August 20th. Thread one: Clark National Park.
The frustrated rangers with Fish and Wildlife, radio-tracked the old bear to the park boundary, but then no farther. They had set out earlier that same morning to find out what the problem might be before the battery in its radio-collar died.
Sod’s Law dictated that this particular bear would choose the thickest brush and the most remote and inaccessible mountainous area of the whole damned park to drag them to. They silently cursed the bear, and yet admired its ability to evade them at every turn over the last month. It was as though the bear had learned as much about them and their habits, as they had learned about it with each new encounter.
It had not moved for two days; unusual for this bear, so they needed to investigate. It was either dead or was on a kill. Dead, would be better, though that was a private thought held by only one of those looking for it. Since early that morning, they had hiked steadily for three hours from the nearest road, and were close to its indicated position.
Melissa counted off another hundred steps on the hard climb up the forty-five degree slope of sheep-track that zigzagged around as it extended above her, crossing screes, skirting large boulders and heading up through trees leaning over at an unnatural angle because of the steady, relentless downhill creep of the soil, under the force of gravity. She stopped for ten seconds, stretched, looked around, checking where Hal was behind her, and then continued for another hundred steps. She’d done it this way for the last two hours, feeling sorry for the young summer student foisted on her and Scott just that morning, and bringing up the rear. He was exhausted, but they couldn’t slow down and wait for him. They should have refused to take him. She could hear his wheezing as he fought to drag air into his tortured body, unused to this kind of exercise, and she knew how much he needed to stop and rest, but there would be no stopping. Without Hal slowing them down, she and Scott would have been close to the bear’s last position an hour ago if not more, and they couldn’t leave him behind.
She felt hot and irritable the way the day was progressing, as well as nervous and frustrated. She was also overdressed with a tight bra and irritating panties that she would not have bothered with on such a strenuous walk. Her bra; she rarely wore one despite the size of her breasts, was definitely too tight. Her breasts had changed again. Could she be pregnant? She hoped so.
But for Hal, she would have taken off her shirt at the last small dribble of water some few hundred feet below them, and wet it before putting it back on loosely, leaving it open if she put it back on at all, so that Scott could admire and touch her breasts, as he often did, and Scott would have done the same with his shirt. Their shorts would have soon followed, and they would both have climbed with only boots and socks on, letting the wind flow over their bodies.
Without any covering to hide those stimulative signs from each other, it would be obvious from Scott’s response to her when it was time to make love again, and those times came with impressive regularity out here. There was something about being outdoors, alone, miles from everywhere, and letting the wind blow one’s cares and inhibitions away.
But they weren’t alone.
Scott stood in the trail fifty feet above her, waiting for them as he looked around. He looked fresh. He was also horny, as well as frustrated. She could see that about him, poor guy. He felt deprived, just as she did.
The bear’s tag number was CP023. Its Latin name was Ursus arctos horribilis: a northern brown bear, or more colloquially: a grizzly. They knew it as Houdini, or that damned bear, because of its propensity to wander off and escape all of their efforts to corner it and change its collar. It kept out of open areas during the day. They could have darted it from the helicopter except for that. It was six hundred pounds or more of meanness, bad temper, and unpredictability. All of that was true of most bears, but doubly so for this one.
Where any other bear was curious, and chose to advance, this one melted away. It had an instinct for avoiding well-baited traps, as well as for taking you by surprise.
It was almost as though the bear knew that it was time to replace its collar again, which they tried to do about every three years, especially on a difficult bear that needed close watching, as this one did.
Their usual method of radio-tracking any collared animal in the park, was by helicopter, or even by road, and then triangulating its position. This bear had not moved for a long time, and was on high ground far from any road, either near a kill; some dead animal he had come across, or was injured or dead itself.
It was at least twenty-years old, one of the first bears tagged, close to the end of its life in the wild and it probably knew it, yet was hanging on. It had become crafty with age and experience, and knew enough to avoid others of its kind as well as humans.
