Southern Stars

Part 6

“I feel like a cold old toad.” Kerry rubbed her hands together, as she cautiously eased her head out from under the edge of the tarp and regarded the sky.   It was still overcast, but somewhere the sun had risen, and the path was now revealed in it’s rocky and narrow shape, between the two canyon walls on either side.

She had peeled out of her rain slicker, but everything she had on was damp and she felt waterlogged and uncomfortable, glad at least she’d gotten an hour or two of sleep out of it.

Nearby, Sally and Tracey were putting down what wood they’d scrounged and saved, starting a fire to warm up some water at least for the teabags they’d brought along.  Todd, Rich and Dave had taken a walk up the path to check it for storm brought obstacles, and the rest of the gang was working on packing up things so they could move on.

The biggest problem was going to be their now three injured members.   JP had resumed her hastily made crutches, and Janet was gamely limping around on her cut leg, but Petey was unable to stand, much less walk and even rolling over was painful for him.

Marcia was kneeling next to him, examining his back.   Don and Dar were lashing together the tarp poles to make a litter.  They had, at least, not gotten eaten by a mountain lion during the rest of the very long night.

Kerry went over to the longest of the coolers and pried the lid up, revealing some of their salted fish.  She removed one of them and closed the top, putting the fish on it and retrieving the metal plate they’d used as a frying pan. 

There was rain in a bucket nearby, and she used it to dunk the fish, cleaning off the salt coating as best she could using a piece of wood with a flat edge to manipulate it before lifting it up to let it drain then putting it back on the metal.

Not really the best tool, but she took out her small folding knife and started cutting the fish up into pieces, to make it easier to cook.  She could hear them striking sparks for the fire nearby, and she was glad, at least, that she’d had one of her protein bars, found in the bottom of her daybag to start with shared with Dar for half of one of her last remaining packets or crackers.

Amy came over to her and put down a big double handful of dried berries.  “I had these.” She said. “Thought we should share.” 

Kerry regarded them. “Sure, why not?” She agreed. “Give some flavor to this stuff.”

 “And I found this.”  Sally detoured over and plunked down an open can of mushrooms.

Mushrooms, berries and fish.  “I think I’m starting to feel like a bear.” Kerry remarked. “Which is better than an old cold toad, anyway.”

“What?”

“Never mind. Just talking to myself.” Kerry finished her cutting and moved the piece of metal over to where they’d piled rocks together and lit a fire between them. She balanced the metal on top and retrieved a bit of metal tent prop and started moving it around.

Sally was shoving a metal water pot between two of the stones. “We’re earning our camping badges today, huh?”

Kerry eyed her in somewhat puzzled silence.

“C’mon Kerry. Don’t tell me you weren’t a girl scout.”  Sally stood up and dusted her hands off, with a chuckle.

“I wasn’t a girl scout.” Kerry said, apologetically. “I don’t think Dar was either.”

“Was what?” Dar was just sliding her pocket knife away as she came closer to investigate what was going on.

“A girl scout.”

Both of Dar’s dark eyebrows shot up.  “No.” She answered, with a brief laugh.  “You know I got my camping skills the hard way.” 

She went over and felt the bedroll they’d crouched on all night, finding it unpleasantly cold and clammy to the touch. “Yuk.” She picked it up and started wringing it out bit by bit with powerful twists of her hands.

Kerry continued her stirring. “Dar grew up on a couple of Navy bases.” She explained to Sally. “Probably weren’t many troops in the area.”

“Ah.” Sally nodded.  “And you?”

“I grew up between backwoods Michigan and Washington DC.” Kerry smiled a little. “I’m sure there were girls scouts in the area, but they weren’t on my parents radar for me.”

“Oh. So you had family in the government?”

“My father, and now my mother, in fact, were and are Senators.” Kerry confirmed.  “When my father passed on, my mother took his seat, and now I think she’s going to run for reelection.”

“Huh.” Sally removed the tea bags from the plastic casing they’d put them in. “Was that weird?”

Kerry stirred and considered. “Didn’t seem weird at the time, but probably it was.” She admitted. “Its like anything else I guess, it’s what you get used to.”

“True. My folks were serious hippies.” Sally said. “That’s how I ended up from Colorado.  My dad’s a health store manager and mom’s an astrologer.” She chuckled at Kerry’s slightly wide eyed reaction. “All I got from that was the vegetarian deal, and like you said, its just what you get used to. I never ate anything but vegan until I went to school.”

Kerry chuckled in response. “Dar’s folks are, respectively, retired Navy special forces and an artist.” She said. “A pagan artist, matter of fact.”

Thaat must be a story.”

“It is.”  Kerry poured the drained mushrooms into the fish and listened to it sizzle. “ But they’re awesome people. I guess they were so used to being different, that my and Dar’s relationship didn’t even faze them a bit. They were all in.”

“Lucky.”

“I know it.” Kerry judged if the canned  mushrooms were warmed through, then she went back and got the berries, coming over to add them to the pan.   She turned the pieces of fish a few more times, then moved the piece of metal off the stone. “Come and get it.”

Dar sidled over and inspected the impromptu fish hash. She eyed Kerry dubiously. 

“C’mon.” Kerry scooped some up onto one of the cracked plates and moved aside, as the rest of the gang came over to take some.  She took a forkful, then offered one to Dar. “it’s not bad.”

Dar gingerly accepted the taste, and chewed it, then made a low grunting noise and picked up her own fork.  “it’s not.” She swallowed the mouthful.  “I like the berries.”

“This is good.” Amy agreed. “Its just like what we like to eat out in the wild. No fake stuff.” She had her pack already at her feet and her hair tied up in a bun at the top of her head. She was wearing the odd looking foot gear again and she idly kicked a small rock with one of her toes.

“Those for climbing?” Sally had taken a seat on a cooler and was stolidly chewing on her fish.

“They are. They have really grippy soles.”  Amy turned one over for inspection. “And they conform to your foot. Only downside is, they’re better for climbing than hiking.”

Marcia came over to them. “Hey you know.” She lowered her voice. “That kid’s got a real problem with his back. There’s a lump there the size of a baseball.”

“Ow.” Sally grimaced. “Probably cracked something in there.”

“Probably. But he’s in a lot of pain.” Marcia said.  “I did that to my elbow once.” She held up one arm, and pointed to her joint. “They had to operate to relieve the pressure. Was no fun at all.”  She looked at her husband, who had wandered over. “How are you doing, honey?”

“Doing all right.” Don touched the side of his head, where the lump had been and where now he had scabs.  “Got a tough skull.”  He picked up a plate and took some of the fish. “Hope we can make some good time today. Not looking forward to another night like that.”

“Nobody is.” Sally sighed. “Hey Rich! Get some chow!”

**

It was slow getting started.  Between the water logged material and sorting out carrying things it was almost noon before they got moving along the path, in ones and twos in the damp and slightly musty air.

The pace itself was slow, because of the injured and the need to carry supplies.  Rich and Dar were in the lead, with Todd and Kerry right behind them, and Don and Marcia just a few steps back. 

So far the clouds had remained dormant, and the winds just blew fitfully against them as they walked along a narrow path between canyon walls, past the cave they’d found the night before, and into spaces where the walls were sculpted and scoured, and looked like sculpture.

They were quiet, and their steps scraped softly against the sandy ground.   Dar shifted the duffel on her back, feeling the dampness still in it, and looked up at the walls.

