Southern Stars

Part 7

Rain.  Dar wiped mist off her face for the nth time, watching the lightning bursting outside the shelter of the arch, outlining the driving rain and the flow of water down the center of the path.

Kerry was sitting next to her, arms wrapped around her knees, and her chin resting on her forearms. She was in her waterproof jacket and its surface was shiny with moisture though they were not directly in the path of the rain.

The grass had allowed for a fire, but a fast burning one and so they’d cooked as they could everything they could and put what they hadn’t eaten back in one box for the morning hoping that would be the end of that.  They’d emptied out the cooler the fish had been in and washed it, and now were storing things in it they were hopeful of keeping dry.

Including enough grass to burn to heat water to drink in the morning, as they were out of any kind of tea or other leaves.

Across the arch, Todd and Amy had set up their own, isolated camp and if Dar squinted a little she could see their outline tucked into the corner of the arch on that side, much as she and Kerry were on the side they were on. “Be glad to finish this.” She commented briefly.

Kerry merely straightened and leaned towards her, resting her cheek against Dar’s shoulder.   “Glad we’re at least up here not down at the bottom of the path.”

“Mm.”  Dar pulled the sleeping bag there was no point in laying on around their shoulders, and exhaled, reaching out one hand to put it on the pile of rocks they had gathered as she glanced at her watch.

Only 2 am.   She rested her head against the wall and diverted her attention, trying to ignore the discomfort long enough to get some rest, idly listening to the crew talking next to her, about what they’d do when they got back to town, and the prospect of getting another run after this one.

Tracey was right next to her, and Pete was curled up past that, with Janet and the rest of the crew and then, on the other side of them the rest of the passengers except the two isolated ones across the path.

Dar picked up the cup she’d filled with rainwater and sipped from it, her mouth a little pinched and dried on the inside from the saltiness of the fish they’d had.  She offered the cup to Kerry, who accepted it and then set it down between them.

“Too wet for cards, huh?” Kerry remarked wryly.

“Wish I had a Rubik’s cube.” Dar agreed.

Kerry regarded her. “I’ve seen you solve that underwater, Dar. What challenge would this be?”

“Dark.”

“Mm.”

The lightning flashed again, and suddenly Rich let out a yell and pointed below them. “What was that??!!!”

Dar’s hand fitted itself around a rock and she leaned forward to look out, waiting for the next flash.  It came, and she took in the whole area, seeing nothing but rock. “What?”

Rich was half standing, hand on the curve of the arch over his head, blinking. “I swear I saw something.”

Everyone got up on their knees and stared.  

There was only the sound of the rain, and the swish of the water passing through the center of the path and the thunder rumbling overhead.  But even repeated flashes showed nothing downhill from them.  Dar got to her feet and looked intently at the path.

Had she heard something?  Her ears twitched, as she was half convinced she’d detected the scrape of something against stone, a scratching sound and then she saw a few rocks tumble off the top of the arch and fall to the ground right in front of her.

She went still, and in reflex, looked up at the underside of the arch as her heart started to beat more strongly, and she felt all the chill of the rain vanish as blood flushed through her muscles.

“What?” Rich said, staring at her.

“I think I heard something up there.” Dar pointed at the arch. “On top.”

“Fuck.” Dave pulled his hood up and ran to the upper side of the arch, and into the rain, shading his eyes from it and whirling to look up.  “Nothing from this side!”

Thunder rumbled, and then they all heard it, a rasp and rattle of something big on the ledge overhead and now everyone was awake and getting up in alarm.

Dar dropped the rock in her hand and took her pocketknife out of her pocket and opened it, feeling the blade lock as she tightened her fingers around the hilt and then she felt Kerry take a firm hold of her belt. She looked around, to see her partner braced.  “What?”

“What what?” Kerry hissed back. “What are you doing?”

Dar half turned and almost laughed, when she heard more sounds overhead and she quickly turned back to see something fall through the air and to the ground and then lightning lit up again and she could see a large animal getting its balance back and turning towards her.

“Oh crap.” Dar exhaled realizing how large the cat was, getting her boots spread out at shoulder width as her body recognized the threat and then she let out a booming yell in the animals’ direction, waving her arms in a motion that did nothing to deter the cat.

Someone screamed behind her and she heard Kerry yell a warning, and a stone came flying past her to miss the cat and go bouncing down the slope into the darkness.

It rushed at her, and for a second she froze, then instinct took over and she lashed out with a kick aimed at its head and felt it connect sending the cat skidding to one side as it’s claws scrabbled in the wet gravel at the unexpected attack.

Then it was lunging forward again and she was leaping at it, reaching for the teeth coming at her knees in a perfect moment of unreal insanity as its eyes met hers in a flash of silver light and two feral souls met with no time to do anything but act.

She wasn’t really cognizant of the knife in her hand but the blade tip hit something hard and with her momentum penetrated as her other hand grabbed at the cat’s neck and shoved its head away from her, teeth missing her wrist as it twisted to meet her and claws extended.

She landed on top of it with all her weight and shoved it to the ground as she heard it yowl in pain and surprise and her knees came down on top of the cat’s hind legs, her forearm pinning its neck to the ground and her thinking mind suddenly wondering what the hell she was supposed to do next.

Then without warning Tracey was landing next to her on her knees with a thump and a splash and with a long blade grasped in both hands stabbing the animal over and over again with a screaming of her own, nearly slicing Dar’s hand as she struggled to get the hell out of the way.

She had to get off the animal’s body or risk being impaled and she jerked back hastily. “Hey! Look out! Stop!” She yelled in alarm. “Hey!”

The animal twisted and scrambled free as Dar’s weight came off it and she lunged backwards in an awkward motion as the cat ran off limping, shaking its head and disappearing into the rain.

“Fuck!” Tracey panted. “I wanted to get it for Josh.” She stared at the knife in her hands. “Little bastard!” She watched the dark stain of blood rinse past with the driving rain and put one hand down into it.

“You damn near stabbed me!” Dar growled.

A rush of people were now at their back, and Dar felt hands lifting her to her feet as she stood there shivering in reaction, with Kerry’s arms wrapping around her.

“That was insane.”  Rich said. “That was freaking insane.”

“Nuts.” Janet agreed. “Are you okay?”

Dar was silent for a moment, feeling the beat of the rain on her skin and the afterimages of the cat and its vivid eyes, and its yowl fading.  “Yeah.” She finally said, motioning them all back under the arch.  “I’m fine. Just wet and freaked out.”

They all clustered back under the arch, and then Todd was pushing through them. “What in the hell just happened” He asked, getting to Dar’s side. “What was that?”

“That was the mountain lion.” Kerry responded. “Or a mountain lion.”

“Yeah.” Rich said. “So Dar kicked it in the head and then she and Tracey jumped on it. Pretty rad.” He eyed the women with bemused respect. “It went up onto the arch. Was stalking us.”

Todd’s eyebrows hiked up, as Amy peered from around his broad shoulder.  “Oh shit.” He looked out. “It got away?”

“It’s got holes in it.”  Don said. “Better it than us.” He pointed down the path.  “Went that way.”

