Southern Stars

Part 9

It was a little difficult to find their way back.  Dar finished a backtrack that ended nowhere and found Kerry where she’d left her, in a crossroads standing with her arms crossed and back to the wind.  “Nope.” She closed her flashlight to save the battery. “Dead end.”

“Figures. If we weren’t looking for them we’d have crashed into them three times already.” Kerry pointed a second direction. “Let’s try that one.”

There was no more screaming, and it was too dark and rainy to remember which way they’d gone before.  Dar flicked her light on again and they moved off along another gully, the sound of the rain thrumming down on the ground around them a low, rumbling white noise.

Impossibly loud, in all that wilderness.  Off to one side Dar could hear water coming down the rock wall and she moved gingerly towards it, reasoning if they kept along the cliff they’d eventually find the man hanging from it.

The weather was uncomfortable but as she made her way around a half-buried boulder with Kerry’s hand on her back she was glad they’d left the rest of them behind.

“You think they’ll come behind us?”  Kerry asked, after they’d splashed through a water filled gully. 

“Do you care?”

“Well.” Kerry cleared her throat a little. “If we want help we probably should care, hon.”

“Mm.” Dar grunted. “They’ll come.” She decided. “Some of them will, anyway.”

“Don and Marcia.” Kerry predicted. “And probably Rich and Dave.”


“Maybe Sally.”

Dar nodded and then she made a noise of satisfaction. “That’s the trail.” She indicated a spot.  “I remember that log.”

Kerry regarding the log as they went past it, trying to decide if there was something special about it that Dar had remembered.  “We could use it to start a fire after we get the tarps up.” She commented.  “Then maybe.. oh crap look out!”

Dar had seen the shadow in the dark coming at them and she turned and grabbed Kerry, pushing through a sodden bush and pressing them both against the wall as something large and musky scented came barreling past them and smashed head first against the rocks.

“What th..” Dar hopped out of the way as whatever it was fell, hooves scrabbling on the rocks as it rolled over. “Another sheep? All of them nuts?”

“I’d rather it be nuts.”  Kerry peered at the animal. “Could they have rabies or something, Dar? They’re acting weird. Aren’t they?”

Dar moved another step away, nudging Kerry ahead of her. “How in the hell would I know?”  She asked plaintively.

“You’re the one who knows how to milk a cow aren’t you?”

“It’s not a cow.” Dar edged away from the animal.  “But damn it, now I want a glass of milk.”

Kerry snorted, and covered her mouth with one hand. “Oh, Dar.” She chuckled. “I’d settle for being in traffic in a Miami thunderstorm.”

Mmph.” Dar pulled her pack off and held it between them and the sheep defensively.  “Go away!” She yelled at it loudly.

The animal got to its feet and rambled off, limping slightly, it’s tongue hanging from its mouth, but without a backward glance.

“Let’s get out of here.” Dar shook her head and they started moving faster. “With any luck that thing’ll go the other way and those guys will find it and finally have something to kill.”

“If it has rabies and they eat it we could have lots worse problems.” Kerry said as they started going up slope a little.  “But that would be kind of par for the course for this trip.” She added, in a mutter.

“I don’t think it has rabies.”  Dar shoved past a rock and slid sideways between the rocks and the wall, spotting as she did past the angle the shadowy form against the stone as lightning turned the sky to silver. “There he is.”

With a sigh of relief, Kerry caught up to her and they climbed up the rise to where they could now hear someone, presumably Amy, rustling around.

“Amy!” Kerry called out.  “You there?”

“Who is that???” A voice came back, immediately. “Get the fuck out of here!”

Dar and Kerry exchanged glances. “That’s not Amy.” Dar said.  “We better…”

“Go see what’s going on.” Kerry finished the sentence. “C’mon.”

They sped up and made it up the winding path past the tumble of boulders and into a small clearing where in the shadows they could see two figures struggling and then a moment later Amy let out a scream as though her mouth were suddenly released.

Dar got close enough to see what was going on and she felt her body react without any thought.  “Stop it!” She let out a bellow and leaped forward, getting her arms around the torso of the taller of the two figures.   “Hey!”

She yanked herself to one side, pulling the figure with her around in a circle using momentum to send her adversary flying into the rocks as she released them. She heard him curse, and felt Kerry dash past her to go to where Amy had just bounced off the cliff wall and stumbled to her knees.

“What was that for?”  The male voice snarled as the man she’d wrestled with got to his feet and faced her. “You’ll pay for that!”

Dar got herself between Kerry and the guy, and got her pocketknife out, opening the blade in a one handed flick. She spread her other arm out to the side and got her balance set, feeling nothing but anticipation. “C’mon.” She growled at him.

Lightning flashed, and for a moment they were both outlined in silver.  Then the man hastily hitched his shorts up and took a step forward, revealing a lean, muscled bare torso and dark, braided hair. “Who the hell are you?”

“Who the hell are you?” Dar shot right back.

He took another step forward, and now even in the dim light she could make out his features, finding them planed and angular and younger than she’d expected. “Ira Stormcloud.” He said in an ordinary tone. “You’re a woman?”

“Last time I checked.” Dar said.

“Huh. Never had a woman pick me up and throw me before.” He said. “That was crazy. Who are you people?”

Dar straightened and folded her knife away.  “We’re tourists.” She indicated herself and the others. “We were on a river rafting trip that went south.”

“Oh.” He put his hands on his hips. “Crazy tourists huh? I wasn’t gonna hurt her.” He pointed to Amy. “Just trying to keep her mouth shut so she wouldn’t draw a mountain cat over here.”  He looked around then folded his arms over his bare chest. “This ain’t Disney World you know?”

Dar was momentarily silent. “Yeah I know.”  She said. “We already ran into one of those cats, a few days back.”

“You did?” Ira sidled a little closer.  “Big one? We have some man eaters around here.  The ops know better than to be out here without guns and stuff.” He looked up at the rain and licked some drops off his lips. “I was just taking shelter under that flat rock there and heard all the commotion.” He peeked past her. “Sorry I scared you.”

Amy glared at him. “Asshole.”

Ira snorted a little. “Serves me right trying to do a good deed.”

“Well.” Dar pointed up at the cliff wall. “Her SO tried to climb out and he’s stuck up there.”

“Wait, what?” Ira tipped his head up and looked. “Holy shit.” He said, after a second. “You all are crazy.” He moved over to the edge of the wall and Dar went with him.  “He did that in this weather?”

“Long story.” Dar said. “Any idea how to get him down?”

“Me?” Ira pointed his thumb at his own bare chest. “You gotta be kidding me lady.  That’s nuts.”

Yes.  Kerry exhaled. It felt crazy.  The whole thing felt like she was running on the edge of insanity in fact.

It was like being in a bad dream and briefly she wondered if that wasn’t exactly where they were, and she would wake up at any moment with Chino’s tail hitting her arm as the Labrador wondered where her breakfast was and she’d open her eyes to see the sea foam blue walls of their bedroom.

Because this was just nuts.  Really, just nuts.  She stepped to one side as Amy finished getting herself dusted off and stood up next to her. “What an ultimate clusterfuck.” She sighed.

“No shit.” Amy said. “That goon just jumped on me when I was trying to clear out that little hollow back there. I thought he was a mountain lion.” She sounded more than a bit rattled. “I freaked out.”

“He apparently thinks he saved you from one.” Kerry folded her arms. “I would have freaked out myself. Glad we decided to follow you though.”

Amy exhaled, and remained silent for a moment.  “Yeah me too.” She finally said. “Are those tarps?” She indicated the pack. “We can use them? Get something over our heads?”