Pretty, but there was too much worry and discomfort to really enjoy them.  Even Kerry had left her camera in it’s bag, and she was walking along, eyes on the ground.

Dar reached up to touch a bit of the wall she was going past, the sandstone surprisingly smooth against her fingertips, and felt a moment of somewhat irrational loss, that the trip had turned out so badly.   She felt worse for Kerry than for herself and set her thoughts to what could possibly be done about it.

The path curved between two rock formations and then bent around to the right, along a rock strewn path that was starting to trend a little downward.  Dar could see markings up on the left hand wall and she pointed her walking stick at them. “Native?”

Rich looked up.  “Hard to say.” He said. “Some of the stuff is real, and some of the stuff… I think they put some stuff up for the tourists, you know?”

Dar grimaced.

“This is one of the trails they use in the summer a lot.” Rich evaded the implicit criticism. “So they start with a climb down the canyon wall and then they end up on the river, there, where we came out, and they pick up a raft there.”

“Huh.” Dar gently booted a stone out of the path.  “I guess by the time you get down here you’re looking forward to riding a while.”

“Exactly.”  Rich agreed.  “Mostly they camp one night up by the shack, have a nice que, then get on a paddle style raft to go the last few days. It’s a fun hike. I’ve done something like it.”

Dar imagined doing it, and had to suppress a smile. “To be honest, I think I have to come down on my dad’s side and say I’d rather stick to boats and underwater gigs.”  She admitted. “I won’t lie. I’d rather be diving right now.”

She imagined being on their boat, coming up from a dive and throwing her fins onto the deck, feeling the warmth of the sun as she sat down and unfastened the gear strapped to her back and sighed a little.

“Guess it’s what you’re used to.” Rich said, with an amiable shrug.  “That always seemed so.. I don’t know. Technical I guess. For this you just need your feet, and maybe a stick.” He cleared his throat a little. “Okay, we go down to the left hand side now. See the marker?”

Dar did, in fact see the curved arrow scratched into the rock ahead at a crossroads of the path. “Where does the other side go?”

Dave had caught up to them and was now peering past. “Oh.. that’s where we are?” He nodded. “Yeah, that other branch goes to a dead end in the path, I think, and a nice overlook.”

Calls from behind them made them all pause, and look back.  “What’s up?” Dar called over to Sally, who was just at the curve in the path.

“They’re changing bearers.” Sally yelled forward. “Ten minute break.”

“Hey, then lets go see the overlook.” Dave suggested. “Might as well?” He gestured to the other path. “Its not far.”

“Good idea.” Sally agreed. “Maybe Kerry can get some pictures.” She waved forward Amy and Todd, who came striding forward to join them.  “We’re going to see the overlook down there.”

“Why not?” Todd agreed. “Let them figure it out back there. That kid’s crying like a baby.”   He shouldered past Dave and started towards the right hand side.

The group of them proceeded on down the trail, as Kerry caught up and tucked her fingertips into one of Dar’s back pockets. “Making lemonade?”

“Might as well.” Dar said. “Feel bad for Pete though.”

“Me too.”

Kerry had gotten her camera out and it was now hanging around her neck while she used both her stick and a hand on the rock wall to help climb.  She looked down at the rain washed ground and paused, picking up a small stone and putting it in her pocket. “Well, hopefully helps on its way back to us.”

The right hand path was rocky, and a little steep, but they made it up to a boulder at the peak of the slope and then Todd stopped abruptly. “Whoa.”

Dar was right behind him and she looked past his muscular frame, and she jerked a little as a puff of wind blew against her face bringing the smell of death with it. “What… “ She eased past Todd and stepped over some fallen rocks as the rest of the group scrambled after her.

There was a bundle of debris near the edge of the drop off, and as Dar reached it a cloud of flies dispersed, and she dodged in reflex.  She poked at the bundle and it spread a little, exposing a bone.

“Oh shit.” Todd was kneeling near a rock nearby and now he stood up and pointed.  Rolled up against the stone was a roundish object cracked in two.

They all sort of froze in place.  Then Kerry went over to where Dar was standing and stared wide eyed at the scene, as Todd backed away from the skull and uncertainly stood nearby.  Shock was obvious on every face, and for a long moment there was only stunned silence, and the buzzing of the flies.

“Okay.” Dar finally said. “Someone please go get one of the crew.” She very gently moved a bit of torn cloth with the tip of her climbing stick. “Because I think this is Josh.” The tip rested on a colorful bit of fabric stained in blood.

“Oh my god.” Sally turned and raced back up the path, as Rich, and Dave and Amy slowly moved down towards them and they gathered together in a clump a few feet away from the remains. Only barely recognizable as a human figure, the flies were busy buzzing around what was left.

A pair of tattered shorts.  A half chewed boot.  The skull with scraps of hair still attached.

“Oh Dar.” Kerry murmured.  “So that pack..

“Yes.” Dar said somberly. 

Tracey came leaping over the boulder with Sally and Don at her heels and she came skidding to a halt in the gravel staring at the remains. “Oh fuck no.”  She came around and dropped to her bare knees uncaring, reaching out to grab the piece of cloth, the company patch still stained by visible hanging off it. “Oh fuck.”

Todd had come over to Dar’s side and now he folded his arms across his chest, his usual jackass attitude suppressed. “Damn.” He muttered. “You figure it was that cat?”

“Figure it was something that was hungry.” Dar replied quietly.  “Like they reminded us, it’s the wild out here.”

Todd exhaled. “This just went down bad.”  He put his arm around Amy, who had walked slowly over, her hand covering her mouth. “We got lucky last night.”

Dar had to silently agree. “We need a new plan.” She stated.  “No more making it up as we go along.”

“Yeah.” Both Todd and Kerry answered in concert.  “No more leaving it to someone else either.” Kerry added. “We need to get out of here.”

**

They sat in a close huddle,  Janet with her cut leg extended out awkwardly as she held the patch, and a half shredded wallet in her hands.

“So, I think it bears stating, though most everyone here realizes, that we need to shelter in some place that’s protected at the end of the day.”  Dar was standing at the edge of the circle.  “We don’t know what attacked Josh. But if it attacked him, it could attack us.”

“Yeah.” Janet slowly agreed. “Never heard of that happening.”

“I have.” Tracey said.  “We just don’t hear much about that on the river.” 

“It’s true.” Rich was seated on the ground, his arms wrapped around his knees.  “The hikes I’ve taken, we knew. About mountain lions, and coyotes, and all that. The guides usually had guns.”

“We don’t do guns. The management is not a fan.” Janet said. “It’s a political thing.” She turned the patch over in her fingers. “But really, on the river there’s no point.”

“So what are we going to do with him?” Tracey asked. “What’s left of him?”

There was an awkward silence. “We can’t bury him. They’ll just dig it back up and eat the rest” Todd stated. “Surprised we didn’t find any vultures here.”

Kerry was seated on a rock, leaning her forearms on her knees.  “We can cremate what’s left.”  She suggested. “With the pack and everything.”

Don nodded. “That’s a good idea.” He said. “Not just leave him.”

“Any wood we use for that, we could use to cook with.” Todd said. “Does it pay to waste it?”

There was another minute of awkward silence.  “Yes, it does.” Dar was the one who finally answered. “Because it’s worth it to me even if I have to spend the whole night finding more wood to know I paid respect to someone who died in my presence.”