The last time Houdini had wandered off, they’d recovered him from twenty miles outside of the park after he’d killed a pet sheep in plain view of the family that had raised it, and he had eaten much of it.
The family, and their nearly hysterical children, traumatized for the rest of their lives, had been devastated to watch him do that. The father, in desperation, had tried to drive him from the body, hammering on a bucket, but had seen the bear stand its ground and drive him off, while striking out at the dog dancing around, barking.
The bear had lost his wariness of approaching human habitations after that, seeing an easy source of captive food, but had become more dangerous, knowing that they would be looking for him. He took refuge in deep brush at the sound of a helicopter or of a vehicle. He had become a rogue; unpredictable in his responses.
Scott would have shot him after the incident with the sheep, but Melissa held him back. She was the boss. She had decided that rather than shoot him, they would keep a closer watch on him. That bear was an integral part of the constantly changing imbalance of the ecosystem.
Melissa signaled that they would stop and rest when she saw Scott looking back on her progress, and had moved his head in that way that he had. He often looked back at her, and watched her for a time. She knew why, and was glad of it. They kept a close eye on each other, and always smiled at those moments when their glances met, which was often, each knowing what the other was feeling and thinking, and watching each other’s progress. They would have made love twice already but for Hal being with them.
They both resumed their observation of the brush around them, listening to what the Jays or other birds could tell them from their carefree singing, or their alarm calls. Or their silence. Scott had seen bear scat at least two days old on the track they were climbing. He had pointed to it, and then pointed two fingers back at his own eyes in a common signal, so that she knew to take note of it when she got to where he had then been.
She needed to pause, no matter how briefly. They all did. It had been a hard climb, and the sweat poured off her, trickling down her back like a trail of insects, pausing every so often at some minor obstruction, a hair follicle, a skin tag, her bra strap, or the fabric of her shirt, before continuing its intimate journey on her bare skin down the fine blonde hairs on her back, and into her panties, or between her cheeks if it were not gobbled up first by the thirsty cotton of her shirt, or shorts.
“It’s Hal’s last week. Take him with you and show him what it means to go looking for an animal like that one. Give him something to talk about when he gets back to college.”
It had been easy for Scrimger to suggest. He wouldn’t have to carry the kid back down if he twisted an ankle.
She hooked her thumbs into the side of her bra and pulled it away from where it chafed. She had left her hat in the truck so she could sweat properly from her head. It was the best kind of day for doing this, with light overcast, and possibility of showers later.
Everything about her turned Scott on no matter how she looked, but she took care of her appearance, and there was no fat on her. But for Hal, this could have been a pleasant day, and they would already be half way down, heading back. The bear would have a new collar, and it would have been helicoptered back, deeper into the park.
They could also be looking around to see where they might make love again, as they did on all of their outings, with all of the many places they had made love over the years, standing out in their minds like memorable milestone markers on a road. She could have filled each of them in from memory with a little red dot on a map of the park, and it would look like someone had sprayed it lightly with spots of red ink.
They had set a slow pace, deliberately, though Hal did not know that. All he could think about was why did they have to set such a killing pace?
Damn his Uncle Alec for suggesting he go along with these two.
Scott signaled that they would rest for a while before they crested the rise above them. They caught their breath, wiped the sweat off their brows, and drank. Hal, brought up the rear. He carried the new radio-collar for the bear, and the tranquilizer gun, which she had let him carry (not loaded. They would never have trusted him with anything loaded). Melissa had the darts for it. They would not choose to use it on this or any other bear except from unassailable cover from a vehicle, or from a helicopter.
That had been a hard-learned lesson for Melissa.