Todd grabbed one of the walking sticks and ran in that direction. “I’ll make sure.”

“Todd wa..” Amy flinched as a flash if lightning cracked overhead and they all ducked backwards, and when the afterimages faded, Don grabbed her arm and held her back.

“No sense in both you out there.” The older man said, in a practical tone.  “That thing’s gonna die soon. He’ll be back.”

Dar felt her heart settle, and she pretended everyone wasn’t furtively staring at her.  She turned and regarded Kerry, who, after a brief pause grimly smiled. “That sucked.” She edged back under the arch and out of the rain, now soaked to the skin and shivering.

Kerry took the knife out of her hand and unlocked the blade to fold it closed.  Then she put her arms around her partner and exhaled. “Jesus.” She could feel the vibrations running through Dar’s tall frame and she closed her eyes, giving her a gentle scratch on the back. 

Courage was such a funny thing.   You couldn’t buy it, probably you couldn’t even develop it inside yourself it was just something you had.

Or not.  She felt Dar’s body slowly starting to relax, and she guided them both back to the spot they’d picked and sat down, listening to the rain coming down all around them. Listening to all the people talking around them. Hearing again the angry howl of the cat.

Hearing again Dar’s answering yell, bold and fierce and without fear echoing in her memory.   Kerry looked aside, watching Dar’s profile in the faint light.  She reflected on the realization that most people, especially most people who had lives like theirs never got to test where they fell on the flight or fight scale.

Most people who lived life like theirs never wanted to find out, but she had never been given that choice.  That reflex had been well tested as though she and Dar had chosen a lifetime of bold adventure instead of computer technology.

Strange.  She watched the rain fall.  Strange, and often on the edge of heartbreak.

Dar sighed. “I shouldn’t do shit like that.” She shook her head a little. “Idiotic.”

Kerry tasted the truth of that.  “You can’t help doing shit like that, Dar.” She replied, understanding the truth of that, as well. “We joke about you being a crusader, but you know...”

“I know.” Dar answered.  “But is that fair? I seem to remember promising you to think about us first.”

There was something so woebegonly charming about that it made Kerry smile. “You did.” She took Dar’s hand in hers. “But that was only for the stuff you could think about.” 

Hmph.” Dar grunted a little. “Yeah, I guess this different.” She said. “No time.”

Odd moment of epiphany.  Kerry clasped her fingers with her partner’s. “Let me tell you something about you and me, Paladar Katherine.”

“Uh oh.” Dar eyed her.

“If there’s a fucking mountain lion coming at us, we jump on it.”  Kerry said. “We don’t let it eat us.”

Dar regarded her in silence for a moment.  Then she grinned, just a little.

“Besides.” Kerry consciously lightened the tone.  “Can you imagine me telling the gang at the office about this? You’ll end up having ridden a Tyrannasaurus Rex while singing God Bless America.”

Dar chuckled silently, clasping her hands over Kerry’s, with a light shrug of acceptance.  Then she leaned back against the rock and extended her boots out a little, as the rain started coming down harder.

**

Morning was dismal.  Literally, because it was still raining, and figuratively since there was only leathery dried fish cooked the night before and water and everyone was tired and had little sleep.

They had an uphill climb to face on top of it, and the only positive note was they’d gone thorugh all the supplies so there was little  left for the crew to carry, even the tent poles and camp toilet left behind. Everyone had a pack on their back, and that was it.

“Let’s get this over with.” Dar finally said, taking the lead out into the rain. 

“Fuck yeah.” Todd agreed. “Too bad I didn’t find that cat. I wanted a souvenir.” He dug his walking stick into the gravel and walked steadily upward.  “So, what are you really?” He asked Dar as they trudged along.

“What I am really what?” Dar replied shortly.

“You a circus performer?  Some reality thing for Animal Planet?” Todd asked. “You aint no computer geek.”

“I’m a computer geek.”

“Nah.”

Dar just shook her head. 

The center of the path was a continuous stream of water, so they were walking on the edges, the party split into two groups one on either side. 

Dar and Kerry were on the left hand side, with Todd and Amy and most of the crew.  The rest of the passengers were on the other side, with Rich and Dave in the lead.  Everyone was walking carefully, and slowly enough that the three injured were able to keep up.

They reached the plateau that they’d gotten the dried grasses from, finding it soggy and barren.  “Should we pick up some of this stuff for later?”  Rich asked, pointing at the remaining grasses, beaten down and ragged.

“No, we’ll be at the ranger station before mid day even at this pace.” Janet waved him off. “No sense carrying wet grass.”

Kerry stepped over a strong rivulet and glanced to her left, near the wall where she spotted a small hole leading down into the sand and wondered if that was where the rabbits had been.   She firmly turned her attention to the path, refusing to go over and see.

Had the rabbit mother gotten back?  Rich and Dave hadn’t seen her.  Were there tiny rabbit babies in the hole, bereft of their mom?

No point in finding out.  Kerry dug her stick in as they reached a slightly steeper part of the path, leading up to a turn that bore to her left and would then pitch downward to the station.

She hoped.

The canyon walls curved on either side of them, providing no shelter and just a funnel for the rain pouring down, the sky overhead solid, uncompromising dark gray. 

But, she thought, they’d left the lion behind them, and they only  had a short distance to go and then it would be over.

She could almost taste the hot cup of bad coffee she knew would be there, at the end of the trail.

**

“Little more.”  Don said, leaning against the rock wall with his arm lifted to block the rain. “Can’t believe this weather.” He was breathing hard, and next to him his wife Marcia was looking patient but miserable.

But of course everyone was, in this march up a steep, sometimes slippery path into the rain.

They were taking a brief rest, both to catch their breaths and to allow the deluge to lessen a little.  Dar was braced against a large boulder, providing a rain break for Kerry, as well as Tracey and Pete huddled behind her.   The water down the path was now a solid rush, and it came up over their boots as they stood in a tiny facimile of the river they’d left far behind. 

“We’d be hip deep if we were back where we’d stopped last night.” Janet remarked.  She was seated on a bit of rock out thrust, her cut leg stretched out, her face white with exhaustion.  “But hey, at least no one’s dehydrated.”

Tracey chuckled shortly. “S’true.”

“That’s the usual problem out here.” Rich agreed. “Man I’m looking forward to a hot shower and a dry tshirt.”

Todd shook his head. “What a bunch of pussies.”  He said.  “You think this is bad? We did a hike in the Yucatan where we didn’t have nothing for a week.”

Kerry had tipped her head back and allowed the rain to fill her mouth, swallowing it and licking her lips. It tasted of nothing and everything, sky and cloud and fog and as pure as water was going to be.

Ahead of them, maybe ten minutes walk, was another large arch and just past that they could see the path cresting.  Water was running off the arch though, making a curtain across the path and she could already feel the pounding on her head she imagined that would feel like. 

“Only morons pay money to be miserable.” Dar said. “I’d rather spend the week on my boat.”

“With fresh caught lobster and a nicely chilled white wine.” Kerry agreed.

“Please shut up.” Tracey sighed. “Most of us can’t afford lobster.”

Kerry eyed her. “Sorry.  We can, but we never buy it. We catch it in the ocean.” She paused. “Besides, we earned what we have. I’m not ashamed of it.”