Todd shrugged. Everyone else looked relieved, and Kerry reached back to circle her arm around Dar’s leg and give it a squeeze.

“So let’s get moving on that.” Dar concluded. “Find some wood, get it done, move on to some place we can shelter safely.”

Nods.

Relief, almost.  “Let’s go.” Janet slowly struggled to her feet. “I think I saw a bristlecone in that last crevice.  We can use that.”

Everyone was glad to escape the horror that the overlook had become.  But waiting for the path to clear Kerry walked over to the edge of the space and looked out over the dusty valley the other path descended into.  There was not much to be seen, just off gray walls and rocks and at the bottom, in the corner, a small lake whose surface was faintly rippled by the wind.

She could imagine Josh standing there, looking out, possibly choosing this spot to rest in.   She took a breath and released it. Then she turned and made her way back past the sad remains of the bright, friendly kid she’d talked with and joined Dar at the top of the path.  “This sucks.”

“This sucks.” Dar agreed. “I’m damn sorry for him.  Poor kid.”

Kerry exhaled.  “I hope it was fast. I hope he didn’t even realize it happened.” She stared back at the fly ridden pile. “I hope he was just looking at something pretty, and then it was over, and his soul went up to God.”

Dar put her arms around her and rested her chin on Kerry’s head, giving her a silent hug.

“That he wasn’t scared and looking into that animal’s eyes when it hit him.” Kerry concluded. “He was so young.”

Dar hugged her again.

Kerry remained silent for a moment, then she looked up. “Do you really believe in God, Dar?” She studied the light crystal clarity of her partner’s eyes, as Dar considered the question somberly.  “You said once, that you believed in something.”

“I don’t know exactly what I believe.” Dar finally answered, as they heard the others returning bringing the wood. “But I hope he’s in a good place, if there is a place. He was a good kid.” She met Kerry’s eyes.  “And I hope he never knew what happened too.”

**

The air was damp, and a little cool, following them down the path as they moved in a silent straggle away from the small rock plateau they had left behind. 

Kerry was convinced she could still smell the acridness of it, and hear the crack and slight pop as the bones were consumed by fire and she felt more than a little sick over it.  She walked along at Dar’s heels, her eyes on the path, one hand tucked into the shoulder strap of the bags she was carrying.

No one was talking. Just behind her they were carrying the stretcher that Petey was lying on, his intakes of breath audible when they jarred him and JP and Janet were helping each other along in grim silence.

The sun was starting to head to the edge of the canyon, sliding out from behind the clouds briefly and then disappearing sending faint and fitful spears of light down to splash across the path and then disappear.

The path was narrow, but as they got a bit further down into the canyon it spread out and Kerry moved up to walk next to Dar, turning her head to look up at her partner’s sombre profile as she came up next to her. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Dar answered readily. 

Kerry adjusted her shoulder strap a little and remained silent, just content to watch their hiking boots move in paired rhythm along the dusty ground and wonder how much longer they would need to walk before they would find some place to stop. 

Or would they even?

She looked ahead down the path, which wound downward and then bent to the left under an arched overhang between the two canyon walls. It was dusty and shade after shade of ochre and coral, only occasional wispy shrubs and grasses edging the path.

At the bottom of the trek, she could see a color change though.  The ground was changing from dusty to damp and she could see greenery as they reached the bottom of the canyon and there was water, slowly seeping into the rocks but still standing from the rain of the night before.

Dar glanced behind them and then looked forward. “Hold up folks!” She called ahead. “Let’s take a break.”

The bearers put down their burdens and sat down, as the group all gathered along the path, some looking up at the sky.  Sally pushed the toe of her boot into a patch of mud and looked back the way they’d come. “Not much cover anywhere near here.”

“No.” Janet admitted. “A few slot canyons ahead though. There’s one to the right hand side, maybe two hours up.”

Dave nodded.  “I saw that on the map.”

Kerry walked over to where Marcia and Don were sitting on one of the big coolers.  “How are you guys doing?”  She took a seat on the edge of the box.

“Not bad.” Marcia said. “Don and I do a lot of hiking at home, so this isn’t too hard on us.  I can’t really concentrate though, after what happened to that poor boy.”  She kept her voice low. “I just feel so bad.”

“Mm.” Don agreed. “I just don’t understand, myself. If they knew about these animals, to let him go alone.”

That question had also occurred to Kerry. “Well.” She studied the damp ground. “This is their first trip this year. Maybe they didn’t know. Maybe it’s new?”

Don pursed his lips thoughtfully.  He ha a lined and craggy face, with deeply tanned skin.  “Could be.”  He said. “I thought it would be nice, you know? To be on the first trip but I think I was wrong.” He dusted his hands off. “Learned my lesson.”

“Oh c’mon honey. You couldn’t have known this whole thing would go like it did.” Marcia rolled her eyes. “Lets just keep our minds on what we’re doing and we’ll come out fine.”

Kerry smiled at her.   Then she glanced to her left where Petey was lying on his side. “Hang in there.”

He opened one eye and peered at her.  “Jesus Christ this hurts.” He moaned. “I feel like my whole body’s on fire.”

Marcia got up and came over. “Do you want some water, hon?” She knelt by his side. “Let’s see if we can get you some.”

Dar wandered to the front of the group, where Todd and Amy were seated on a rock, staring off into the distance with bored expressions.   “You think we’ll find some place to hole up?” She asked, in a casual tone.

Todd shrugged. “If not we can throw that kid to the lion.  Buy us some time.” He thumped his heels against the rock.

“Really?” Dar eyed him.

He shrugged again. “Survival. You want to have it eat you instead?”

I”d rather we all make it.” Dar remarked dryly.  “I don't really want to end up as a footnote on a movie of the week.”

Todd stared at her, then he laughed. 

Dar moved past him and down the path, examining the rock wall and running her thumb over the surface of it as she slowly looked around at the narrow crevice they were moving through.  Open to the sky, but enclosed, and she missed the ability to see any distance.

Like a maze.  She imagined what it must look like from above, these narrow channels in the canyon  Like a maze, and that would make them rats in one, and she wished they were out of it and out of this and on their way home.

She looked up as the sun emerged for a moment, and bathed her in it, a comforting touch of warmth on her shoulders and she relaxed into it, turning one hand over and watching the light pick up the faint dusting of  crystal on her skin from the surface of the stone.

A scuff of boots against the rock made her look to her left, and she wasn’t really surprised to find Kerry there.  Her partner joined her in the puddle of sun and leaned her back against the rock, folding her arms over her chest and crossing her ankles.

They looked at each other and Dar smiled a little, because she knew they were thinking the same thing, at the same time, for the same reason and the brief wrinkle of Kerry’s nose acknowledge that.  She reached casually over and brushed Kerry’s hair from her eyes and felt her lips nibble gently at the skin on her palm as it passed.

MIss our waterbed.” Kerry commented.

“I’d take an air mattress at this point. Or the futon in that RV.” Dar agreed readily. “Or actually just some privacy.” She added, after a little pause.

Dar could hear the crew stirring behind them, and starting to take up their burdens again. Sally and Rich were trading off backpacks, and the rest stood up and got ready to move on. “Time to hike.”

They both sighed, and Kerry glanced at the ground, a faint tinge of blood coloring her cheeks which deepened a little when Dar reached over and tickled her nose. “Long day.”