Kerry unstrapped the bundle and they started to sort them out, as the thunder rumbled again overhead. “Really tired of the rain.”  She found a crack in the rock to wedge in one of the bungies and stretched the tarp along the wall over her head.

“That’s crazy.” Ira said. “You said you did what? You climbed up a rope?”

“He had a line dropped down but when I was coming down it came loose.” Dar picked up the coil of rope and held up the piton that had come loose from the stone. “I was just lucky I was almost to the ground.”

“Yikes.” Ira examined it. “Not my gig, climbing.” He admitted. “I’m a river runner, mostly. Like those guys you were with but we’re a native op.”  He looked up at the wall. ‘What the hell was he trying to climb up there for?”

“Long story.” Dar muttered. “You got any way to communicate out of here? We’d really like to get out of this damn holiday from hell.” 

Ira shook his head. “You can walk out though. It’s just over the next ridge there – path to the ranger station.” He pointed. “But these guides know that.” He looked at Dar’s shaking head. “What? Sure it is. I came in that way.”

“There was an avalanche.” Dar told him. “An arch, one of those stone things came down and blocked the way. We were almost there.” She explained. “So we had to come back. They’re out of supplies, and some of them are hurt.”

Ira stared at her. “Are you shitting me?” He said. “I came up that path not a day ago, checking some traps.” He said. “With just a couple of sandwiches in my pack.” He added with a wry look.  “Really blocked?”

“Really. Probably twenty feet of debris.”

“Holy shit.” He reached up and clutched both sides of his head. “Dude, that’s a big deal. They’re going to have to send a rock mover up to clear that. It’s the only way down out of this part of the canyon.”

“Figures.” Kerry sighed.

Dar shrugged. “Lightning hit the top of the arch and it just went kabam.”

“You saw it?”

“Saw it happen.”

Sheeeeit.” Ira moaned. “I knew the weather was a bitch but didn’t expect that.” He admitted. “Never heard of that happening before, not recently anyway.”

Dar shook her head.  “One of the other guys with us is a climber.” She said. “Maybe tomorrow he can get up there. I’ve got a sat phone, but there’s no signal down here.”  She indicated the tarps. “Since you’re stuck here now too I guess.”

He sighed. “Let me go get my gear. I got a few rabbits and a snake if you white people can stand it.” He grinned briefly.  “Maybe I can help you get your buddy up there down too if you share your sat phone and get us a ride out of here.”

He turned and started jogging off, the rain bouncing off his skin as he disappeared into the darkness. 

Dar half shook her head and went over to help put up the tarps.  “Keeps getting crazier.” She stretched the tarp over a stack of rocks and wedged the bungie into place.  “Every single minute.”


Y’know.” Ira was seated against the rock wall next to Dar, with Kerry on the other side of her. “If you were right about how cold that guy was, he’s probably croaked by now.”  He unrolled the sleeves on a thick flannel shirt down to his wrists and fastened them.

“I know.” Dar answered in a low mutter. “But there’s nothing we can do.”

Kerry shared the last of the venison and they all had travel cups full of rainwater.  There was, she knew, no hope of a fire. It was too dark to search for anything burnable and they had nothing really to dry it with.  So they were sitting against the wall, with the tarps over them at an angle, tolerably dry.

Tolerably warm, with all of them next to each other.

Ira, it turned out, was just a kid.  “So I just got out of school, you know? It was a drag.”  He said, his hands resting on his knees. “I couldn’t wait for it to be over.”

Kerry eyed him. “So what now?”

“What now what?” He said. “Now I get to just hunt and fish and stuff. My dad owns the trading post. I’ll do work for him.”  He licked his lips.  “That was pretty damn good deer.” He said. “You people bring that in?”

“We found a carcass.” Dar said. “Kerry had some salt left from some cave back towards the river.”

“Huh.” Ira looked at them. “Not bad for white city folk.” He smiled at them, proving to be just a little charming after all. Even Amy grudgingly smiled back. “You all are city folk, right?” He looked at Kerry. 

“I’m about as white a city folk as you could get.” Kerry agreed, with a brief grin. “But I can cook.”

Two hours later, the rain was slowing down, they could hear it in a fitful patter against the surface of the tarp and the wind was coming down, the surface of the fabric no longer flapping with it.

Dar felt cold and stiff though and she drew up her knees and rested her forearms on them as she felt Kerry lean against her, cheek coming to rest against her upper arm as they listened to the thunder fade off into the distance, and then, after twenty or thirty minutes, the rain stopped.

The wind stopped.

They could hear the faint sounds of foliage moving, and far off, a few pebbles plinking against the ground and then it got very quiet.

They sat there in the silence.  Then it was broken by two sounds.  One, a low moan from above them that brought Amy upright and moving out from under the tarp and second, the sound of boots crunching against the gravel of the path, coming their way.

Hmph.” Kerry grunted. “Looks like we’re going to do something other than just sit here. “

“Good.” Dar got up and emerged into the darkness of a canyon night, where the sky overhead was clearing and stars were beginning to show intermittently.  As Kerry followed her, the moon came out and the scene was lit with eerie silver.

She looked up, to see a faint motion against the rocks, then she looked out over the canyon to see moving figures coming towards them in a large group. 

Two unexpected things.  Ira came out behind her and peered past her shoulder, his head roughly even with hers. “Rest of your gang?”

“Rest of my gang.” Dar confirmed.  “And maybe our luck’s getting better.”

Shht” Kerry poked her. “Don’t even say that.”



“So, we figured there was more shelter this way anyhow.”  Rich said, as he stood next to Dar near the wall.  “And your SO was right.  It’s the right thing to do.”  He concluded. “What did that moron think he was trying to do?”

“Good question.” Dar felt the light breeze, dry now, fluttering the shirt she had on and riffling her hair. “Climb out?”

“To where?  There’s nothing up there.” Rich said.

Dar shook her head. “If he took the phone I’d get it.”

“Crazy.  Need the rock to dry out before I start up there, for sure.” Rich said. “I guess we get him down once it’s light.”

“Okay.”  Janet limped over. “We got a fire going, and we’re going to use that bark we peeled off to make some tea. Good idea there, by the way.”

“And Ira’s going to share his catch.” Sally said. “I guess I really picked the wrong trip to be a vegetarian.” She tipped her head back. “Anything we can do for doofus up there?”

They all studied the dim outline against the now star filled sky.  “Amy.” Dar turned and looked over at the girl. “He have water with him?”

She nodded. “Of course.” She said. “You’d have to be an idiot not to.”

“So.” Janet cleared her throat. “What was he going to do up there anyway?”

Amy had been stripping twigs, and now she stopped and regarded Janet. “He’s got a mirror in the pack. He was going to try and signal a sightseeing plane or helicopter.” She explained. “There’s at least a half dozen who come over before sundown.”

“That’s true.” Janet agreed. “But not this weather.  I haven’t heard any of them in the past few days.”

Kerry came over.  “But the weathers cleared now.” She pointed out. “Maybe that could be a plan B for tomorrow?”

“What’s plan A?” Sally asked.

“Me to climb up to the top there, I guess, and see if I can get signal on the phone.” Rich said. “But yeah, signaling’s not a bad idea if they’re flying tomorrow.”

Amy gave him a skeptical look. “You think you can make it up there?” She said. “I doubt it.” She added. “Not to be a jerk, but he got messed up trying to get across that gap there and he’s bigger than you are.” She pointed up to a shadowy cleft.  “See that? He jumped and got a finger hold, then one of the pitons came loose and he twisted around.”