“No, sorry  I didn’t mean…” Tracey held up a hand. “DIdn’t mean to diss you. Just jelly.”

“We should get moving on.” With a sigh, Janet stood up and they all picked up their bags and shouldered them, starting up the path towards the arch in a straggled line as thunder rumbled again over head. 

Dar leaned forward and focused on the top of the path, looking forward to achieving it and the downhill stretch beyond it.  “I think.”

“Always and constantly.” Kerry agreed. “Regular as lizards on our porch.”

Dar chuckled. “I think I appreciate Miami’s flatness for the first time right now.” She admitted. “Now I know why I steered clear of the stair climber in the gym.”

Caught thinking that very same thing, Kerry just chuckled in response.

They had gotten perhaps twenty feet up the path when a huge crack sounded overhead that made them all duck, as lightning hit the top of the arch they were climbing towards and lit the area with such pungent white light they all turned to the side and closed their eyes.

“Shit.” Janet yelped. “Oh shit!”

Thunder boomed, and then as Dar was blinking the after image out of her eyes Tracey let out a bloodcurdling scream and she jerked around in time to see motion ahead of them and then Rich was pushing her to the side towards the wall. “What the hell…”

“Avalanche!”  Dave was grabbing Kerry and then they were all pressing against the wall amidst a rapidly escalating sound of crashing stone.

“Get out of the way!”  Petey bawled. The crew started running down the path, down back the way they came, unable to find shelter against the walls as thick pieces of rock thumped and tumbled down after them, gaining momentum.

Dar felt the sting of debris against her skin and she pressed her body against the rock and closed her eyes, feeling a thick rumble so deep it vibrated the bones inside her.  She could hear things smashing against the wall and she opened one eye as she turned her head to see Kerry looking back at her, scared.

Instinctively, she put her hand over her partners as she felt a rock hit her shoulder and heard Dave yelp in pain and she turned slightly, to put the pack on her back between her and the moving debris.

Rich looked down the path and hesitated, but then pressed himself more tightly against the wall on the other side of Kerry. “Stay here! Don’t move!”

“What the hell.” Dar grimaced, as another piece of rock slammed into her.

“Arch collapsed.” Dave said, his eyes closed. “Jesus Christ this is a haunted trip.”

They had gotten lucky, tucked behind a slight bend in the wall and after a minute or two the noise abated, and then there was only rain, and the faint sound of stones bounding and skipping down the path behind them.

Dar pushed back and looked over at the arch, stunned into speechlessness when she saw the upper trek they were heading for. “Oh crap.”

“Jesus!” Both Rich and Dave spoke at once.

“Oh my goodness.” Marsha gasped.

The top of the path was completely blocked, with stone rubble and huge chunks of the arch which had, in fact, collapsed completely, closing in the slot canyon as rocks still were bouncing down from it, chased by the rain which perversely now slowed a little.

Everyone was briefly silent, stunned and wide eyed. 

Todd came up to stand next to Dar, and they stood shoulder to shoulder regarding this new impediment to the end of their journey.  “We’re fucked.”  He said, after a few moments. “Seriously.”

Dar tried to consider a rebuttal, but failed. “Yeah.”  She agreed, putting her hands on her hips. “This is terminal suckitude.”

No supplies, no food, no way around the rubble. Dar turned and looked down the path, where the crew was now climbing back up to rejoin them, having evaded the falling rocks.  No way to go back.

She looked at Kerry, who was looking back at her, the same knowledge in her pale green eyes as they both inhaled and exhaled at the exact same time.

No way to let people back home know what was going on. 

Kerry came up next to her and put her arm around Dar’s waist. “This just got very complicated.” She said. “We’ve got to figure out what our options are.”

“We do.” Dar responded. “Not sure we have that many.”

“Fucked.” Todd concluded succinctly.

“Cursed.” Rich added. “Seriously.”

**

The only bright spot to be found was the rain stopping.  The entire group was gathered at the base of the avalanche, where the path had started to even out and provided a flat space for them to stand in.

Behind them, the long slope downward was cleared, clean and wet, the water draining down and out as the clouds lifted and they were splashed with random sunlight as they stood in a rough circle of mounting consternation.

“So now what are we supposed to do?” Marcia had just asked.  “Do we go back?”

Janet was shaking her head. “It’s flooded back there, and I don’t know if the raft is even still there after that storm.”

“What choice do we have? Sit here and starve?” Rich spoke up. “Seriously?”

Dar was half ignoring the discussion, her eyes studying the mountain of debris blocking their way.  “Can we climb this?” She spoke up unexpectedly. 

Todd tilted his head back and looked up. “Too loose.” He said. “End up bringing down crap on everyone and falling on our asses.”  He hopped up onto a bit of the rock and immediately jumped clear as it detached itself and came out from under him, tumbling a few feet down the path.

Kerry had gone to one side of the wall and she experimentally pushed one of the rocks with her boot, sending it rolling downward. “Can we move it?”

“Take us six weeks.” Dave picked up a rock and threw it.  “Shit we can’t move a lot of that, too heavy.” He pointed at one slab of debris. “Take a backhoe.”

Dar sat down on a rock and braced her elbows on her knees. “Anyone got any other ideas? If not, we pick the best of the worst of them.”  She eyed them all. “The worst of the worst being just sitting here doing nothing.”

Kerry walked over to a relatively flat piece of rock and regarded it. “So what do we have to work with?” She suggested. “Lets see what we all are carrying, anyway.”

Grudgingly the group surrounded the rock and started putting things on it, emptying packs and pockets randomly onto the damp surface, except Petey, who was sprawled over another large rock, with Don checking the injury  on his back.

His shirt was stained with blood and pus, and his face was in pain and exhausted looking, having stumbled and fallen running from the avalanche downhill.   JP was sitting next to him holding his hand in sympathy, her bandaged foot likewise tattered and stained.

“Not much.” Janet was upending her pack, dumping a tattered and much folded map, a camp fork and spoon, a set of keys, and a compass on the stone. 

“No.” Dave pulled out his hygiene kit, a book, the pack of cards, stained brown, and a small set of binoculars.  “All great stuff to carry on the raft and fegging useless here.”

One of the crew dragged over the cooler and opened it, peering inside.  There were two clumps of the grass they’d collected, a handful of sticks, and the pervasive aroma of the fish that had once been stored inside. “Now I miss that fish.” He said, mournfully.

They had their canteens and packs filled with water from the morning. “Save it.”  Amy suggested. “If it doesn’t rain again we’re going to run short.” She put down another compass, and a large handful of caribiners and other climbing gear, along with a tightly wound coil of rope.

Dar’s pocketknife joined  the collection, and Kerry half shrugged as she put what was in her pack down, a pair of sunglasses, a safety pin, a towel, and a piece of black plastic she’d found in the bottom of it.

“Hey.” Janet limped forward and picked up the plastic. “Where did this come from?”  She stared at Kerry intently. “Where did you get this?”

Kerry frowned and her eyes unfocused, as she tried to recall. “Not sure I remember.”  She admitted.

