembered that moment, when she’d reached for that animal in a total confidence whose genesis she really couldn’t understand. “I have no darn clue.” She admitted. “Maybe I was Little Bo Peep in a former life?”

Dar chuckled faintly.

“Dar?” Kerry lifted her head a little. “Wh.. you think maybe the reason those sheep were running was because they knew that cat was here?”

“Maybe.” Dar said.  “I just wish it was morning.”

In the distance they suddenly heard a scattering of rocks come down the path, and everyone surged upright who could, but there was nothing else behind them.

**
Continued in Part 6