Rich half shrugged. “Let’s wait till the morning.” He said. “No sense arguing about it until we can see what the deal is. Maybe there’s another route.”

“If there was another route he’d have found it.” Amy stated flatly.

“If you know so much, how come you didn’t climb up there to help him?” Rich shot back.  “If Dar could climb that rope I’m sure you coulda.”

Kerry took a breath to do a subject change, but subsided when Amy just shrugged, then turned her hands upmost and displayed them, showing palms bruised and scraped, and broken nails.

“I tried.” She stated. “I only made it part way up and couldn’t go any further.”  Amy glanced at Dar. “You’re pretty gonzo for a computer geek.”

Kerry scratched the bridge of her nose, then glanced up at her partner’s face, which had a blandly amused expression. “Well, we’re going to have to figure it all out so we might as well get everything else settled.” She put her hand on the rock face, which was damp and cold under her touch.

Dar hooked her arm through Kerry’s and guided her back over to where the rest of the group was milling around, PJ and Cheryl talking animatedly with Ira.

“They surprised me.” Kerry muttered in an undertone. “I didn’t expect all of them to come.”

Dar regarded the group.  “Peer pressure.” She said, briefly. “Once you kick started their consciences to stay back would have been jackass.”

“Do I get a cookie for that?”

“Sure. But know what I want?” Dar sat down on a rock and patted the spot next to her, which was cold and damp but Kerry sat on it anyway. “I want one of those Star Trek transporters.”


“I want to just call up someone and have them beam us from here to our house.”

Kerry considered that. “I’d settle for our RV.” She braced her hands on the rock and extended her legs out, wiggling her hiking boots back and forth a little. “Cause if they had to beam our dogs home they’d end up with poop in their little gizmos let me tell ya that.”

Dar chuckled silently.  

The soft crunch of boots against gravel made them look up, to find Don and Marcia dusting their hands off as they came over to join them.  “Hi.”

“Hello there ladies.” Don sat down on the ground, and leaned his back against the wall.  Marcia was about to join him but Kerry stood up and offered her seat up instead and the older woman took it with a grateful smile.

“I’m going to see how the fire’s going.” Kerry patted Dar on the shoulder and walked past her. 

Dar leaned back against the wall and stifled a yawn, then she turned her head on hearing the rattle and scrape of rocks falling, hastily getting to her feet as several bounced down the wall and hit them.  “What the hell?”

“Whole damn trip’s been one big what the hell.” Don sighed, as he hoisted himself up and they both went around the angle of the wall to see Rich partway up it, paused in contemplation.   “Oh my lord what is that boy doing?”

Amy had a flashlight played on the rock ahead of him. “To the side there, yeah.” She directed. “That’s the shelf he went onto.”

Rich glanced down. “Just want to make sure he’s okay.” He called down. “Not going all the way up.” He carefully inched his way further, fitting his fingers into the cracks between the rocks and moving very slowly in a more horizontal than vertical path.

He had the rope that Dar had climbed looped around his body, and he paused with his knees pressed against the rock to take the piton on the end of it and wedge it into a cleft, using a piece of rock taken from his cargo pants pocket to hammer it into place.

Kerry came over and joined Dar, head tilted. “Oh for cripes sake.”

Rich got a hitch up, then his boots slid on the wet rock wall and he swung sideways with a little yelp.

That caused another scattering of pebbles to tumble down and as one, the group watching took a step back.  “This is nuts.” Don said, in an undertone. “Be careful!” He added, in a louder tone. “Don’t need you laid up too!”

Rich waved at him, then he snugged the rope a bit tighter around his body and inspected the rocks, looking for another handhold. “Don’t worry! Just wanted to show my skills.”

Kerry looked over at Amy, who avoided her eyes and stared up at the cliff instead.  “That little bitch.” She said, in an undertone. ‘She conned him into that.”

Dar patted her back. “He let her.”


The weather stayed calm after that.   Rich only made it halfway up, enough to exchange a few words with Todd most of which were curses.  Now he, and Dave and Sally and her sister were under one opened up sleeping bag, against the rock wall.

Dar was seated on her and Kerrys’ tattered sleeping bag, with Kerry wrapped up in her arms, cuddled against her, the two of them warming each other in as much meagre comfort as was going to be had. 

It was dark outside, and mostly quiet. From under the tarp Dar could just see some silver splashes of moonlight, and hear a faint rustle of the sagebrush outside, and feel Kerry’s steady breathing as she lay asleep against her.

At least one of them was getting some rest.  Dar was just uncomfortable enough and not exhausted enough to be able to sleep and so she’d spent an hour or so running a programming problem through her head and now she pulled her jacket a bit more around them.

She heard the sound of something flying outside and she listened hard, but the sounds drifted off into the distance and silence once again fell.

Far off, something howled.

She thought she heard a plane, in the distance.

Finally it was sunrise.  Dar walked out from under their shelter, and looked up at the sky, which was turning to a pinkish cream thankfully free of clouds.

The air was dry and cool, and she had just pulled on the one dry shirt she had left, rubbing the skin of her arms to dispel the imaginary dampness she was convinced she could still feel.

She heard steps behind her and turned to find Ira ambling over, reviewing the sky with a satisfied nod. “That’s better.” He said. “Now we can maybe get somewhere.” He turned and looked up at the wall, where Todd’s body was visible, now wedged in a different position in a corner of the rock.  

Rich and Dave emerged, and a moment later, Don was with them, and then Sally as well. They gathered under where Todd was hanging and Dar and Ira joined them.

“We gotta get him down.” Rich said.  “So I figure I climb up, we get the ropes rearranged and then we belay him.”

“Let get going.” Dave concluded. “Sooner the better.”

“Nothing else to do anyway. I don’t want any more of that bark tea. Made me piss all night.” Rich felt the surface of the rock, grunting in approval. “Drying out.”

Amy had appeared, and she pulled her hair back and put it in a tail as Rich lifted himself up onto one of the boulders embedded in the wall about waist level. 

The sun peeked over the rim of the canyon and bathed them and lit up the wall as Rich got a rope fastened around him.   He flexed his hands and started moving up, duplicating his path from the previous night.

Kerry emerged from the shelter with an armful of cloth, moving out across the ground a little to where there were several sunlit rocks to drape the wet fabric over them as the sun crept across the canyon floor.   She held her hands out to it, and exhaled in relief as it warmed her face.

Janet limped out to join her, standing with her hands in her pockets in silence for a moment.  “We should have been back at the camp yesterday.” She commented finally. “Someone’ll be looking for us.”

Kerry folded her arms and regarded the trip leader. “No matter if we find a way to signal or not.”

“Right.” Janet said. “So we made it, you know? With the sun up, it won’t take them long to find us.” She licked her lips.  “That’s why I convinced the rest of them to come down out of the slot canyon.  We can at least have them winch us out here.”

Kerry felt a sense of relief. “So we’re just really listening for the sound of the chopper while they get Todd down.”

Janet nodded confidently. Then she looked around. “Please don’t repeat that to the rest of them though. The way this trip’s gone it’ll start raining again.”

“And Godzilla will appear over the horizon. Got it.” Kerry said. “I won’t say a word.”

Janet wandered off and Kerry remained where she was, leaning one shoulder against the rock wall as she just enjoyed the sun finally warming her through.  Though they’d had a fire the night before the persistent damp and the long days of chill had left her cold at her core and now she closed her eyes and savored the sensation.

She almost imagined she heard the sound of a helicopter. But after a moment’s focus, it was just a cicada rattling away nearby in the desert grass.   She opened her eyes and started hunting around the area, rooting up the grasses  and searching the ground for anything else that might be of use.