“You picked it up near the shack.” Dar supplied mildly.  “You had it in your pocket after that.” She regarded Janet. “What is it? Piece of something?” She rested her wrist on Kerry’s shoulder and peered at the item.

“It’s the battery from the sat phone.” Janet said, with a sigh. “Now if we only had that…. Holy shit I wonder if the phone was out there too.”

Everyone stared at the module, resting silently in Janet’s hand.   Then Todd snorted. “Wouldn’t do a fucks worth of anything this far down in the canyon. They’d never hear it.”  He turned and went over to the far wall, examining it thoughtfully. 

‘That’s true.” Janet put the battery back down.  “Anyway, Amy’s right about the water. Looks like the weathers drying out.”  She looked up at the sky, which showed patches of clear blue past the clouds. “Of course, since we need water.”

“We should set up some shelter anyway.”  One of the crew remarked. “If we’re not going to start back, I mean.” The man pointed down slope. “Should we?”

Dar folded her arms and stood in perplexed silence for a moment.  “How long will it take for the flood to drain out?” She asked Janet.

The trip leader looked thoughtful.  “Depends. If we don’t get more rain, maybe a couple days. But let me look at this map, and see if we have any alt routes even if they’re not great.” She spread the map out and started studying it.

“Might as well.” Rich indicated the tarps. “We’ll help. C’mon Dave.” He and Dave went over to the unpacked shelter supplies, most of the tarps tattered and torn, and the poles all bent and in two cases, cracked in the center.  “Not much to work with, but maybe we can .. do we have any tents left?”

“We can set up what we have.”  Janet spoke up. “Flat enough here.”

“Get the bag over there.” Sally went towards the pile of gear they’d dragged up, and retrieved from the headlong rush down the path from earlier. “There, with the stakes. I think we can get them.”

Kerry handed Dar back her pocketknife. “How in the world did you remember when I grabbed that?” She asked. “Holy pooters, Dar.”

Her partner smiled briefly. “I always pay attention to you.”

“Dar.” Kerry looked at her in mild exasperation. “You pay attention to what I put in my pockets?”

One of Dar’s blue eyes flickered in and out of view as she winked.

“And actually I remember where it was now, in the cave I got the pot of water from before we left the shack.” Kerry recalled. “Wish we were back there now.”

“Me too.”  Dar slid the knife back in her pocket. “Lets go help.”  She indicated the pile of canvas bags. “We’re going to be here for a little while at least I guess.” 

**

It was one of those few times in her recent life that Dar acknowledged that she felt really hungry.  She and Kerry lived in a world where the longest wait for food was in the line at Publix, and it was only in dim memory of her younger years that lack of food had been a problem.

And that only voluntary when she’d been out on hikes in the sawgrass and learned the hard way to take snacks with her instead of rely on the other kids.

She regarded the little encampment, sad and ragged in the brisking wind swirling through the now closed canyon, where she could see past to the bottom of the path and the moving figures that were the rest of the party scouring the area for anything useful.

They had set up the four remaining tents, and two tarps that were fluttering harshly in the breeze, along with a rope clothesline that held a variety of sleeping bags and clothes drying.

There was nothing organic visible.  The rain and the floods had stripped out any vegetation and the crew had climbed back down the path to find anything that might have gotten caught and left, with a hope of some wood to burn for heat.

Kerry was standing nearby, talking to Janet.  She had her waterproof jacket tied around her waist and her arms folded and her blond hair was in ruffled disarray and Dar watched her profile shift as the muscles in her jaw tensed and squared.

Resolute.  Dar smiled to herself as she stood up and flexed her hands, wandering over to the side of the avalanche and examining the debris, wondering if putting the shelters that close was really a good idea.  It provided a wind break, it was true, but what if another storm hit?

Todd wandered over and kicked one of the stones at ground level. “This sucks.” He remarked to her. “I thought it sucked before, but this is another level of suck.”

Dar nodded. “It sucks.” She agreed. “I’m trying to decide if there is any option that doesn’t have we’re screwed written on it in ten inch high letters.”

He reached out and put his hand on a bit of the rock. “Best idea was climbing out over this.” He acknowledged. “But its just unstable. You can feel it.” He pushed gently. “Maybe could get partway up, but not this bunch.”

Dar glanced at him. “You could.”

“Maybe.” He shrugged.

“Why don’t you go get help?” Dar asked, turning to face him. “Climb over this and go to the ranger station? Can’t you do that?”

He stared at her, eyes narrowing a little. “You don’t know a fucking thing about it.”

“No, I don’t. I live in South Florida, where the highest elevation that isn’t a garbage dump is six feet.” Dar agreed. “But you do.”

For a long moment Todd just stood there.  “Too vertical.” He finally said.  “This stuff’s too soft, too few places to hang onto. Probably end up taking a header.” He added. “You saw this thing come down.” He picked up a piece of rock and slammed it against a second, where it cracked and powdered in his big hand. “See?”

Dar observed it. “So – “ She looked at the rock walls. “Wrong kind of rock.”

Todd nodded. “That’s why this thing came down so easy.” He said. “Stuff crumbles.”

“What the hell were you going to do with this op then?” Dar asked. “You wanted to use them to get you to some place to climb?”

He tossed the rock aside and dusted his hands off. “Not here.” He said. “Not the slot canyons. There’s walls you can climb.  Zoroster and them - Just not this.”

Was it true? Dar studied his face.  He had a flat profile, and what appeared to be a nose broken more than once, and very sparse facial hair even after the guys had stopped shaving.   She concluded silently it probably was true, if for no other reason than she figured he would enjoy lording it all over them otherwise.”

Damn. “Too bad.” She concluded. “Waiting it out for the flood and walking back is going to be a serious suck.”

“Yeah. Sucks.” He repeated, looking down slope.  “Especially with this bunch of lame-o’s.”  He turned and headed back across the loose surface to where Amy had joined the small group around the table rock.

That left Dar by herself next to the debris wall and she went and sat on a rock, half in shade and half in the warm sunlight that lit her forearms and knees and the back of her head.

A beetle trundled past on the ground, making a detour around the toe of her boot and she watched it thoughtfully, wondering if her choice of letting the rabbit go earlier hadn’t been as stupid as it felt right now.

What were they going to do?

**

By dusk they still had no answers.  The weather was still clear, and it appeared they would have a dry night but the whistling winds were chilly and everyone was hungry.

They had enough to burn to heat some water, and they’d done that, with three peppermint candies found in Rich’s pockets to add some taste to it.

Dar was seated on their now dry sleeping bag tucked between two rocks, with one of the tarps wrapped around the back of the rocks to form a tent like shelter preferable to arguing over one of the four tents.  The tarp smelled of the river, it had come from the bottom of the sack they’d salvaged from the raft.

But there was room between the rocks for two people, and the tarp was overhead, and Dar figured it was about as good as it was going to get. 

Kerry came over and sat down next to her, the small daybag from the raft between her hands.  “Dar.”

“Yes.”

“I have something terrible to tell you.”

Dar’s eyes popped wide and she turned to look at Kerry in alarm. “What?”

Kerry carefully looked both ways then leaned closer to her. “There’s one granola bar left in this bag.”