“With no sleep.” Dar turned and leaned next to Kerry against the wall and they stood in the sunlight together until it faded out behind the clouds and a gust of wind replaced it, carrying the scent of mud and stone and the rest of the party caught up to them.

Then they started off along the path that dipped down and the rasp of their steps went from a dry scrape to a wet sounding thumping and as they came around the bend in the path, they heard a rumble far off.  With a glance upward, Dar increased her pace a little, as she stepped over a crack in the path that had a trickle of water draining down into it. 

An hour steady hiking later, and it seemed as though they were going to keep walking the path until dark.  Walls were rising on either side of them and presenting no real shelter to speak of  and the wind was getting more fitful, and gustier as the clouds kept gathering overhead.

Dar was looking around for any possible protection with Don at her side, when they heard a yell from behind that brought them all to a halt.

Tracey came trotting forward. “Todd saw something.”

“That can mean pretty much anything.” Don’s brows creased.

They went back along the trail until they came to where the rest of the group was clustered, and Todd was pointing over their heads to one of the walls. “What is it?” Dar said.

“Waterfall, there.” Todd said.  “Maybe a cave or something at the base.” He added. “There’s a side canyon there, up this split.” He looked past the gap in the path leading off to the left.  Just a space between two folds in the canyon, with discolored ground leading out and down where water had recently run.

Dar studied the wall. “Lets go find out.” She said. “Let these folks rest.”  She turned and started up the new path and Todd, Rich and Dave hustled after her, with Kerry at their heels.  Don rejoined Marcia back where the tired team was settling down and huddling close as the light began to fade.

Janet sat down on a cooler, with JP next to her, giving up all pretense of leadership with an expression of almost guilty relief.

**

The slot canyon was narrow, and shadowed, the light only penetrating at the tops due to the depth. It was a little hot and stuffy, and the ground was bare of any sign of life.  

After three or four twists, though, Dar felt a puff of fresher air and then the path opened up a bit into a larger gap where the sound of the water was suddenly vivid.  They came out into yet another canyon, teardrop shaped, with a closed end where the waterfall was gushing out and running downward into the ground at the far end.

There was no cave.  But as Dar climbed up around the base of the wall where the water was still cascading, she could see some large rocks in a cluster and an overhang of stone that could be some kind of shelter. “We can put the supplies here, and then that only leaves that area open.”

Todd was looking at the meager, but present overhang of rock and nodded. “Sucks.” He said. “But we’re not going to find better.” He turned around. “I’ll go get the rest of them.”

Rich and Dave started towards the base of the cliff. “Think I see some brush there.” Rich called over his shoulder. “Get a fire going.”

Kerry joined Dar near the wall. “At least we’re up on a slope here.” She said. “So if it rains it’ll drain downward and we won’t be sitting in water all night.” She unslung the bags on her back and set them down, stretching her body out and twisting from side to side.

“True.” Dar examined the tumble of rocks. Then she looked up at the wall. “Guess this all came from up there.” She inspected the overhang and gave one of the stones an experimental shove, but it seemed solidly anchored in the debris and not inclined to move.

Rich called out and they turned to see him and Dave coming back dragging what looked like an entire dead bristlecone pine tree behind them.  “Look what we found.”  He produced a brief smile.  “There’s three of them at least, back in the corner there.”

Which meant they would have fuel to keep a fire going.  “Good job.” Dar said.  Lets put a fire ring together.” She suggested to Kerry. “Over there?” She pointed to a rough half circle on one side of the tumble of debris and they went over to it, booting the rocks center out to the edge.

The ground was sandy rather than rocky, and Dar paused for a moment, and then she unstrapped the duffel she was carrying and set it to one side, near the back wall before she rejoined Kerry in sorting out the firepit.

They gathered some head sized stones and put them into position, as the sound of the rest of the group arriving echoed behind them.  Rich was just outside the shelter, breaking up the tree, and he called greetings to them, the words sounding over the cracking sound as he worked.

Don ducked past the overhang. “Well it’s no fancy cabin.” He said. “But it’s a hell of a lot better than nothing.”  He backed out of the way and motioned behind him. “C’mon in, kids. It is what it is.”

The stretcher bearers carefully maneuvered inside and set Petey down.  “Better than last night.” Tracey acknowledged, as she shook her hands out, looking exhausted. “And at least, we’ve got something around us.”

Petey eased himself up to one elbow and looked around. “Yeah.”  He exhaled.  “Warmer too. I was so cold.” He licked his lips.  “I hope there’s some tea left. i sure could use it.” He leaned forward a little. “Or even hot water really.”

“We can manage something.” Kerry regarded the cooler of fish.  “I think I’m going to be ready for a cheeseburger when we get back to the RV, Dardar. “ She remarked. “Or maybe a pop tart.”

Moooo  Me tooooo.” Dar predictably responded.  She picked up one of the plastic buckets.  “I’ll get some water.” She walked down the slight slope to the side canyon the waterfall was falling into and went over to where its volume splashed down to the rocky ground.

She could feel the mist as she got closer, and she licked her lips, tasting dust and minerals on the liquid as she stuck the bucket under it and let it collect, the spray randomly dampening her arms.

Just down slope, she spotted the crew managing to set up their camping loo, the poles that held up the tattered and almost ragged tarp around it bent and crooked.  One of the crew looked up at Dar and shrugged his shoulders a little and she gave him a thumbs up for at least trying.

The previous night, they’d just all walked out into the rain and did what they had to do and Dar had felt a distinct envy for the men who’d had a definite advantage.  Even Petey, who couldn’t walk, was able to do the needful since the driving rain just washed everything away.

Gross. Dar regarded the waterfall with a brief grimace. “Did I really once think I wanted to do this kind of thing?” She asked the rock wall, shaking her head a little.  “What the hell, Dar? Live in foxholes and Zodiacs?”

She had though. She remembered thinking of a future of that and being excited. Being in the rough, and liking it, earning the respect of her mostly male friends and the kids she’d grown up with and she could see some of the party, even Todd and Amy, had a liking for it as well.

Sally had said, a few nights back when this had all been so hypothetical, that it was great to be self sufficient and be able to keep yourself alive in the wild.

“No, I don’t think so.” Dar addressed the almost filled bucket. “This is not fun.”

They would be able, she hoped, to get more rest tonight.  Her eyes felt sandy and sore, and though the hike hadn’t been very strenuous the lack of sleep was wearing on her and she was looking forward to being able to sit in relative comfort, preferably dry, tonight.

The bucket was full, and she started back down the slope, walking through the stream draining off from the waterfall and then back up to where they were making camp, where Rich was still breaking up branches but had his head craned to listen to what was going on.

Dar could hear cries of pain.  “What happened?” She asked Rich as she reached where he was standing.

“Pete.” Rich said, briefly. “I think someone hit his back or something.”

You stupid piece of shit!” Tracey’s voice echoed suddenly, in a rawly angry tone. “I’m going to kick your ass!”

“Oh boy.” Dar sighed. “Just what we needed.” She started for the shelter, and Rich came right after her, holding a large branch in one hand.

**

The scene was unfortunately dramatic as Dar came around the side of the rock wall and skidded to a halt, the bucket of water splashing a little around her boots. 

Pete was on the ground, writhing in pain and crying out.  Tracey was standing over him, arms outstretched, face red with anger.

Todd was standing with his hands lifted, palms outward, a smirk on his face.