It was strange, and yet familiar. Kerry knew there was in no way anything here she’d had her privileged WASP behind involved in doing before, but there was still something about the self sufficiency that made her smile.  Maybe in the same way she did when cooking Dar’s marine findings.

She heard a faint thump, and she went around a rock to find a rabbit there, frozen in mid motion, staring at her.

Kerry looked around quickly, then she put her finger to her lips. “Shh.”

The rabbit flicked it’s ears, then hopped off rapidly, heading for a hole nearby that it disappeared down, and Kerry tiptoed back around the rock and resumed her scrounging, stifling a rueful laugh.  “Hope I don’t regret that.” She mused to herself.

Then she spotted a twisted bristlecone pine and she went over to it, finding several pinecones she plucked and stuck in her pockets, along with a handful of the needles the tree had sparsely along it’s branches, the scent of them rising to her nose and making her think briefly of Christmas.

Or a car air freshener  She chuckled and collected a few more pine cones.


Rich was visibly sweating. “Okay, I’m going to try that way.” He yelled down, getting a hesitant grip into a crack in the rocks and crouching a little, then pushing upward with both feet and shoving himself sideways along the rock to another slight protrusion.

His feet slipped and he scrabbled for a foothold for a moment until he found one, testing it carefully and then slowly shifting his hands. “Shit.”

Todd’s foot was about six feet over his head.  If he looked down he would see the whole group of them, gathered in utter uselessness at the foot of the cliff.  If he fell, he’d probably kill half of them and now he was fiercely regretting volunteering to climb.

He hadn’t lied. He knew how to do it. The fact he was where he was up on the wall testified to that but it had been a long time, and he hadn’t really conditioned himself for this when he’d expected just to be riding on his butt on a boat down a river.

He looked down again, and spotted Dar Robert’s tall figure coming to the wall, one hand coming to rest on the rocks.  Everyone had taken off their jackets and overshirts and from this perspective he could see the breadth of her shoulders and the length of her arms and wished it was her up here and him watching.

Why hadn’t he stepped back and let her do it?

With a sigh, he got another handhold and paused, then shifted.  There was another crack but it was far enough over his head that he’d have to jump for it and he had slim confidence he’d get a firm grip. If he did, then he could pull his feet up and get almost to where he could do something useful but if he missed he might end up hanging from the piton.

He looked up, to find Todd looking down at him, haggard and serious of face, with none of the mocking attitude he’d become used to. “Hang on.” He steeled himself, and then jumped for it, getting his hands into the crack and grimacing as his weight came onto his fingers.

With a lot of effort he hauled his feet up and with a sense of relief, felt his toes catch onto the crack he’d had his hands on, and then he was straightening up and his head was even with Todd’s knees. 

“Nice.” Todd rasped. “That last one.”

“Thanks.” Rich let the shaking work it’s way out of his limbs.  “How are you doing?”

Sux.” Todd said. “Got my arm strapped up can’t do nothing with it” He indicated the limb tucked close into his body with his shirt fastened over it. “Fuck it hurts.”

“Bet it does.” Rich debated punching his shoulder, to get a bit back of Petey’s torture, but he sighed instead  Okay, how much rope ya got up here.”  He asked instead.

“Long length in my pack.” Todd shifted a little, lifting himself up with a grip on the line over his head and turning to expose his back to Rich. “Maybe’ll reach.”

“Let’s find out.” Rich released one hand and undid the fastening. 


Dar gave the second rope an experimental tug and then leaned back and pulled hard on it.   Rich had just set the piton, and she jumped into the air and let her weight come down on the line, tensed to react if it released.

It did not.

She turned and looked at the group. “Anyone want to have a turn?”

“Long past my days of that.” Don said, with a tone of regret.  “Sorry.”

“Afraid of heights.” Sally said. “And I can’t climb a rope anyway.”

“Me either.” Tracey said, with a more authentic tone of regret.  “I’ve done some rappelling, but not the other way around.”

“Not with this knee.” Dave said.

The rest of the group were busy foraging, so Dar gave a little shrug and turned, pausing to rub her hands on her pants and then take a grip on the rope.   She paused, then she crouched and jumped and was dangling, feeling her spine stretch out as she coiled up her legs around the rope and took some of the weight off her arms.

Then she started up, the feeling of hemp crisp and hard under her grip as she shifted her hands upward and climbed, her body scraping against the stone wall.  As the last time, it didn’t take her long to get up to the level Rich and Todd were at, and she locked her boots around the rope and paused as she came even with them.

“Get on that ledge there.” Rich suggested. “Need some help setting the belay.”

Dar spotted the ledge and she swung over to it, getting a firm foothold.  Then she wrapped the rope around her and tied it off.  “Now what?”

“Okay, so we got this.” Rich sidled up next to her and showed her a long spike with a wheel on it.  “We can get this in here, like this.. “ He pointed at a deep cleft.  “Then get that rope on it, and if those guys down there keep hold, he can get down.”

Dar inspected the rope. “Going to take all of them.” She told Todd. “You’re a big boy.”

His face, scraped and raw from the wind, crinkled just a little bit. “You’re a fucking monkey.” He said. ‘Where’d you learn to climb like that?”

Dar ignored him.  Lets get this going.” She told Rich.  “I don’t want to temp the weather fate.”

“Too right.” Rich agreed.  He positioned the belaying rig in place and shoved it into the cleft, using his rock to pound it down as far as it would go.  That left the wheel exposed.   He untied one of the ropes Todd had been using and threaded it through the pulley, letting it dangle down to the ground. “Okay.”

Todd reached out and clipped the end of the rope to his climbing harness and shifted over.

“Grab hold of that!” Rich yelled downward, then he looked at Dar. “Help me get him turned around facing the rock.”  He glanced down again. “Hold it tight, all you all! He’s heavy!”

Dar shortened up her rope until it was holding her to the wall, and then she released both hands and pushed Todd away from the wall and towards Rich. His weight came onto the dangling rope and he slipped down a little, and a yell came from the ground.

“All of you!”  Rich bellowed. “Don’t be pussies! Grab the damn rope!” He added. “Jesus these people!”

“Augh.” Todd slammed against the rock and tried to steady himself as he skidded down the wall thumping his injured shoulder against it.

“Hold on!” Rich yelled. “Pull!”

Dar had hold of Todd’s belt and she leaned back, until the pulley went taut and the rope was taking his weight.  She released her hold cautiously, then she ran the rope she was on through his harness then back over her shoulders and braced herself. “G’wan.”

Rich gave a tug on his rope and eased himself down.  “Little at a time.” He said. “Grab hold here.”

Todd used his good hand to take hold, and they started downward.  Dar stayed braced on her ledge, slowly letting out the rope as the two men retreated down the cliff wall, as the sun splashed over them all and the sedately blue sky stretched overhead as though the past few days of weather had never happened.

Dar was starting to be just a little bit optimistic that the worst was now over.


“A little more!” Rich had one hand in a hold, and one hand around the rope circling Todd’s body.  “Pull left!”  He was braced against an outcropping, his hand clenched around his own rope.  “Left!”

Don and Dave were anchoring, and they shifted hastily. 

Rich pushed to his right and got a grip on Todd’s belt. “Got to get you around this point.”

“Shut up I know that. Get the fuck out of my way and let go of me!” Todd got his boots wedged and crossed his good hand over his body and curled his fingers into a cleft, pushing outward and pulling sideways at the same time as he hauled himself around a corner of the rock.

Rich let him go and backed away. “Whatever you say, dude.”