Dar blinked. “That’s terrible?”

“I don’t want to share it with anyone.”

“That’s terrible?” Dar repeated, in a quizzical tone.

Kerry tucked the bag behind them and leaned back against the rubble, her booted feet sticking out from their little shelter.  “In Sunday school they taught us to share with everyone.” She remarked. “Nothing there covered something like this though.”

“No.” Dar snuggled in next to her and folded her hands in her lap, as they both watched the group of people arguing around the table. “They still at it?”

“I think the whole situation is getting to everyone.” Kerry said. “Everyone’s scared, too.”

Dar regarded her. “Are you?”

Kerry pondered the question in silence for a minute. “I’m not, really.” She sounded surprised. “I’m worried, you know? About our family and the people at the office, because I know they really depend on you and me. And I’m worried about the dogs.”

“Mm.”

“But as long as we’re together, it’s hard to really be afraid.” Kerry smiled a little. “I feel like it’s always been that way.”  She added. “I remember how out of sorts I was, in Washington, until you got there. Then I was still freaked out, but I just felt like it was okay because you were there.”

“Yeah.” Dar agreed.  “I was scared because you were there, where all the stuff was going down. Alastair knew. It was hard for me to concentrate on anything.”

“Really?”

“Really.”  Dar gazed fondly at her. “C”mon, Ker.  I left Miami without even my driver’s license or laptop or anything. You figure my head was screwed on straight?”

“Mm.”

“So I’m not scared now. Just pissed off.” Dar concluded. “I’m pissed off that nature is kicking our ass, and that these people were not prepared, and that we made so many bad choices. We could have been at the end of the river by now, flying back and chilling in our RV.” She lifted her hands. “We’re here. We’re screwed. We have no plan on how to get out of here besides trying to hike back the way we came with no supplies.”

“Yeah.” Kerry sighed.

“People have accused me of being a control freak.” Dar took a breath.

“You?” Kerry’s brows lifted in mock surprise. “Really?”

“But this is why.” Her partner concluded. “I want to be in charge of everything so I only have myself to blame.”

Kerry patted Dar’s thigh under it’s covering of cotton. She could see the group around the table rock breaking up now, and felt a sense of relief that they were not going to have to go over there and intervene.  The crew was all going over to one tent.

“Cozy.” Dar commented.

Eight squeezed into a tent made for four.  Kerry was glad they were in their own little shelter, as the rest of the group split up into male and female clusters, and took two of the remaining.  Smirking, Todd and Amy took the third.

“Dudley Douchebag.” Kerry shook her head.

Dar hiked up one knee and circled it with her arm. “I think we should hike back tomorrow.” She said. “Regardless of what these other people do.”

By  ourselves?”

Dar nodded. “Only one way back. I’ll rig what’s left of that raft and we can go down the river.”

Kerry thought about that.  “So just lave these guys behind?” She asked. “What if they want to go to, some of them?”

Dar was saved the need to answer by a yell and then a scream, and they started up out of their little nest as Todd an Amy exploded out of their tent in a scramble of arms and legs and debris.  “Motherfucker!” Todd bawled at the top of his voice.

The rest of the gang came pouring out of their two tents, but the crew flap stayed shut.   Dar had gotten to her feet and she was standing in front of their shelter, hands in her pockets, unsure of what was going on.

Kerry stepped around her and went over to where Amy was slapping at her arms and legs. “What’s up?”

“Ants!” Amy said. “Ow! Shit!”

Todd was brushing himself off, so Kerry went over and started helping Amy out, since she was visibly covered by the insects.

The rest of the gang, after watching a moment, went back inside. “Better check in here for them.” Don said in a philosophic tone.  “Though with any luck the only ass with ants is that one.”

Todd paused and stared at him, but Don just pushed aside the tent flap for Rich and Dave and ignored the look.  Then he jerked back as Dar walked behind him, but she merely just started to brush off the visible ants on his shirt. “Thanks” He said, grudgingly. 

“Hard to believe a nest of ants lived through all that water.”   Dar paused to peer inside. “Oh, crap.”  She stepped back. “its infested.”

“Assholes had it in storage.” Todd shook his arms viciously.  “Fuckers.”

“Bet they knew.” Amy said.

Kerry glanced at the shut tent of the crew, and mentally acknowledged the truth of the idea.  “I think I got them all.” She told Amy.  “Sorry about that.”

“Jerks.”  The girl carefully stamped out all the live insects who were scurrying in all directions.

After a moment, Kerry helped her, not wanting to lead them to their shelter.  They were large, and dark colored, and looked like they had vicious jaws to bite with.  

Todd was pulling the tent down and dragging it after him, heading a little ways down the path when he stopped and paused, then turned around and came back, stopping next to the closed crew tent before he started shaking the infested one out.

“That probably won’t do much.” Amy regarded him. “Unless he cuts a hole in that canvas.”

Kerry went back to their shelter, carefully inspecting the ground, and her boots, before she crawled back inside, shaking her head.  

Dar looked around the empty canyon, listening to the wind whistling down it and the soft clink of the rocks tumbling out of place in the landslide behind them.

It felt barren and unsafe.  She was unhappy being where they were, and she didn’t see the conditions improving either in the short or long term.

She was hungry, and thirsty and she wanted some milk.  Most of all, she wanted to be somewhere else.  With a sigh, she rocked up and down on her heels and watched the pink of sunset painting the top of the canyon, the rest of it cast already in twilight blue.

“Hey.” Amy came over and stood next to her.  “So listen. Todd and I are going to hike out tomorrow morning. You and your SO want to come with us?” She asked. “Between us we have the best chance of getting out.”

Dar regarded her somberly.  “Leave the rest of them here?”

Amy nodded. “Everyone goes, we’re going to take six forevers to get out if we even do.  You know that. You’ve got brains.”

It was true.  She did know it.  And after all hadn’t she just been talking to Kerry about doing the same thing?  It was also true that Amy and Todd, assholes that they were, had skills. “Yeah maybe.”  Dar said.  “Let me talk to Ker about it.  We gotta get out of here.”

Amy looked relieved. “If we get back to that raft, we can do it.”

“And I can catch us more fish.” Dar’s lips twitched a bit.  “Though right now I’d rather a cheeseburger.”

“Me too.” Amy smiled.  “And a big plate of French fries.”  She turned and went over to where Todd was still shaking the tent out, grabbing hold of one side as she leaned close and whispered to him.

Dar went back to their little shelter and sat down. “You hear?”

“Uh huh.” Kerry was leaning against the rock with her hands folded over her stomach.   “That’s a crappy thing to do, hon.”

“You rather stay here?”

“No” Kerry admitted.  “It is a crappy thing but staying here is crappier.  We can send help back.”

“We can.”  Dar agreed. “But who knows? We could be flying off into space by the morning with all the insanity that’s been going on around here.  Or be attacked by a sheep.”

 

“Not if it knows what’s good for it.” Kerry replied. “Stop making me think of lambchops”   She took out the last protein bar and split it in half, handing Dar a portion.  “Actually at this point I’d take some of those crackers.”