Dar moved sideways to where Kerry was standing, hands on hips. ‘What happened?”

“That asshole kicked Pete in the back.” Kerry pronounced crisply. “Before you ask, for absolutely no good reason.”

“He’s just a fucking baby.” Todd said. “I got tired of his whining.”

Dar shifted her head just a little, tilting it as she stared at him. “So you figured kicking him would make that stop? You are stupider than I gave you credit for.”  She started walking towards him. “C’mere and let me kick you in the nuts. See if that helps your attitude.”

Kerry hesitated, caught between wanting to comfort Pete and wanting to back up her partner who actually did not really need much backup. 

“You can’t touch me.” Todd scoffed.

Dar’s eyes twinkled, not with amusement. “Want to bet on that?” She came to a halt about a body length from him, and shifted her center of balance up over the balls of her feet,  her knees unlocking and taking on a slight bend.

“Ah, screw you all.” Todd backed off, and stomped out of the shelter, shaking his head.  Amy hurried to keep up with him, turning to look at Dar as she passed, but remaining silent.

Dar relaxed, and sighed as Kerry came past her and gave her a pat on the back.  “I feel ya, hon. But honestly do we need more hurting people in this bunch?”

Mmph.” Dar grumbled, following her partner over to where Tracey was now kneeling next to the rough litter and they both joined the young woman as she gently eased the sweatshirt Pete was wearing up and exposed his back. “Oh crap.”

There was a lump on his spine, about the size of a baseball and bruising now extended on either side halfway across the small of his back.  “Oh. That piece of shit.” Tracey uttered. “I’m going to go smack him.” She started to get up but Kerry gently grabbed her arm.  “Let me go.”

“He’s not worth it. Stay with your friend.” Kerry said.

Tracey stared at her. “You were going to let her mix it.” She pointed at Dar.  “I can kick him just as fast and probably faster”

Kerry regarded her seriously. “Are you a black belt in martial arts?”

“No.” Tracey admitted.

“Dar is. So chill and lets see if we can help poor Petey out here.” Kerry put her hand on  his hip.  “Wow, that’s so swollen.”

Dar was now kneeling next to her. “Probably why it hurts so much. Pressure.” She said, as Don came over to look over her shoulder.  “Wow.”

“Wow.” Don repeated.  “I was a medic, back in the day.  We might need to drain that.” He very gently touched the skin above the bulge, getting howl from Petey. “Easy, son.  Try to relax, heh?”  He got closer and removed his glasses from his vest pocket and put them on. “Don’t suppose we have any first aid stuff left have we?”

I”ll check.” Tracey got up and went over to the now stacked supplies, opening a plastic box and rooting inside it as the rest of the group slowly dispersed, starting to set up the camp as best they could.

Kerry gave Pete a gentle scratch between his shoulders. “So sorry you have to suffer like this, Pete.  Its not fair.”

Pete was now half rolled on his stomach, his head resting on one arm. He looked back at her and smiled a little, tears visible in the lashes of his eyes. “I’ve never gotten hurt like this.” He admitted. “I mean, you know, sprained my ankle stuff like that but nothing like this.”

“I dislocated my shoulder once, and have had cracked ribs.” Kerry scooted over a little to give Don space.  “Of the two, the shoulder was worse.”  She offered him one of the water sacks, which had a sip spout. “

Willing to be distracted, Pete focused on her. “How did it happen?”

“A building was collapsing on top of me.” Kerry said. “I was trying to visit my sister who was giving birth at the time while avoiding seeing my parents and something blew up.”

Petey blinked at her. “For real?”

Kerry nodded. “For real. Dar had to put it back in place. My shoulder I mean.  We were trying to get out ahead of a huge fire and not moving wasn’t an option.”

Don turned his head and looked at her, both eyebrows lifting.

“But it really hurt.” Kerry concluded. “Still moves a little weird.”

“What about the ribs?” Petey asked, peeking back at her.

Kerry’s face scrunched up a little. “You know, I’m not actually sure I can tell you about that. It might still be classified.” She glanced at Dar. “Is it?”

“Mm.” Dar wrinkled her nose. “You can tell them you slipped and fell into the corner of a raised floor.”  She said. “I wouldn’t mention where.”

“Or about the rats.”

“Now I’m dying to know.” Petey admitted.  “But thanks for distracting me.”

Tracey came back with a plastic kit, and put it down next to Don. “Whatever we have is in there.” She said. “Did you say you were in an explosion?” She added to Kerry.  “Did I hear that?”

Dar got up and went over to the firepit, helping Rich to arrange the broken pieces of pine for the campfire.  Dave came up and started helping, both men watching her from the corner of their eyes.  It was funny, a little.  “That lump looks bad.” She finally spoke up.

“Yeah, poor kid.” Dave agreed.

“You really were going to kick him?” Rich finally gave voice to the question they both obviously wanted to ask her. “I mean, he’s a big guy.”

Dar considered that, as she continued to break the smaller branches.  “Well.” She finally said. “Kerry’s right. We don’t need any more injuries.” She said. “We might need him at some point.”

She looked up to find both of them staring at her with wide, round eyes, and it made her chuckle audibly.  “I would have if he got me mad enough and hadn’t backed down.” She admitted. “I have an asshole triggered temper.” She picked up a large, thick main branch and braced her hands on it then brought her knee up sharply and snapped it in two.

She put the two pieces down on the back side of the fire and dusted her hands off, somewhat amused at their expressions. “Not all nerds live in their mom’s basements spending all their time playing video games.” She remarked wryly.

Rich gave her a thumbs up. “Rock on.” He returned to getting the fire started, kneeling down and shoving a handful of dried pine needles into the center of the fire, then striking a match to set them on fire. “Tonight will be a better night.”

Lets hope so.” Dave agreed. “But wow I’m getting sick of fish.”

**

Dar was seated against the back wall of the little shelter, relatively content with her grilled fish and portion of canned peaches dug up from the box of leftover supplies they had hurriedly grabbed.  Kerry was curled up on the ground next to her, with her head in Dar’s lap.

Across from them the fire was sedately burning, the occasional spark popping up into the air, and to one side of the fire they had moved Petey to, and with Don seated next to him.

The older man had Dar’s pocketknife in his hand, and he was carefully holding the blade in the fire, applying heat in the attempt to sterilize it.

Everyone was pretty silent.  Todd and Amy were in the far corner, watching with noncommittal expressions.  Tracey was sitting next to Pete, holding his hand.

Dar kept feeling her eyes wanting to close, and she shifted her head a little bit against the folded shirt placed against the rock to provide some small amount of comfort. 

Kerry was already dozing.  Dar could feel her steady, even breathing under the arm she had draped over her, their fingers tangled together loosely.  She really wanted to join her, but she was also curious about what Don was going to do to help Pete.

No one could agree if it was a good idea or not.  Pete was in the desperate place where he was almost past caring, just wanting something, somehow to relieve the constant pain he was in made worse by Todd’s asshatery.  Don was the closest thing they had to someone who knew what they were doing.

“Okay.” Don said, having heated the blade up to his satisfaction, and now was watching it cool down. “So, I’im just going to make the smallest cut possible, to let all that pressure out.”

Pete nodded briefly.  “Okay.”

Don swiveled around on the small rock he was seated on and then carefully got down onto the ground next to the litter.  Marcia was sitting nearby, holding the packet of small antiseptic wipes they had found in the first aid kit and a roll of gauze.