Todd’s momentum spun him around and a moment later he slammed his shoulder into the wall and lost his footing, making Dave yell in alarm and both Tracey and Janet jump to the line to help keep him from sliding downward. “Fuck!”  He let out an agonized moan.

“Stop being a jackass!” Dar yelled from above. 

“Ow ow ow.” Todd yelped, as his body twisted.

“Jesus Christ.” Rich exhaled in frustration.  “Swear to God you’ve got the brains of a sewer rat.”  He grabbed hold of Todd’s belt again and pulled back, easing him away from the wall.  “Lower!” He called down to the rope handlers. “C”mon. 

They got around the boulder and then they were sliding down the last part of the wall to the ground.  Rich grimaced as he tried to keep his balance and hold onto Todd at the same time, and he abruptly lost his footing at the last moment, with only his climbing rope clenched in one hand holding him up.

Kerry had scrambled up onto the ground littered boulders and she reached up to grab his legs. “Hang on!”

“No choice!” Rich slid down a foot. “Ow!”

Kerry got his boots to a foothold and then grabbed Todd’s leg at the knee as Amy climbed up next to her.  She could smell the acrid scent of sweat and old dampness.  “All yours.” She got out of Amy’s way and went to help Rich to the ground, as both men inched down to safety.

Dar felt the weight come off her safety rope and she gladly released it, tossing it away from her as it slithered down. “Watch out!”  She warned.

Everyone jumped out of the way, then surged back to gather around the two climbers.  After a moment,  Amy led Todd away without looking back and the two disappeared under the tarps while the group watched them go.

“You’re welcome.” Rich looked up at Dar and exaggeratedly shrugged his shoulders.  Then he motioned her down, gesturing at the rope she’d wrapped around her and holding his hands out.  

Kerry appeared next to him and made a come hither gesture, then put a hand on the rock and patted it. “C’mon, hon.” She called up.  “If you’re waiting there for gratitude, don’t.”

“What a jerk.” Rich shook his head. “I realize it’s embarrassing but holy cow.”

Dippity douchebag.” Tracey made a face.  “Ugh.” She turned and headed back towards the shelter herself and Sally joined her, leaving Rich and Kerry alone by the wall.

Kerry wiggled her fingers again. “C’mon!”

Dar considered them both, looking around to see what her movement options were.  She removed the rope she’d climbed up and threaded it through the pulley, then dropped the end down to the waiting hands, waiting for it to get caught and held.

So.  Dar prepared to start climbing down after it, giving it an experimental tug with her hand closed around both the rope around her and the one dangling, satisfied with the lack of motion, finding herself roughly where Todd had been caught.

Could still smell him, a little. Dar wrinkled her nose and moved a little aside, taking a breath and expelling it, as her body relaxed.

She looked up, seeing the handhold Todd had been trying for, when he’d hurt himself.  Thoughtfully, she put the end of the rope from the pulley around her and clipped it into place then she shifted over and up a step, raising her body so she could see more clearly.

There was a significant gap, that he’d tried to jump over, and gotten a handhold that had left him hanging, his heavy body twisting around and popping his shoulder out of place.  She could see it in her head, happening. He hadn’t been able to reach the second handhold.

Could she? He’d tried it in the middle of a storm, stupid beyond belief but now it was sunny, and the rock was mostly dry.  She touched it experimentally. Yes it was. 

Setting aside her reservations, Dar crouched, then leaped for the hold, shoving off with both feet and reaching out as far as her arms would go, getting one hold and then thinking she wasn’t going to get the other one for a long moment until she thumped against the rock and her fingers caught.

For a breath she was dangling just from her fingertips then she contracted the muscles in her forearms and then her lower body and brought her legs up trying to find a foothold.

One boot caught, and then she felt the weight come off her arms as she was straightening up and her other foot settled into place.

Phew.  Dar eyed her position, not entirely sure what she’d just done was a good idea.  Why was she doing this again? Just to prove she could? She could feel her heart pounding and her knees shaking a little and she took a minute to collect herself.

“What is she doing?” Rich asked, as he put the end of the rope Dar was now attached to around his back and set himself as an anchor.

Kerry watched Dar’s head tilt. “She’s trying to figure something out.”  She saw Dar move over and her hands flex. “Oooo Dar don’t’ do that.”

“What?” Rich looked around.

The rope suddenly moved against the rock as Dar leaped upward and both of them made a grab for the safety rig, Rich hastily pulling it taut around his back and preparing to brace.  “Hey!” He yelled out in alarm. “Watch it!”

 But Dar’s hands caught on a crack in the rock and she swung over and brought her legs up onto a second outcrop above where Todd had been hanging.

“What the hell?” Rich moved over a little. “What’s she doing?” He repeated.  “She should just come down!”

Kerry sighed. “She’s probably got a plan.” She put her hands on the rope. “Shit I should have told her what Janet told me.

“Told her what?”

Kerry bypassed the question. “I think she’s going to see if she can use the phone.” She said. “Call for help.” She clarified. “Now that she’s halfway up there.”

“Oh right!” Rich relaxed a little.  “Sure that makes sense.”




Dar inspected the wall, making a picture in her head of what she wanted to do next. She hadn’t intended to try and climb upward, but now that she was there, and this far, it occurred to her that she might as well see if she could get up high enough to get the phone in her cargo pocket to work.

That would at least give her a reason to do what she was doing, right?

It seemed safe enough. The rope and pulley had held Todd’s bulk.  She glanced down and studied Kerry’s body language, as her partner took hold of the rope and decided she wasn’t freaked out about it, then she resumed studying the wall.

It became like a puzzle.  She’d always liked puzzles and after watching Rich she could see that it was a matter of problem solving, really and it abruptly became almost familiar to her, the light against the rock, and the angles of it.

The feel of the stone against her palms and the smell of it, triggering a sense of wry nostalgia that came from she didn’t know where.  Maybe early childhood?  Maybe climbing around the old ships mothballed in the bases she’d grown up in?

Dar shrugged it off.

She could see another small ledge, and she climbed up to it, finding scratches and gouges on the rock surface apparently from earlier scalers.  With a grunt of satisfaction she made her way up an easier slope until she was approximately halfway past where Todd had been, and the rope had become taut and run out of slack.

Here, she was on a small ledge that had tufts of grass growing in it’s cracks and on one side of it a tiny gnarled tree with it’s roots gamely clutching the rocks.   She looked at the angle of the rim and then she turned and put her back to the wall, looking out over the canyon below.

It was a nice view.  She could see the wall where the waterfall was just at the edge of her vision and the sun slanted across the wall and she wished she had Kerry’s camera to get a photo of it.  Instead, she fished into her pocket and drew the sat phone out, triggering the power button and watching as it came to life.

The battery warning came on first.  She waited patiently as the phone cycled and tried to bring up a signal, and then was surprised when it indicated it had.

“Huh.” Dar said out loud.  Then she leaned back and used her other hand to open the dialing pad, pausing again when she realized she had no idea who to call.  She looked at the phone to see if there was any contact information on it, but the one piece of paper taped to the back was worn to nothing.

She tried 911. 

The phone just sat there, waiting for further digits.  Dar cleared then and glanced at the battery LED, which was red and blinking, then she shrugged and dialed a number from memory and hit the send.

The phone thought about it, then dialed and she put it to her ear and listened.  After two rings it was answered. “Mark, this is Dar. Sat phone about to die. Track it.”  She stated, getting back a half enunciated oath before the line cut off and the phone died.

Dar regarded the phone with some disgust and put it back in her pocket. Then she turned around and started making her way back down.