Thus prompted, Dar pulled her bag over and started rooting in it, as though by wishing she’d find some inside.  She upended the bag and dumped the content out, a pair of sunglasses, an empty water bottle, her book, a tshirt, and, last of all, a packet of crackers.

With a satisfied grunt, she handed it over to her partner. “There ya go.”

Kerry stared at it. “I thought you didn’t have any more?”

Dar shrugged. “Maybe it was wrapped in the shirt.” She suggested. “Or maybe its just because you wanted it.” She smiled at Kerry, and winked.

“Should we save it?” Kerry asked. “Just have our bar, and save this for the morning?” She studied the package. “At least it’s something.” She handed it back.  “Especially if we’re going to start hiking.”

“Ok.” Dar put the packet back in her bag.  “Better than roasting and eating those ants.  Or eating them raw.” She closed the bag and put it away, then turned to see her partner staring at her. “What?”

“Have you actually done that?”  Kerry winced, seeing her partner nod. “Oh, yo, Dar no!”

“They taste kinda lemony.” Dar said, after a pause, watching Kerry’s face.  “It’s better than starving.” She crossed her ankles.  “Lot more stuff to eat in Florida than here though.” She nibbled on the edge of her protein bar.  “Best thing we had was..

“Please don’t say palmetto bugs.” Kerry covered her eyes.

“Rabbit.” Dar admitted.  “But squirrel isn’t bad either if you put enough hot sauce on it.” She regarded Kerry’s horrified stare. “Give it a rest, Yankee. You were just asking for lambchops.”

Kerry drew breath, then made a hmphing noise. “Bunnies are cuter than sheep.” She muttered, then fell silent for a moment.  Then she turned her head and regarded her partner.

“Yes, it’s crappy to leave everyone.” Dar responded promptly.  “I just don’t know if there are any good choices at this point.”

“You can read my mind.”

‘Yes.”

Kerry studied her profile, as Dar tilted her head a little to return her gaze.  “Or I’m that predictable.” She finally said, with a slight grin.

Dar’s eyes warmed and gentled. “You wear your convictions on the outside.”

One of Kerry’s blond brows quirked. “Says the shining old soul.”

Dar stuck her tongue out.

**

The clouds were back the next morning, and they all gathered together around the table rock, regarding the sky overhead and each other.   The wind was shifting and fitful, blowing their hair in varying directions as they felt the renewed moisture in it.

It meant nothing good.

There was nothing but some hot water to drink, and they did, burning the last of the grass and standing in silence until it just got too uncomfortable to bear.

“Okay.” Dar finally bent to the pressure.  “We can’t stay here.” She said. “We can’t climb over this thing, we can’t go anywhere but back the way we came.” She pointed. “That’s it.”

“It’s true.” Janet said. “But if it starts raining again it’s going to flood out. “ She looked around. “At least this is high ground.”

“High ground to starve to death in?” Todd asked. “You’re an idiot.”

“No, there’s still Doug.”  Janet said.  “If he got down the river, there will be people looking for us. We just have to hang in here.” She said. “We’ve got people hurt, and it could be dangerous if  we get caught in another flood.”

“But what if he didn’t?” Dar asked, in a mild tone. “How long do you wait?”

Well..” Janet hesitated, but looking around at the crew showed nothing but noncommittal faces.

“Before you can’t hike out, because you’re too weak?” Amy chimed in. “We have to move out.” She indicated herself, then Todd.  “We’re going to go.” She looked at Dar, and Kerry. “You coming?”

Kerry nodded. “We have to move.” She said. “There is literally nothing here for us.” She looked around their surroundings.  “At least on the other side of the valley, there was brush and a chance of finding something to eat.”

Don nodded as well. “That’s true.  We can’t stay here.”

“Yeah.” Rich said, reluctantly.  “Wish you’d kept that damn rabbit.”  He muttered, giving Dar a slit eyed look.

Dar actually was wishing the same thing, but remained silent regarding that and changed the subject back.  “So we should pack up and move out before it starts raining.” She concluded. “Sooner we start, sooner we can get somewhere useful.”

Reluctantly, Janet nodded in agreement. “Lets see how far we can get.” She motioned to the crew to start breaking down the tents and they all separated and moved around in grumpy silence to gather their things up.

Dar unhooked the tarp they’d used and folded it up, tucking the bungy cords away as Kerry rolled up the sleeping bag, much the worse for wear that they’d lay down on.  But at least they’d gotten some rest, from the bleary eyes of the other passengers it seemed most hadn’t.

And they’d had their crackers.  Kerry had tried to feel guilty about not sharing them but sadly had failed miserably and licked her lips, remembering the taste of the peanut butter on her tongue. “Know something?”

“You’re never going to tease me about snacks in my pockets again?” Dar eyed her.

Kerry just smiled.  “Anything to keep me from eating ants.”

Nearby,  Rich and Dave were rolling up the tent the rest of the men had shared, and on the other side of them Sally and PJ were doing the same with theirs.   Pete was limping gingerly around, and Janet was shaking out the cooler they’d stored the dried grass in.

“Hey.”  Rich stood up, with the rain shade in his hands, rolled up. “Something’s in here.”

“More ants?” Todd asked sarcastically. “Or maybe some scorpions?”

“No.” He unrolled the canvas and as he did something fell out, rectangular and black, and clattered onto the stones at his feet. “What the hell?”  He stared at it. “What is that?”

“I was sleeping on it I think.” Dave said, rubbing his back. “I thought it was a rock.”

Janet pounced on it. “It’s the sat phone!”  She felt in her pocket for the battery as the rest of them gathered around in excitement.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Todd said what they all were probably thinking. “You had this the whole time?”

Kerry clapped her hand to her forehead mutely, as Dar turned and stared off into the distance for a brief moment. Then she turned back around and put her hands on her hips and exhaled, her body language expressing a singular level of silent frustration.

“OMFG.” Sally said, after a shocked pause.

“My goodness.” Marcia added. “How could you have missed that?”

“No one knew. Trust me.” Janet fit the battery to the phone and closed the module in, then she turned on the device, waiting for the screen to come on. “Not much batt left but we don’t need much.”  She stared at the readout impatiently. “C’mon.”

After about twenty seconds of charged silence, she turned in a circle. “We’re blocked. Can’t see the sat because of the walls.”

“Turn it off.” Dar ordered. “Lets move down the trail until we get back to that open area and try again.”  She looked at Todd. “Or we find a wall hard enough for you to climb.”

After a pause, he nodded. “Rock on.” He went back to shoving his and Amy’s gear away.  “Lets move.”

Janet turned off the phone and started to put it in her pocket, but Rich came over and took it out of her hand. “I’ll take that. Don’t want you to lose it again.”   He put it in his own cargo pocket and buttoned it.  “Sorry. Gotta agree that was bush league.”

Janet shrugged, and turned away.  The rest of the group continued faster, packing and getting ready to move.

**

They were two hours down the trail when it started raining.  Dar got her hood up and tightened around her head as she felt the impact of the drops, and she looked ahead of them up the path that was almost at a level, at the bottom of the last valley they’d crossed on the way up again afterward.

Behind her, the party was clustered into a group, but Todd and Amy were ahead of them, stumping stolidly along using their hiking sticks in short, digging motions.