It was an almost surreal scene.  The light of the one lantern and the fire painting everything and everyone in gold and tarnished silver, the outline of Don against the rock, hand extended holding the knife, and surrounding them the rest of the group watching in silence.

Dar felt a shiver go down her spine and she blinked a few times, tightening her grip on Kerry’s fingers.  She watched as Don leaned over Petey’s back, and Tracey winced in reflex seeing the point of the knife press against his skin.

Don pressed forward, and Petey gasped as the blade pierced his skin. The sound was loud and Dar jerked a little, but then she heard a slight popping sound and she heard Tracey whisper a curse and her own body tensed as Don’s hand twisted a little to widen the hole he’d made.

Dar looked away, not wanting to see the blood, feeling a distinct sense of nausea.

“Okay, son, it’s finished.” Don said. “Marcy, give me that gauze.”

“I’ve got it.” His wife leaned across and pressed a large wad of the fabric against Pete’s back. “Oh my.”

Tracey peered over. “Wow.” She watched as Don pulled the gauze back to reveal a mixture of blood and pus that was ochre tinted and profuse. “That’s gross.” She returned her attention to Petey’s face.  “There’s all kinds of stuff coming out.”

Petey let out a long held shuddering breath.  Ohh.” His head fell against his arm and his fist relaxed, fingers spreading out along the pallet. “Boy oh boy.”

Don applied the gauze again, and shifted, and pressed, very gently.  “How does that feel?”

“Better.” Petey said. “Oh my god better.” His voice was weak with relief. “Thank you.”

Marcia patted Don’s arm. “Good job, honey.”

“Okay.” Don replaced the gauze with some of the antiseptic wipes, and carefully cleaned the area. “Here’s the problem. This kinda thing, it keeps filling up if you don’t put a drain in it and we don’t have any drains unless someone has some surgical tubing in their gear.” He looked around at the group.  “No, huh?”

Definitely not something they would have packed. Dar thought, regretfully, as she shook her head no. “Nothing in that kit?”

“It’s just for scrapes.” Janet spoke up.  “We lost the big one. We had all kinds of stuff in there but this is just the basics.”

Amy got up and went over to their backpacks and knelt down.

“What are you doing?” Todd asked.

“I have some tubing as part of my water system.” Amy said, standing up and walking over to where Don was. “I don’t know if this is what you need but…” She handed him something.

“Hey! You need that!”  Todd stood up and scrambled over but not before Don had taken the item and examined it. “Give me that old man!”

Amy got in his way. “Todd, leave it alone.” She said. “C’mon. It’s mine to give if I want to.”  She frowned at him. “Stop being a jerk.”

Dar felt her eyes open a bit wider, as she wondered for a moment if she was going to have to get up and get involved.  She relaxed then, though as Dave, Rich, Tracey, Sally, and Janet all got up and got behind Amy and it was a moment.

“Okay fine.” Todd rolled his eyes and went back to his spot, thumping down and extending his legs out across the sandy floor.  “When you dehydrate don’t come asking me.”

“No problem.” Dar spoke up. “The rest of us will share with her.”  She felt a squeeze on her hand and looked down to find Kerry looking up at her through half open eyes.

“That’ll do I think, young lady.” Don was examining the bit of rubber. “Let me clean it up, and see what we can make of it. Thank you.”

Amy smiled briefly and went over to the other side of the fire and sat down to feed it some twigs, while the rest of them dispersed and went back to what they had been doing. 

Mmph.” Kerry wriggled a little bit closer and closed her eyes again. “The Grand Canyon trip to hell where men are men and women are also men.”

Dar chuckled softly.

“And some men are weasels.” Kerry concluded.

At last, Dar relaxed, the gaps in the rocks blocked by boxes, and the fire, giving as much of a sense of safety as she reasoned they were going to get.  She let her eyes close and felt an almost immediate sense of dislocation as the sounds took on a slight echo.

It didn’t even seem like it was going to rain.

**

The next thing Dar knew it was morning, and there was a faint pink light catching the edges of their shelter.  She was half on her back, slid down with her head pillowed on one of their day bags with Kerry pressing up next to her in relative comfort.

She blinked a few times, surprised she’d slept through the night and as she looked around the little campsite it seemed the rest had done so as well. 

It was quiet, and across from her she could see the faint glow from the banked fire that had burned down and the air held a damp chill.  She could hear wind whistling through the stone walls, and far off, the waterfall hitting the ground across the valley.

Kerry stirred and rolled over, hiking herself up on her elbows as she regarded their surroundings. “Morning.”

“Morning.” Dar agreed. “That wasn’t awful.”

“Wasn’t awful.” Kerry sat up and twisted her body back and forth. “Want to take a walk?” She lifted up one of their daybags and looked at Dar in question. “Be the first at the watering hole?”

Dar nodded and gave her a thumbs up.

They both stood up, trying hard to be quiet, and walked around the rest of the sleeping camp to step over the cooler, and emerge into the canyon.   The sun wasn’t yet visible, but the sky was painted in golds and corals, and the effect on the stark landscape made them both stop and just look.

“Wow.” Kerry took in a breath of the cool air.

They continued walking, crossing the center and turning up towards the water, the pressure of its passing having carved out a little channel overnight. 

There were birds overhead, and Dar glanced up at them as they drew close to the pool near the wall and she felt the spray carried with the wind dampen her face.  “What a difference a morning makes.” She commented, holding up one hand to catch the water.

Kerry smiled, and put the daybag down, going over and putting her own hands under the flow and testing it’s temperature.  “That’s not actually too bad.” She stripped out of her jacket and put it on the rock then studied the water. “Its less than yesterday.”

“No rain last night.” Dar had also removed her jacket.  “I think I feel like a shower.” She decided.

Kerry quickly looked around. “Um.” She glanced back to find her partner removing her shoes. “You know, hon…”  She started to say, then stopped, deciding on a slight shrug instead.  “You know what? Me too.”

Dar grinned, and pulled her shirt off, then her pants, then she removed a tube of the biodegradable soap they’d brought and stepped under the water.  It was cool, and made her inhale sharply, but she squeezed a bit of the soap out and scrubbed her skin with a sense of pleasure.

Though she’d spent most of the previous day damp it felt good to get clean, and a moment later it felt even better as Kerry joined her and took the tube from her hand.   She smiled as their bodies pressed against each other and she reached around to scrub Kerry’s back as her partner did the same for her.

It was too cold to really completely enjoy, but the contrast of the chill of the water and the warmth of the skin touching provided a moment of intense sensation and she took the opportunity to kiss Kerry, as the water pounded down on them.

It was like a massage, a little, and Dar surrendered herself to the experience, as Kerry’s hand dropped lightly to her thigh and the chill was driven back by sensual heat.

A little dangerous, and a little wild, and they both started laughing as they parted and didn’t want to. “Someone’s going to catch us.” Kerry said.

“Maybe.”

Wanna risk it?”

“Maybe.”

**

“Know what I figure, Dardar?”

“You figure in the near future some scandalous picture of us is going to be posted on the internet?”

Kerry chuckled. “Well, it could have been worse.”

Dar ran her fingers through her hair to start it drying. “Too many birds around.” She admitted. “We’ll be out of here and in our campervan soon enough.”

“Mm.” Kerry could appreciate the new light as they walked back across the canyon.  It painted the rock, and with the mostly clear skies the scenery had become at least for the moment a little charming again.