Kerry was waiting at the foot of the cliff. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Dar responded, as she untied the rope. “Got signal for about twenty seconds up there.”

Rich was gathering in all the climbing materials, putting the pitons in his pocket. “Yeah? Any luck calling?”

Dar shrugged. “I made a call, but I don’t think I was connected long enough for it to be useful before it died.”  She returned Kerry’s hug. “But I might want to try wall climbing when we get home.”  She admitted. “That was a little cool.”

Rich chuckled. “It grows on ya.” He admitted. “And you’ve got the arms for it, for sure.” He regarded Dar thoughtfully.

“It’s fine, hon.  Janet said since we were due in yesterday they’ll be looking for us.” Kerry reassured her. “So even without the phone, they’re on the way.”

Rich looked at her in surprise. “She told you that?” He said. “Why didn’t she tell the rest of us?” He demanded. “What the hell?”

Kerry held out a calming hand. “After everything she probably didn’t want to raise any expectations. Just like I’m sure Dar’s not going to say anything about being able to make even so brief a phone call.” She eyed her partner. “Right?”

Dar nodded solemnly. “Since it immediately disconnected.”

“Yeah I guess.” Rich grudgingly agreed. “Least that’s done.” He finished coiling up the ropes and put them over his shoulder. “Thanks for the help.  Maybe we can climb for fun someday.”   He smiled and then turned and started off towards the shelter, where the rest of the group were half in and half out, conversing.

Kerry patted her partner on the side. “Sorry I didn’t tell you before.” She said. “All happening too fast I guess.”

“No problem.” Dar leaned against the wall, in no rush to rejoin the others. “I called Mark.” She added.  “But I really don’t think the signal was on long enough.”

“I figured. Dad sometimes leaves his cell phone in the ice cream freezer.” Kerry leaned next to her, eyes closing as the sun splashed over them. “Mark sleeps with his velcro’d to his head.”

Dar chuckled dryly.  “He does.” She agreed. “Old habits die hard.”

Rich reappeared, and waved at them, motioning them over to the shelter.   With echoed sighs, they walked down the short slope to where they’d arranged the tarps and as they did most of the rest of the group emerged and stood around in a clump waiting for them.

“So.” Janet said as they arrived. “I think we should get to the cabin.” She said. “People are starting to get sick.” She added.  “We need solid shelter.” She fell silent, waiting.

“Good idea. “ Dar said, after a very awkward pause.  “Everyone okay to walk?”

“Rather that than hang out here.” Tracey said, gruffly. “We’ll all manage.”  She had her pack on her back, and now she hitched her thumb through the strap.  “We can’t stay here.”

The group nodded in agreement.

Lets get moving.” Don said. “Don’t want to spend any more nights outside.” He put his arm around Marcia, who was hugging herself inside her jacket, her face pale. “Someone get those kids.”

Dar and Kerry ducked under the tarps and paused, as Todd and Amy looked up at them. Todd looked pale himself and drawn, he was clutching the elbow of his injured arm.   “What?” He said, after a moment. “G’wan and get with them. We’re staying here.”

Dar headed for their gear, while Kerry went over to the two and crouched down, resting her forearm on her knee. “You don’t want to come with us?”

“He was hanging onto a wall for half a day.” Amy said. “Its fine. You can leave us here.”  She added. “We’ll follow you to the cabin tomorrow. We both want a night’s sleep.”

Dar stood up with her pack on her back, and Kerry’s hanging from it’s straps from one hand. “I get it” She said. “But If I were you I’d come with us.” Her voice was calm, but forceful.

Both of them stared at her in silence.   Dar stared right back at them. “Get your stuff, and come.  We’re all safer in a group.”  She stated. “And we might need these tarps so staying without shelter here is just stupid.”

“We’ll be fine.” Amy said.

“No you won’t.” Dar stated. “You’re just going to be one more thing we all have to worry about like you were when you went off now this time. I do not want to be hiking back here to save your ass.”

“No one asked you to help us.”  The girl’s head lifted and her body posture stiffened as Dar moved closer and put her hands on her hips.

“Wrong. You asked me to help you.” Dar smiled grimly at her.  “And I did. Now get your gear and c’mon both of you.”

For a minute, it was a finely balanced thing.  Kerry ran through a few arguments in her head, and prepared to join the verbal melee but held off, sensing Dar’s powerful presence was probably more effective.

“Move.” Dar said, her voice going down in pitch. “Not going to ask again.”

 Then, Todd shrugged his one good shoulder.  “Yeah.” He stood up.  “With the luck we had a fucking dump truck’ll come down the side of that wall and kill us.” He said. “C’mon Am.”

Amy looked like she wanted to protest, then she looked like she didn’t.  She got up and went to their gear, as the sound of the tarps being torn down was suddenly loud around them. 

Kerry stood up and went over to her partner to take her pack and swing it up onto her back. “Nice work, Maestro.” She uttered under her breath, smiling when Dar rolled her eyes.  “Glad we decided to have dogs not kids?”

Dar let out a sarcastic bark of laughter and nudged Kerry towards the trail.


It was sundown before they reached the last slope that would lead them into the valley the cabin was in.  The light streaked across the canyon in a pretty kind of way, but no one was really in the mood to appreciate it.

Except possibly Kerry, who had fished out her camera for the first time in days and taken some shots.  She was last in line on the trail, just behind Dar as they started down the trail, boots sliding a little in the gravel.   The light was a deep and burnished gold and she paused to focus, then trotted to keep up.

Ahead she could see the bend in the path that would then open up to where the shelter was, and she was looking forward to seeing it, and being able to sit down under a roof after their day’s arduous hike.  “Tell you what.”  She said, as she caught up to Dar. “Glad we spent the time we did in the gym.”

“True.” Dar agreed. “Didn’t really think it would be required for a vacation but then again.” She frowned.

“Then again our last one did too.” Kerry supplied with a brief grin. ‘Was that one worse than this?”

Dar pondered that, as they turned the bend and then they could see the cabin squatting in the crimson light ahead of them.   “Hard to say.”  She admitted. “Less ocean, more assholes I think, this time.”

“Mm.” Kerry’s eyebrows twitched and she lifted her camera as a bit of sunlight outlined Dar’s profile. “Might be a draw by the end.”

“Might be.”

“There’s the place!” Rich called out. “C’mon peepsl We’re almost there.”

“Shut the fuck up. Todd snarled.

“You shut the fuck up you jackass.” Tracey yelled back at him. “We’d have been here hours ago if it wasn’t for you.”

Dar sighed, and pinched the bridge of her nose.  “Not doing anyone any good.” She said, in a loud voice. “We’re still stuck with each other people.”

The group fell grumpily silent, but the pace sped up as everyone was now going downhill, and their goal was in sight.  

Four of them, Marcia and PJ, Petey and Janet were all getting sick, sneezing and shivering and promising to spread the germs to the rest of them.  Petey was still in pain from his back.  Janet was still in pain from the cut on her leg.  PJ was still limping from the gash on her foot.

Dons head, at least, had healed.  But Todd’s shoulder was swollen and tight, and Dave was still favoring his knee.  No one was happy. Everyone was a level of miserable.

But at least there was the shelter, and the sunset, and the prospect of the river ahead of them.


The shelter, or cabin, or whatever that once had seemed so ratty now looked like heaven.  Kerry looked around the inside of the structure and exhaled a little, putting her pack down as Sally ended up next to her, stripping off her jacket. “Whew.”