Kerry unfolded their sticks and handed Dar hers, pausing to pull her own hood up and trying not to think about bacon and eggs.

She didn’t even usually like bacon and eggs. But right now, she was imagining them both in their kitchen, on a Sunday, with second cups of coffee and plates of breakfast watching cartoons and catching up on news. She felt herself getting angry, at the situation and the people around them and more than anything she wanted it all to end.

End end end.   She slid a little in the gravel and flexed her hand around her stick, as the rain increased, and perversely it was driving against them rather than coming from behind.

Of course.

Behind her she could hear Rich and Sally sniping at Janet.  Walking a little apart, Tracey had her arm around Pete, supporting him a little as he limped along with his hand curled around a branch and from where she was Kerry could see he was sweating.

Don quickened his pace, and caught up to her. “That back of his is getting worse.”  He said, in an undertone. “Hope we find that open spot soon.”

“Me too.” Kerry agreed, briefly. “I’m trying to remember how far it was from this bottom part back to that camp we made the other night.”

“Downhill, after this bit here.” Don said. “Should be faster.” He wiped the rain out of his face. “Not much of a shelter that arch though. We should go past it.”

“True.”  Kerry shaded her eyes with one hand, blinking the rain from them. “Maybe we’ll find a better spot.” She slid a little again as the gravel got wet and a moment later had Dar’s grip on her arm. ‘Thanks hon.”

They walked quickly across the bottom of the valley and then up the slope, between the striated walls that had for them lost their picturesque beauty and become stubborn impediments to their escape from the discomfort to be moved past as soon as possible.

“Ugh.” Don exhaled in frustration.

Ugh.  Kerry echoed silently in agreement. Her cargo pants were already wet and she could feel the water coming through her hiking boots and she decided to do as Dar had done and switch to her sandals at their first break.

Now wishing that she’d already done that, though the boots would have been heavier in her backpack though they were warmer and provided better protection against the rocks.

And any snakes. She glanced around, acknowledging any snakes in the area were comfortably tucked somewhere, laughing at them, smart enough to avoid both the rain and klutzy tourists.

Ugh.

Dar took a sip of water, then tucked the bottle back in her pack and took a grip on Kerry’s belt, as they leaned forward to start the climb up into the headwind blowing against them.  Despite the lack of snacks, she felt relatively energized and was more than willing to lend that out as long as it lasted.

It was completely different, this hiking, than what their usual physical activity and in a perverse kind of way a little bit of her was enjoying it, in the way that she enjoyed the occasional need to buck a current on a fin back to the boat in a dive.

It was a challenge, and she didn’t often get physical ones as their day to day lives usually required her to provide a mental response instead.  It was a somewhat new experience for her to rely on her body in this kind of way and despite the rain and discomfort she was extracting some satisfaction from it.

A little like way back in the day, when the need to not only keep up with but exceed the guys had been a driver and Dar smiled a little in self deprecation as she considered what those old friends would have said seeing her face off against a mountain lion.

A mountain lion.  Dar was human enough to admit slight disappointment that Kerry hadn’t gotten a picture of that though she strongly suspected it would have ended up framed in their office if she had. 

Probably right over Dar’s desk, in fact.  Where it could be put to appropriate purpose during contract negotiations. Dar started laughing silently at herself.

“What’s so funny?” Kerry felt it, through the contact with her arm.

“Tell ya later.”

A yell, behind them.  Dar turned, and put her back to the rain. “Damn.” She released Kerry and they both started back to where a cluster of people were now stopped, around someone on the ground. “Now what?”

They arrived to find Rich kneeling next to Dave, who’d slipped and ended up landing on his hand, which he was now holding with a grimace. “Dude, that’s broken.” He told his friend. “It bent all the way back I saw it.”

Of course it was.  Dar also dropped to one knee and held her hand out to him. “Let me see it.”

Without hesitating, Dave complied, extending both arms out as she gently cradled his injured hand in hers.   He had fallen on it pushed forward and she could see the bruising starting already, a deep, blue black spreading stain across just above the wrist. “He’s right.”

“Ow.” Kerry was kneeling next to her. “What can we do?”

Janet had sat down on a nearby rock.  “Not much.” She produced the battered aid kit. “Nothing in here for that.”

The rain came down harder.   Dar studied Dave’s hand for a minute. “Anyone got some sticks? You got a shirt we can cut up?”  She felt a certain engineering mindset taking over as she made a picture in her head of what she thought might work for this injury and then she eased her knee forward and rested his arm on it.

Rich came plomping down, a little out of breath. “I passed this back there.” He indicated the path theyd’ come from and displayed two branches, spindly and bare, wet with rain, about a fingerwidth in size.

Dar took out her knife and put it down on her knee as the rest of the gang gathered around them, some standing with their backs to the rain blocking it somewhat.  She broke the branches midway along their length and then, regarding them, picked up her blade and used it to trim off the edges.

She was aware of Kerry at her back, not saying anything, just supportive in the hand she had resting on Dar’s hip and she supplied part of the rain block keeping things just a little bit dry.   “Okay, lets see if we can at least make it so it doesn’t move.”

Rich was nodding. “That’s the ticket.”

Janet looked past them. “Hey, someone run after those other two and tell them to hold up.”   She said, motioning to the crew standing around. 

“Screw them.” Tracey said, bluntly.  “They’ll figure it out.”

“Or they won’t.” Don said. “But I agree with the lady.  Let em go.” He edged over a little to watch what Dar was doing.  “They wanted to go off on their own anyhow.”

“And I’ve got the phone.” Rich assented.  He was ripping a shirt into strips of cloth which were twisting and wet in the rain as he handed them to Kerry to hold for Dar.

“But he can climb the wall.” Janet objected.

“I can climb it.” Rich spoke up.  “I’ve done half dome too.” He added, after everyone looked at him. “I just keep my mouth shut a lot more than he does.”

“Got a plan b then. Good.” Don nodded.

Dar lay the sticks along Dave’s hand, holding them in place as Kerry carefully wrapped a strip of cloth around them putting the binding just exactly where she would have in some odd synchronicity between them.

A momentary flash of almost memory flickered through the back of her mind, of kneeling in just this way, using the roughest of tools and in that memory too, there was rain and the sting on her skin of cold wind and the close presence and steady unremarkable assistance at her side.

Then it was gone and she was cautiously tying the cloth in a knot.  “How’s that?”

“Ow.” Dave looked forlornly at his hand. “I can’t move it.”

“That’s the point.” Don said. “C’mon, give me hand getting him up on his feet.” He waited for Rich to scramble up and they got Dave under the arms and lifted him up.  “Good job there lady.” He gave Dar a brief grin, as Tracey hiked Dave’s pack back up on his back.

“Dar has pretty much unlimited skills.” Kerry said, as they turned and started their march back up the path, this time staying in a group, hands at the ready to steady each other.

**

The arch, when they got back up to it, seemed somehow less of a shelter than it had the previous day with the rain now coming down in earnest. 

There was still some daylight left, and they stood under the arch regarding the way forward.  There was no sign of either Todd or Amy, and no one was saying anything about that either. 