There was a steady breeze blowing against them, and the air was drier than it had been and Kerry had to wonder if maybe their luck was changing.

The rest of the party was emerging from the shelter as they approached it, heading over to the waterfall, one of them carrying the pot dangling from one hand.  “Pretty bad when I wish we had oatmeal.”

Dar smiled. “I’d take a sticky bun at this point.”

“Early birds.” Rich commented, spotting them. “How’s the water?”

“Cold.” Kerry confirmed, with a somewhat cheeky grin.  “Bring your own heat with you.”  They met up in the middle of the flat path. “Nice morning.”

“Lot nicer than yesterday.” Dave agreed fervently.  “We should make good time today. Pete’s standing up!’

“Yeah?” Dar said. “That’s good to hear.”

“Yeah. Don did a great job.” Rich said. “I’m glad he’s feeling better.” 

Kerry and Dar eased past and headed for the shelter, pausing as they reached the entrance and heard someone coming in the opposite direction.  

Kerry took a step back and got out of the way, glancing down at the ground as she spotted a shadow on it. ‘What the…” She crouched to get a better look at it.

“Easy.” Tracey was saying, as she helped Pete limp gingerly along. “Don’t go too fast.”

“I won’t no fear.” Pete said. “Just glad to be vertical.”  He gave Dar a brief, wan grin.  “Hey, thanks for standing up for me last night.” He said. “I really appreciated that, after that bozo kicked me.” He glanced behind them at the shelter. “Customer or no, boy I could have whacked him.”

“No problem.”  Dar said, as she edged out of the way to let him pass, and watched him as he did, then turned to look at Kerry who was standing at her side with a somewhat urgent expression. “What’s up?”

Kerry pointed down between her boots.

Dar leaned over and then she knelt, putting her fingertips down on the ground.  “Hm.”  Distinct there was an animals footprint, larger by half than the one she’d seen from the bobcat.  In the dew damp sand it was clear and distinct, right up to the indentations from flexed claws.

“Holy crap.” Kerry said, in a low tone.  “Dar it was right here.” She looked around and then back at her partner. “Wasn’t it?”

Dar stood up and dusted off her hands.  She glanced over her shoulder at the group, some wandering across the sand while waiting their turn at the toilet.  “I think those are fresh so It was.” She scuffed the print out with the toe of her boot. “But it’s gone, and no one got eaten. No sense in freaking everyone out.”

Kerry took a breath to protest, then she paused and thought about it.  “Yeah.” She finally said. “I’m really glad we found shelter. That being out here, for who knows how long creeps me out.”

“Me too.” Dar put her hand on Kerry’s back and guided her inside. “Lets get packed up. Hope we get as lucky tonight.”

“Hope we find a taco stand.”

**

They were through the canyon and heading up the mountain trail hours past noon before the weather started to turn and clouds were gathering, bringing a cold mist down and obscuring the top part of the canyon wall.  

Kerry paused and put one boot up on a nearby rock, retying her laces as Rich and Dave went on ahead to see what they could find.  Dar leaned against the wall next to her, listening to the thunder rumbling in the distance. “Not good.”

“Not good.” Kerry agreed.  “But we made some progress today.” She shaded her eyes and looked back the way they’d come, across the canyon a long ways back where the waterfall had been.  “Did they say around this mountain and down and then we’ll be at a ranger station?”

“They did.” Dar agreed.

Just down the path, Tracey and Pete were standing, Pete with both hands on a gnarled stick Don had salvaged from the remains of the pine tree they’d burned for fuel.  He was still in pain, and he was sweating through it, but he’d managed to move along with them as best he could.

Relief for the crew, who now just had the supplies, dwindling, to worry about carrying.  But on the other hand, they were now climbing up hill and everyone was getting pretty tired.

Water containers were being passed around, filled that morning at the falls, and Dar took a moment to uncap her water bottle and take a swallow from it, grimacing a little from the faint taste of iodine they’d used to kill anything in it.

They’d passed on lunch, and she was hungry.  She knew she had one package of crackers left in her backpack but she resisted getting it out, feeling a bit self-conscious about chewing on them while everyone was watching. 

Then something occurred to her, and she swung the pack around and fished the somewhat battered crackers out, opening it up and handing over one to Kerry. “Here.”

Kerry eyed her. “How in the hell did you know I was just thinking about that?”

“Been a long time since breakfast.” Dar crunched contentedly on her own cracker. “I don’t want you keeling over before we can stop.”

Kerry stuck her tongue out, covered in crumbly peanut butter.  Then she paused to swallow, and wash down the mouthful with water. “I’m not looking forward to more of the fish tonight.” She admitted ruefully.  “It’s getting pretty funky.”

“Salty.” Dar agreed. “Kind of dried and chewy.”

“I can soak it I guess. Maybe make a soup again but we don’t have anything else to put in it.”

Dar pondered that. “Too bad we didn’t catch that sheep.”

They were both silent for a few moments, standing there in the mist. “Mm.” Kerry sighed. “Now I really want lamb

chops. Damn you Dar.”

Dar offered another cracker in mute apology.

“We better get moving.” Janet had come up behind them. “We don’t want to get caught on this path in the rain.  Runoff comes down it see?” She pointed at the ground with the stick she was using.  “I don’t even know if there’s some place to take shelter but we better find something out of the water route.”

Dar tightened down the pack on her back and started up the path, leaning forward a little and using her hiking pole as she climbed and listening for Kerry’s steps after her, and the chance of Rich and Dave returning from ahead.

The mist was giving her skin a clammy feel, and she licked her lips as she put her hand on the rock wall to keep her steps steady.

She knew behind them was the crew, and behind the crew, bringing up the rear was Todd and Amy.  Everyone had ignored Todd the entire day but he apparently didn’t care, and Amy stayed at his side as the group moved gamely up the path.

Dar heard rocks tumbling down ahead of her and she paused and braced herself as the fog came down and blocked the long view. “Rich?” She called out.

“Yeah we’re here!” Rich answered. “Not much to see!”

Great.  Dar continued up and came around a slight bend of rock to a more even part of the path and saw Rich and Dave ahead of her, looking through an overhead arch that covered the path.  It was too thin though, to provide any real shelter and they moved past it.

The walls were again on either side, and the rock strewn path provided uneasy footing. “Careful!” Dar said. “Lot of pebbles.”

Kerry slid a foot just as she said that, and quickly caught her balance with a hand on the wall. “Whoa.”  She got her pole ahead of her and got closer to Dar and they caught up to Dave and Rich a moment later.   The two men were speaking in low tones, and they turned to greet them.

“There’s a few more arches.” Dave said. “I’ve seen this hike on the internet. It’s supposed to be like a two day’er – from the ranger station so if we can get through this part, it goes down again and maybe by sundown tomorrow we can get some help.

“That sounds fantastic.” Kerry said. “If the weather doesn’t kill us again.”

Rich made a face. “Yeah.” They started forward and walked along under the rock overhangs, all mostly thin and without any promise of shelter.  The walls were also straight up, with no shelves they could even duck under and of course the thunder was getting closer.

Dar started to look at the walls, trying to find any shelter as she felt the first isolated drops of rain, along with a rising of the wind that was gusting through the canyon.

The path started up again and they all leaned forward, now relatively far ahead of the main group though they could hear the voices back behind them.  