“Whew.” Sally echoed.  “I didn’t really see a moment I’d be so glad to see this place again.”  She sat down on one of the driftwood benches, looking tired and ragged around the edges. “Glad just to have a night of peace.”

Shh.” Kerry sat down on the bench next to her. “Don’t tempt fate.” Now that they were there, and sitting down she could acknowledge how tired she was, after the fitful rest they’d gotten by the cliff the night before. “But yeah, glad we’re here.”

“We probably should have stayed here.” Sally folded her hands on her stomach and leaned back against the wall of the shelter. “That poor kid would still be alive and we’d have passed on most of the gimps.”

That was probably true, Kerry acknowledged, but since they hadn’t there wasn’t much point in discussing it. “Yeah, if we’d only known then what we know now.”  She took off her jacket and set it down next to her, eyeing the space against the wall to claim for the night.

After a moment she tossed her pack over on top of the empty floor space, then draped her jacket over it. 

“We’re going to go check out the raft.” Rich announced.  “See what left of it.” He led a small group out the door, the rest of them staying behind as Tracey dragged the small cooktop out and picked up the pot to add to it.

“Found the teabags.” Petey limped in with a box.  “And some bouillon.” He added.  “I can’t wait to drink something hot my throat’s killing me.”

“Mine too.” Marcia had her jacket still on, and her hood up.  Its really nice to have a roof over our heads.” She went over to the far side of the shelter and sat down, sniffling.

“Where’d your SO go?” Sally asked Kerry.

Kerry extended her booted feet along the floor and leaned back against the wall. “She probably went to grab a fish or two. I know she was hungry.”

“Aren’t we all?” Sally smiled briefly. “Hell I can already taste that tea.”

Kerry was hungry, so she nodded in agreement.

Todd and Amy went to the wall under the chicken screen covered window, and Todd eased himself down onto a stack of tents, holding his arm close to his body.  “Fuck.” He let out a groan. “Any whiskey in here?”

Petey regarded him. “For once, dude, I’m all in with you. I could use a shot of anything.” He leaned against the table, grimacing.  “Or a handful of Demorol.”

“Let’s see what we’ve got left.”  Kerry got up and went into the storage area, picking up a box and hunting behind it.  Most of the supplies had been rummaged through but she saw two boxes on the makeshift shelves that were covered in dust and untouched. “Hm.”

She put the empty box down and went over to the shelves, pulling one of the boxes out and propping it on her thigh so she could open up the top and look inside.

After a moment, she grunted in some surprise.  “Water pistols. Don’t think we need those. She put the box down and pulled the other one over, flipping open the top.  “Ah.”

The box held neatly packed cans of Spam. Kerry turned and carried it with her into the other room, where Don was busy heating up a pot of tea.  “Look what I found.”

Don peered into the box, then started to laugh a little.  “Oh my god.”

“Hey, we got a fry pan.” Kerry put the box down and picked up the cooking implement. “I can stir fry it.” She inspected one of the cans. “How did we miss this the last time? At least it comes pre seasoned. I’m out of salt.”

“Thought we wouldn’t need it, probably.” Don said, succinctly. “Sides, we had all that fish.”

“Found a can of peanut butter.” Petey had it clutched to his chest as he hobbled in. “Party time!”  He gave the room a wan grin and set the big can down on the makeshift table next to the cooktop. “If we can find something to open it.”

Kerry tried not to think about the combination, as she took out a can of spam and put it on one of the tilted, crack legged tables as Don started dipping out some tea into the pile of chipped and dented cups and those in the room drifted over to get some.

“Better than nothing.” Petey said, sipping his. “Definitely better than we’ve had the last few days.” He slowly knelt on the ground and rested his elbows and chest on one of the benches. “Hard to believe we started this thing out worried about running out of chardonnay.”

“Yeah.” Janet shook her head. “Boy would I love that to be my problem right now.”

“Given what we paid? Us too.” Don’s voice had a bit of an edge. “We were so looking forward to this trip.”

Janet merely nodded.   “Yes, I know. It doesn’t mean anything, but I’m really sorry.” She sat down and clasped her hands. “Really sorry.”

There was a little silence, and Kerry glanced over at Todd, expecting a snarky comment. But the climb and the pain had knocked the jackass out of him and he just kept his eyes closed, windburned skin rough and painful looking.

“Shit happens.” Kerry remarked, in a mild tone. “Let’s get out of here first.”

Marcia sneezed explosively, and clutched her head.


Dar picked her way along the canyon floor towards the river, conscious of Ira ambling along at her heels.  The sun was gently folding into the cliff walls opposite and Dar blinked into it’s reddish gold ambiance, drawing in a breath of the strong smell of the water.

She could hear the rush of it, and it was hard for her to decide if she welcomed it or not.  Water was usually a welcome companion but after the rain and the floods of the previous few days she wasn’t sure she wanted more of it in her immediate future.

But at least, there would be fish.  Dar glanced ahead, seeing the ruffled white of the flowing water.  To one side, the raft was still there, still tied up to the boulders on shore, still with it’s frame bent and dented, but afloat and apparently more or less in one piece.

So there was that.  She didn’t think anyone in the group was going to be up for a ride on it, though.  There seemed to her to be a better chance for most of them to be thrown off and sent ass over teakettle downstream than to get any place useful or safe.

No engine, no way to steer, most of them sick or injured.  Dar shook her head. Best wait for rescue.

“So hey.” Ira caught up to her.  “One of those girls was telling me about you and the cat.”

Cat.  Dar frowned, then her expression cleared. “Oh, the mountain lion.”  She said. “What about it?”

“What about it?” Ira echoed.  “They said you had a fight with it.” He said. “As in, mano a mano.” He paused. “Well, womano a cato anyway.”

They reached the river, and skirted the battered raft, Rich and his gang climbing over it shouting in some incoherence as they scaled it’s frame, one of the crew up on the pontoons.

Dar left them to it, working her way over to the shoals she’d fished before.  “Well.” She rolled her sleeves up and started into the river.  “We were in a canyon, sheltering under an overhang and it came after us.” She paused thoughtfully. “Happened pretty fast.”

The river seemed a bit lower than it had been, and it was much easier for her to get into position or at least she thought it was.  The flow seemed less as well, and she was able to get into position as Ira followed her into the water.

“So what happened?”

Dar rested her elbows on her thighs and watched the water. “I stabbed it.” She paused, catching a flicker of motion.  “It ran off.”

Ira digested this. “You stabbed it? With that pocket knife I saw you had?”

Dar nodded.

“So are you like the girl Steve Irwin or something?”

“No.” Dar made a grab into the water, and caught a fishtail, her teeth gritting as she scrabbled quickly and got a hold of a set of gills.  She pulled her hands out and a medium size trout came with them, brown with spots across it’s sides and a gasping, somewhat razor tooth mouth. “I just didn’t have many options at the time.”

“Nice.” Ira said, pointing at the fish. “My uncle can do that. I got bit by a carp once and I don’t like doing it.” He held up one hand, and displayed a scar on his finger.  “Got infected and hurt like hell.” He added. “I stick to trapping.”

Dar threw the fish onto the shore, then went back to searching.  “I live in Miami. I stick to the supermarket.” She remarked dryly.  “But my dad grew up in the country. He taught me to do this.”

“I thought you were a computer geek.” Ira waded out and picked up a discarded tub, turning it over and throwing the fish into it. “Someone said you were.”

“I am.” Dar made a grab at another fish “I have a degree in electrical engineering and a second in computer programming.”

Ira looked over at her. “Wow. That sounds expensive.”