Kerry had her arms folded and she was leaning one shoulder against the rock wall. “After what happened to that other arch? Not sure I want to stay under this one anyway.” She said, at a pause in the discussion. “If we’d been camped there last night I’m pretty sure we’d all be toast.”

“I’ve never seen that happen before.” Janet said. “It was a freak chance.”

“Everything in this trip’s been a freak chance.” Rich shot back. “I’m with Kerry. I don’t want to take it.”

They were tired and grumpy and hungry and, at least some of them, scared. 

“We should keep going.” Dar stated, after a pause.  “Let’s see how far we can get.” She opened her water bottle and stepped out into the rain, watching it fill from a torrent coming off the arch. “At least we have this.”

“At least.” Dave was trying to hold his bottle one handed, giving Tracey a look of gratitude as she came over to help.  “I’d rather walk. If I sit down, this is going to hurt so much it’ll drive me crazy. Walking at least I can think of something else.”

Kerry removed her pack and dug in it, fishing out a small case and opening it. “Want some Advil?”  She offered him the tablets, which he eagerly accepted. “I’ve only got about a dozen, but you’re welcome to some.” She put the case back in her pack, only from the corner of her eye catching the looks as those around watched her.

It made her skin prickle, and after a moment she looked up and over her shoulder to find Dar behind her, casually zipping up her pack, pale eyes flat and expressionless. 

“Thanks Kerry.” Dave gulped them back with a swallow of his water. “They burned through what was in that little aid kit.” He clipped the bottle back to his belt and took hold of his stick again, waiting for the rest of them to start moving again.

Everyone got up again and stood briefly, watching the rain come down before reluctantly starting back out into it. It was downhill now, and they could see at the bottom of the trail the water pooling as sheets of the rain washed down the rock path.

Kerry glanced behind them, then sighed and continued on.

**

Dar slid the last few feet into water up to her shins and immediately felt the pull of the current as it rushed along sideways as the path curved into the valley. “Careful!” She yelled back, as she felt Kerry thump against her, the impact almost taking both of them down.

Oof. Sorry.” Kerry got her balance and they paused as the rest of the group caught up. 

“Oh crap.” PJ panted as she held on to her stick, balancing on her good foot and lifting her cut one up out of the water. “This is cray cray.”

Dar peered around the bend. “Let me see how bad it is.”  She waded carefully into the current, using her stick to balance as she felt the shove of the water against her calves.  It was cold, but a little warmer than the rain driving against her and she blinked a few times to clear it from her eyes.

A quick glance behind them showed the rest of the travelers huddling against the wall, trying to stay out of the path of the water.

This was going no where good.  Dar made her way down what was becoming a fast running stream, hearing the rumble of thunder over head with a sense of surreal irritation.   About halfway down the steep decline she’d been glad to finish climbing up, there was a curve in the wall and past that the path sloped down and to the side again but left an area clear, with a little elevation.

There was no shelter, but at least they’d be able to stand.  Dar turned and waved them forward, pointing behind the rock.  There was even enough clear space between the walls that there was a chance the phone might work.   She braced one arm against the wall and stepped back out into the current as she watched the rest approach.

They could put the tents up, and that would have to be enough shelter.  It was raining harder, and it was getting dark and she was shivering in her jacket, pretty damn sure all of them were going to end up sick as hell.  

Maybe if the rain stopped, they could move on to the lower valley, where the cave was.  She pondered.  That was even more open, and she figured it might have space to land a copter, that open space she and Kerry had walked across to get to the waterfall.

Slowly she nodded to herself. But first they would stop and rest on the ledge.  She kept an eagle eye on Kerry’s progress, hoping no one else would slip and fall because they were reaching their limits, all of them.

She opened her mouth and let rain run into it, swallowing casual mouthfuls that at least put something in her stomach and then she reached out her hand to Kerry and they clasped, and she pulled her behind the bend in the wall and up onto the ledge.

Uf!!” Kerry put her back against the wall, now out of the wind and the driving rain.  “Dar this sucks.”

“I know.”  Dar agreed readily. “Going to continue that way.”  She grimaced as two of the oncoming bodies slipped and tumbled, but they got up and kept moving towards the shelf.  “I thought maybe we could rest a little then try to get to the valley down there.”

Kerry took a few steps to the side and looked down the path, where the rain rushing was gaining real volume. “I dunno hon.”  She glanced down at her soaked boots and sighed.  “But there sure isn’t much up here.”

The rest of the group clustered onto the high spot and spread out, shielding their heads from the rain as best they could. 

Kerry was leaning against the rock wall, head down and tilted to one side and Dar went over to join her, putting her arm across her partner’s shoulders as the crew put the long cooler down, the repository of pretty much everything dry, and the injured sat down on it.

Everyone was tired.  Dar regarded the path downward.

“Best of evil choices?” Kerry put her arms around Dar and savored the warmth of the contact and the relief from the driving rain. She closed her eyes and felt, for a minute, like she could just fall asleep standing up there in this momentary spot of almost comfort.

“We can’t really stay here.” Sally had come to lean next to them.

“Well, we can.” Rich sighed and folded his arms. “But I sure don’t want to. Maybe we can at least get some stuff further on to make some tea.  Or salad. Or anything.”

“Ugh.” Petey was kneeling on the ground, his elbows and chest resting on the cooler.  “I feel like such crap.”

“Me too.” Dave was sitting next to him, his bandaged hand resting on his knee.  PJ was at his side, her foot propped up.  Janet, the last of the injured, was leaning against the wall, keeping the weight off her cut leg.

Marcia was sitting on the edge of the cooler, her face a little pale.  Everyone was shivering, half obscured in the heavy rain.

Dar considered them. “Lets put up the tarps best we can and get some relief.” She finally said. “I think that slope’s pretty dangerous with the rain right now.”

Rich glanced past her. “We could make it.”

“Not all of us, maybe.” Dar turned and met his eyes.  “And if someone else gets hurt, we’re running out of people to help carry them.”

Grudgingly, he nodded.  “Yeah.”

Tracey was watching him. Then she turned and went over to where Petey was kneeling, crouching down next to him and helping him up as they opened up the cooler and removed the top layer of tarps.

The sound of the rain on the fabric was loud and sharp.   Dar turned and studied the wall, then she released Kerry and went over to the edge of the tarp and took one of the bungies attached to it. It had a ball in the middle of it and she tucked the ball into a crack in the rock above her head.

That immediately got everyone moving, and in the small triangle of rock they quickly found spots for the other balls, raising a shelter over them that everyone quickly gathered under, watching the rain now run off the top of the tarp and off down the slope.

“That’s better.” PJ commented, wringing her jacket out.  “At least, a little better.”

It was better.  Kerry kept her jacket on and zipped up, waiting for the shivers in her body to subside. After hours of the rain pounding on her head, it was a relief to just stand there without it.   She glanced up at the gray sky, then ran a hand through her hair and tried to brush some of the water out of it.

Dar came up behind her and put her hands on Kerry’s shoulders, gently massaging them and granting her a moment of solace out of proportion to the action.

They all fell silent, staring out at the rain.

**

Continued in Part 8