There was no wood around, Kerry noticed. No trees or even shrubs, and she realized the rain was going to probably make building a fire unlikely.

Now she was sorry they hadn’t stopped for lunch.   “This is going to be a mess.”

“This is going to be a mess.” Rich agreed. “But maybe.. hey, yeah.” He pointed ahead of them as they came around a bend. “There! Look!” 

It was another arch, but this one was wide, and on either side had a deep undercut that they reached just as the rain started coming down harder.  Rich dropped his bags down and started back up along the path, waving at Janet as she struggled up the rise. “Hey! We found a spot!”

“Moron. You just walked long enough.” Todd had made his way up to the front and now pushed past Janet . “At least it’s big enough to be away from you and the rest of the pussies.” He went over to the far side of the path and motioned Amy with him.

“Assholes R Us.” Janet muttered under her breath, as they all worked to get the supplies under cover before the rain really started.  The fog came all the way down and they were stumbling around in the mist, as two of the crew and Sally climbed up further, braving the weather to see if they could find some wood.

Dar was kneeling next to their duffel and she looked up when she heard a yell of alarm, to see something relatively small scurrying towards her at a high rate of speed.

“What the hell!” Janet got up and almost fell as it went between her legs and  jumped over one of the boxes, careening towards the other side of the arch. “Hey! Hey!”

The animal raced towards them and in utter reflex, Dar reached out and grabbed at it, feeling soft fur and muscle under her fingertips.  It turned and fought her grip, and she saw large teeth go for her hand and she was frozen for a moment, not sure whether to hold on or not.

“Dar!” Kerry bounded over to her. “It’s going to bite you!”

Dar got it around the neck and held it up as the rest of the group came over. “It’s a rabbit.” She said, grabbing the hind legs of the animal who was panting in fear, eyes round wide in a terrified expression, as Kerry arrived lifting her walking stick in defense of her partner.  “Take it easy, slugger.”

“Oh.” Kerry relaxed her stance, then reached over and touched a fingertip to the rabbit’s ear, which twitched violently. “Aww. I wasn’t sure what it was. Poor little bunny.”

Dar looked at the rabbit, then at her beloved. “Weren’t you the one who was just wanting lamb chops?” She asked, in a quizzical tone.

Psht. Dar.” Kerry touched the rabbit again, this time with more confidence. “We can’t eat this thing. We don’t even have any wood to cook the dried fish.”

“Rabbit’s good.” Dave remarked. “But more important, if it was coming from up there must be some kind of grasses and stuff for it to eat, and we can burn that.”

Dar sniffed reflectively and peered at the animal, who had calmed a little, and was now eyeing her back with a twitch of its nose.  Its long ears drooped and she felt one brush her hand with a feeling of damp velvet and she gave it a little scratch on the bottom of its jaw with her thumb.

 Then without warning she lowered her hands and released it, giving it a toss down the path and watching it recover itself and race off just as a protest lifted from her companions.  G’wan, bunny.”

“Why’d you do that?” Rich said. “We’re all hungry! We’d have figured it out!”

“Go catch it yourself then.” Dar stood and dusted her hands off. 

Rich took her at her word and trotted off through the rain, in the direction the rabbit had scuttled, pausing to pick up several stones on his way. After a minute Dave followed him.

Kerry regarded her partner. “Why did you do that?” She asked, as they started to lay down a much folded tarp and blocked out an area right on the edge of the overhang. 

‘Why did I do that.” Dar repeated, as she moved down the path in the mist, collecting rocks and bringing them back over to put them down to make a small wall.  “Because I knew you would freak if I broke its neck.” She said,  as she knelt to arrange the stones. “And I really didn’t want to do that.”

“Aww.” Kerry leaned over and gave her a kiss on the shoulder. “You’re such a sweetie.”

“And because butchering it and letting that blood smell get out is probably not a good idea.” Dar added, under her breath. “Know what I mean?”

Kerry laid down the edge of the tarp for Dar to put her rocks on. “Hadn’t thought of that.” She admitted. “Kind of like not going diving that time of the month?”

Dar paused and looked at her. “Kinda.” She said. “Or with open cuts as if jumping in salt water wasn’t enough to keep you from doing that.”

“Mm.” Kerry looked past the arch, where rain was now dampening the ground. “Good point.”

Dar came around and under the overhang.  The arch started along the ground about ten feet and though low, it was definite shelter.  She sat down on the ground to save her head from smacking into it, and rubbed her fingertips together, still feeling the struggle of the rabbit’s body in her grip.

Why, really, had she released it?  It wasn’t as if she hadn’t actually eaten rabbit in the field, back in the day. That and frogs and once, a big lizard.  It hadn’t been tasty, but she wasn’t a cook and neither were the guys she’d camped with and after that they’d brought MRE’s stolen from base with them.

She licked her lips and grinned, remembering the canned chicken with hot sauce on crackers and PBJ in packets and wished she had some right now.

“What’s so funny?” Kerry regarded their little corner and grunted in approval. 

“Nothing.” Dar stretched her legs out and glanced to her right, where they were getting Pete settled next to her, with Don and Marcia on the other side.  “How’s the back?”

“Hurts.” Pete said. “But still better than it was.” He was on his side, brushing pebbles away and moving small stones from under the ragged sleeping bag Tracey had put down under him.  “Hey.” He looked up at Dar. “Glad you let the bunny go.”

Dar smiled.

“Me too.” Tracey was sitting cross legged on the other side of him. “I’d rather be hungry. Honest.” She admitted.  “Those guys are just wankers.”

Kerry sat quietly, waiting to see what the results of the wood hunting was going to be.  “They aren’t really.” She said. “They’re mostly nice guys. I just think the whole situation here is making people kind of crazy.”

“Kind of?” Pete gave her a wry look. “Those guys are getting hangry.” He said. “Seen customers get that way, you know? We have times we stop and times we need to keep going and they get all aggro because they’re hangry. You’re smart to have brought those crackers.”

“Hangry.” Kerry repeated the word.

“That’s why Janet always is running around passing trays.” Tracey nodded. “Speaking of, let me see if we’ve got anything left in the supplies. I thought I saw maybe some rice crackers.” She got up and went to the pile of boxes, notably smaller than it had been.

A relief to the crew, Kerry was sure, but everyone looked tired, and the rain was getting heavier.   She was hoping for some rice crackers herself but a minute later Sally and the two crewmen returned, with large armfuls of what looked a lot like sagebrush.

“We managed to find this.. did you guys see that rabbit? We surprised her out of her burrow.”

“We saw it.” Kerry agreed.  “Dar grabbed it but she let it go.”

“Great, because it has babies back there.” Sally was setting down her burden. “I’m going to go back and get more, there’s a whole patch up about five minutes from here.” She looked around. “Anyone want to help?”

The two crew put their bundles down and pushed their raincoat hoods back, as JP stood up and limped forward, and both she and Sally disappeared back into the mist, along with Tracey, who looked back over her shoulder at Dar and winked. 

Dar and Kerry looked at each other.   Without comment, Kerry lifted one of Dar’s hands up and brought it to her lips, kissing the knuckles of it.  Then she pulled their duffel over and started rooting around in it.

Dar folded her arms as she listened to the rain increase, and the thunder rumble now more closely overhead. “One more day.” She said, watching the center of the path start to gather a little water in it.  “One more day.”

**

Continued in Part 7