Hal, twenty feet lower than them and fifty feet back, had turned his back to them when they stopped, and relieved himself. His shirt was wringing wet. Fifteen extra pounds of body fat didn’t help. He was a pampered city kid, sweating like a bull, with his hat holding the heat in close to his head. He was a candidate for heat stroke. He flopped onto a nearby rock to ease his screaming muscles, fighting for breath while his companions showed few signs of exertion other than the sweat streak down their shirts. He’d never choose this job again for his summer break. He didn’t like the exertion, or the thought that they were on the trail of on awkward grizzly that sounded downright dangerous. He’d thought it would all be patrolling campsites, and meeting horny young women in need of his help to set up a tent, or to get a campfire going, except most of them knew more than he did, and soon let him know it. It had been humiliating.
There was a little water left in his second bottle, while Melissa and Scott had their second bottles to work on. He’d better not sit still for too long or his muscles would set with all the lactic acid in them, and he’d never be able to continue.
Scott stayed on his feet, looking around where he could see everything. He was always vigilant, still damnably fresh, and was as tough as old leather.
He’d told Melissa, matter-of-factly, that if he needed to shoot the bear, she should lie down if the bear charged. She already knew that from bitter experience that had worked out wonderfully for her in the end, once she’d recovered from the horror of seeing a mountain of angry bear coming at her through the bush. It was snapping off small trees in its dash to get to her after she had darted it from what she thought had been good cover, and more than a hundred feet above it.
Scott would get its attention, if he didn’t kill it outright with his first shot, which was when it should lose interest in her or anything else except him; the perpetrator of this other, more terrible pain, and source of the noise. The low velocity, hollow-point bullets which he loaded himself, and which were the ones in the clip he had in the gun, would tear an exit hole three inches wide through whatever they hit.
He might get off one or two shots; three if he was lucky. After the first one, the angry bear, if still on its feet, would be coming straight at him like an express train, and he knew it.
He wanted it that way. He’d taken on Grizzlies twice before with the blood pounding in his ears fit to burst his eardrums. On both occasions he’d suppressed his fear as he had focused on what he needed to do; to do it quickly, but to do it right the first time. Another’s life depended on him, and he valued that other life more than he did his own. It would take him three seconds for his first shot--to be sure of hitting the bear at that distance--two for his second, and a second and a half for each shot after that as the bear got closer, and he could be sure of hitting it wherever he needed to. After six seconds, it would all be over for one of them. Six seconds of eternity. The difference between life and a bloody and violent death.
Melissa knew all of that. She trusted Scott. He didn’t miss. She trusted him with her life and had done so more than once.
She knew the exact, terrifying moment she had fallen in love with him, three years previously. That had been because of a Grizzly like this one. Scott had moved between her and the charging bear, which didn’t even see him in that first anger-filled moment, but was focused on her.
He had killed it with his third shot. It was coming straight for them after she had fired that tranquilizer gun into it, and it had finished up no more than five feet from them both, still charging, but with Scott’s third shot from twenty feet away, having blown its neck and half of its head off. She had never been so scared in all of her life as she was then; so scared, and trembling, she couldn’t walk for a few minutes. She couldn’t even say anything, but had just sunk to the ground, sobbing, her legs no longer able to support her.
It gave you a new respect for nature when it came this close to turning the tables on you like that.
Scott had always regretted killing that bear. He regretted having to kill anything, but sometimes it was necessary. Not everything went according to plan.
He hadn’t said anything when they both recovered enough to talk, except to suggest, with a wry chuckle as he’d reloaded the clip, that next time she should maybe try and fire that sedative from a place where it would make it harder for a bear to get to her before the tranquilizer took effect, preferably from a helicopter, or a vehicle, or at least from where the bear could not detect her.
She hadn’t believed anyone could laugh about that after what had happened, but by then she was just glad to have Scott there, holding her, feeling her trembling. He spoke to her consolingly, and smoothed the hair back from her forehead as he had hugged her and kissed her, telling her that he wouldn’t know what to do without her, so to please be more careful.
She wasn’t sure, and couldn’t remember clearly, but Scott might even have been trembling himself and shedding a tear at how close he had come to losing her.