Dar straightened up and regarded him.  “I went on scholarship.” She said.  “But it was a good investment in the long term. The long term being my paycheck.” She indicated the tub. “Move that over to the shore so I can pitch into it.”

“Sure.” He lugged the tub over and set it down, then started around to the entry to the river, pausing to look at something as the stripes of red gold started to fade.  “Ah ho. What d’we got here.”

She glanced over to see Ira inspecting the ground, moving sideways and around to let the fading sun hit the sand in front of his boots.  “What?”

He knelt, and touched the sand, and Dar sloshed out of the water and put the fish into the tub.  “What?” She repeated.

He looked up. “Helicopter was here.” He said.  “Probably this morning.”  He pointed at the sharp edge of a depression in the sand. “Still clear.” He added, as Dar came over and crouched next to him.  “I flunked mostly everything but they still teach us the old skills, you know?”

“Also worth the getting.” Dar studied the marks, which meant exactly nothing to her. “How do you know it was a helicopter?” She asked. “And when it was here?”

“Heavy.” He indicated the depression. “Nothing you all would carry would make a mark that deep. Not even that raft.”He jerked his head towards the craft.  “And you can see the wash from the rotors.” He pointed at the sand, which in fact had a pattern in it spraying outward.

“Huh.” Dar’s brows contracted.

“We wouldn’t see it if it was yesterday with all that rain.” Ira added. “And I can kinda still smell the gas on the air.” He opened his mouth and lifted his head. “Just a little.”

“Huh.” . Dar stood up and dusted her hands off.  “So what does that mean? You think they were here looking for us?”

Ira shrugged and stood up. “Some copter was here, looking for something. Could have been these guy’s outfit, could have been some other outfit, could have been smugglers.”  He grinned briefly. “Tracking skills only go so far.”

“True.” Dar folded her arms. “But with the luck we’ve had on this trip chances are it was them and now they’re looking everywhere but here for us.”

“Could be.” Ira agreed. “Lets get more fish.” He said.  “At least we can eat.”  

“True.” Dar’s eyes twinkled a little. “And it’s something we can do something about.”

‘True.” He followed Dar back to the water.  “So like with the lion.  That’s pretty rad.  If you were one of us, you’d get something for that.”

“What, a spanking?” Dar grinned briefly, as she went back into the water. 

“No, I mean, that’s something you’d get known for, you know? Maybe they’d name it your spirit animal.” Ira sloshed after her.  “You’re not a Christian or anything are you? I don’t want to freak you out or anything.” He added after a brief pause. “People can get weird about that.”

“No.” Dar settled back into position. “I don’t screw around with religion much.” She noted the fading sun, and the water taking on a black hue obscuring most of her vision. “And if I had a spirit animal it would probably have rabies.”

Ira laughed. “That’s funny.” He said. “But don’t say that in front of any of our elders they won’t think so.”  He joined her in the stream, bracing his legs against two boulders with a fast running stream of water between them. “People who come onto the reservation like to make fun of our traditions. Pisses us off.”

“People do, when the traditions aren’t theirs.” Dar commented. “Human nature I guess.”

“I guess.” Ira studied the water.

“I didn’t mean any disrespect.” Dar sensed motion at her knee and grabbed at it.  “I’m just logic driven. I don’t buy into the spiritual.”

Ira regarded her with a quizzical expression.  “You’re tickling fish out of the mother of rivers after facing down the hunter spirit of the canyon and you don’t buy into the spirits? Really?”

“Really.  Excuse me.” Dar tossed the fish over, then washed her hands in the water. “Too dark to keep this up.” She pointed to the shore.  “That’ll have to be enough.”

Ira gave up the fishing without much regret. “That’s too bad.” He followed her to the shore and they climbed out together and walked up towards the tub, that was making feeble thumping sounds as the fish inside struggled weakly.  “Part of why I love being out here in the canyon is feeling that life spirit.” 

He spread his hands out. “You can taste it in the wind, in the water…  I feel like I’m part of the earth when I’m out here with no one else around.”  He took one handle of the tub as Dar took the other.  “My grandfather says it’s the one gift they can’t take away from us.”

Dar considered that in silence as they walked. “I’ve always liked nature.” She commented thoughtfully.  “I just never felt like I wanted to know it any better.” She could hear coughing from the shelter. “I spend most of my time under the water anyway, scuba diving.”

Near the door they caught the smell of steam, and some cooking meat, and the door opened as they reached it, adding a musty scent of old tents to it.  Janet held the door open and stepped back, and they walked inside.


“That really wasn’t that bad.” Sally commented, swallowing her last bite of fish.  “I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me to use peanut butter as a sauce.”

“You don’t live with me.” Dar was seated on the floor, leaning back against the wall with her forearms resting on her knees. “I really like peanut butter.”

“She really does.” Kerry confirmed. “I use it any time I can.” She paused. “Except on pizza.”

A couple of wan chuckles echoed across the shelter, as most of the group started settling down to get some rest.

Dar waited until everyone’s attention was distracted with trying for some level of comfort.  “Want to go look at the stars?” She asked Kerry, who was sipping a second cup of tea.  Without a comment Kerry put the cup down and they strolled to the door and outside into the darkness of a canyon night as Tracey dragged the cooktop out of the way against the wall.

It was cool and there was a significant wind blowing up from the river. It fluttered their clothing against their bodies and they found a rock about midway to the river to sit down on together.

Kerry licked her lips reflectively. “I really don’t like spam.” She said. “I’m glad you got those fish.” She leaned against Dar and rested her head on her partners shoulder. “Jesus Christ I hope this is almost over.”

Dar braced her arms behind her and peered up at the sky, which was clear and crisp and full of stars. She could see the Milky Way and it was a moment of quiet content.

Only a moment.  “Got some bad news.”

Kerry whined like Chino did at a closed door. 

“Ira found tracks he thinks are from a helicopter.” Dar sighed.  “From today.”

Kerry whined again, then she turned her face into Dar’s shirt and thumped her head against her partner’s chest. “You mean they missed us.”

“Probably.” Dar agreed mournfully.

“Crap, Dar.” Kerry groaned. “Is there nothing about this trip that we catch a break about?”

Dar put her arm around Kerry. “Rich thinks we can float the raft and just go down the river.”  She said. “I know everyone’s trying to talk him out of that idea but we may not have much of a choice unless we want to wait to see if they come back.”

“That’s why you didn’t say anything about that.” Kerry sighed. “I thought you were being suspiciously quiet.”

“I was bored.” Dar said “And actually I like spam.” She admitted. “My mother used to make spam and spiral noodles with ketchup when I was a kid.”

Kerry picked her head up and looked at her. “Did she put ketchup on the spam, or the noodles?”


Kerry was silent for a moment. “Please don’t tell me you want me to start making that at home.”

“I don’t” Dar lifted Kerry’s hand and kissed her knuckles. “I love you too much for that.”

Aw.  Kerry smiled.  “So we should try the raft? It looked pretty ratty to me.” She glanced to the right, where in the darkness the raft was tied, and she could hear the rush of the river going past. “I don’t think I want to chance that, Dar.”

“Let’s wait for tomorrow.”  Dar said. “Who knows? Maybe they’ll circle back, or maybe it was someone else.” She curled her fingers around Kerry’s and regarded the stars overhead.  “I don’t think it’s a good idea either.”

Kerry watched as a shooting star suddenly arc’d across the sky, speeding past them and disappearing.  “I wish we were home.” She said aloud. “I also wish I didn’t have to think about having spam for breakfast, or sleep on the floor, or not have coffee.”

“That’s a lot for one star.”

“You don’t ask, you don’t get.”


Continued in Part 10