Having a man be so obviously concerned over her as he held her close, stroking her hair, kissing her, and telling her how much he loved her was a first for her.
He’d asked her to marry him at that same moment, and she’d accepted. They had also made love for the first time a few minutes later in a memorable encounter for her, after they had shyly undressed each other, blushing, kissing, and touching with growing confidence as though they would never get enough of each other, and it had been a cathartic necessity for them both. They had made love by the warm body of that dead bear, and had repeated it several times after that, before they made it back to their vehicle much later that day. They had both walked back with their clothes in his backpack, pausing often to make love, all restraint between them, gone. Where he got the energy from she did not know, but then she knew that it came from her, and the magic of her body working on him. They had not been separated for more than half an hour since then but had lived together from that same night, neither of them caring who knew it.
There had not been a day since then when they had not shared their every living moment together, or when they had not made love with impressive regularity, and she missed his welcome intimate attention today with Hal putting a damper on everything.
She had never had second thoughts about marrying him just a month after that, despite the seven years difference in their ages, and the different way they each saw the same things. Marrying him had been the best life-changing decision she had ever made.
They approached the bear’s last known position, cautiously, and silently, ready for anything. They knew about this bear. He was a crafty bugger. If he was injured or guarding a kill, he might just charge them to intimidate them if they got too close to him, and then change his mind about stopping. The birds in the surrounding trees gave no warning of any danger.
Scott searched the hillside on the other side of the small gulley, through those binoculars he always carried, frequently taking them from his eyes to be sure that danger was not closer than where he was looking. Sometimes the birds didn’t even know where the danger was.
He’d spotted something. He walked over to Melissa, looking back to see where Hal was. Fortunately, the kid knew enough not to shout or to ask anything without being within touching distance, but he was too tired to be curious and just wanted to get back down to the vehicle where he could rest his aching muscles, and drink.
Hal was catching his breath, his back to them, inattentive to everything, or even aware that they had kept a slow pace just for him. He would be let go in another two weeks when school started, if not before. He could impress his naïve fellow students with his exaggerated adventures that summer, while avoiding describing the small humiliations that just kept mounting: the torture of tired muscles, the never ending flies, the heat, the outdoor privy, or the chemical toilets with their gut-wrenching smells. Then there were the wasps that had built a nest in that one toilet. They’d been harder to clean out than he expected. Most of all, he missed the electricity that he had grown so dependent upon. He would never dare tell them about the horror he had felt, of feeling hunted, when he had left his tent to go to the toilet late one night—one without wasps, fortunately—and had locked himself in, not daring to leave until it was first light as he listened to a large animal snuffing around outside. He wouldn’t be doing anything like this ever again. Once, was more than enough.
Melissa took the binoculars Scott passed her as he pointed without saying anything, his hand resting on her waist at the back. He felt the tremor of his touch pass through her body and knew what she was feeling. He could feel the sweat-streak on the gentle curve of her back as she looked over to where he had pointed, while he was looking down into the neck of her open shirt and blowing down into it. He wanted to kiss her on her neck, almost as much as she wanted him to kiss her, or to put his arm around her and touch her breasts; difficult with her bra on, and not with Hal watching.
She swore at what she saw caught up on the branch of that tree. Scott heard that, and knew that she had seen what he had seen.
She felt his hand rise and touch her by the breast out of Hal’s sight with the brush between them, and then move under her belt, and down into her panties. She chuckled and leaned more into him as he held her close. Scott took the opportunity to kiss her under the ear.
She changed her stance, put her legs further apart, and moved into his hand to give him better access to her. She felt his hand slide over that hair and glide down her vulva, separating her labia with his first and third fingers with long practice as he progressed in a three-prong approach. He was excited too; she could feel that about him behind her. She reached back and touched him as she changed her position, and continued holding the binoculars as though she were looking through them, feeling his fingers caress her. At any other time, she would have loosened her shorts about then, pushed them to her knees and helped him off with his, so that he could take her.
He felt how moist she was, feeling her stiffen up, letting out a small cry at the pleasure she felt. She could see nothing with her eyes closed. She tried not to become too agitated by what he was doing to her, but he heard her increased rate of breathing and her breath catching in her throat. He knew the effect he was having on her, and she upon him.
She responded, leaned back into him, groaned and closed upon his hand, gasped and stiffened as she came so easily; more than once with his continued help, but it had been building all morning. He stopped her from falling over or dropping the binoculars in her agitation, and smiled.
He was wound tighter than a spring after that, but there was nothing they could do about it here.
Hal was eating the last of his sandwiches, and staring off down the trail. He was about as observant and attentive as a tree, and knew none of what they were doing. They would signal to him and tell him when they were ready to move on. If Hal had not been with them, she and Scott could have relaxed as they often did, once they had completed their day; find a nice secluded place, a pool or a rock, get rid of their clothes and…. But Hal, was with them.
That was the last time they’d have anyone with them, ever.
Damn and blast. She was feeling horny again, her nipples had gone hard and her panties were wet. If number 23 could smell her, and the way she felt, he might just come looking for her, and save them all the trouble of going after him.
She swore again at what she could see. They didn’t need to be so cautious about that bear now, though Scott was, knowing that it could be anywhere, even behind them. But that was him. That’s what made him so damned right for this job, and why she loved him. He’d never trust this, or any other bear. Anyone who thought they could predict how a bear might react, was living on borrowed time.
They’d found that out more than once when they had been called to the scene of an attack on some stupid visitor trying to impress his kids by feeding the bears from his open car window. It had cost one guy his arm, and nearly his life, when the bear had lunged, with its jaws closing on his hand, pulling him against the partially open window as it tore his arm off against the edge of the glass. His screams had been heard for half a mile.
They found the collar caught on a dead stub of a branch four feet off the ground. One side of the tree trunk, low-down, was polished smooth from animals rubbing against it over the decades, while above, it had been torn and scarred by Grizzlies using it to tear at with their claws. There was a large patch of reddish hair on the torn-up ground beneath it. That bear had pulled against the collar caught on that stub, and lost hair from his head as he had slipped out of it. He was now free.
It had just been a matter of time before that collar would have come off him anyway.
They recovered it from the branch, and would examine it later. It looked to be intact and in one piece. There were several more clumps of hair on the sharp ends of nearby dead branches, and some signs of blood, as he had struggled to free himself from where his collar had been caught.
Scott looked around, though never moving far away from his companions, and came back to her after five minutes to reveal what he had learned.
“He went west, toward Hudgin’s Mills. Forty miles. A couple of days ago. He’s not injured in any way that leaves a trail.
“Two days head start, and no way to track him. He’s off the reservation again, and no saying where he will wind up. He could be four miles away, or forty.”
Or watching them.
Melissa should have let Scott shoot it the last time, after that incident with the sheep. He’d been right about the bear changing in some way.
“Then we wait.” She didn’t continue what she was thinking, with a growing dread of what they would wait for. News of it killing again. Maybe a human, next time, and it could all be laid at her door for not letting Scott shoot it when he had suggested he should.
Hudgin’s Mills? She had family over there. She’d make a few calls when they got back, and let them know to keep an eye open for a big bear gone off the reservation, and to let her or Scott know if they heard or saw anything.
They could send Hal back to the vehicle to wait for them on some excuse or other when they got close to where it was parked, and then she and Scott….
Scott smiled at her knowingly. Almost a smirk. He knew the way her mind was working and could see the flush on her face. He had the cure for that too, and it was as impatient for her as he was after that little exercise, and she knew it.
Then they heard the helicopter.
Scott fired the flare gun to show where they were, even if the transmitter on the new radio-collar Hal carried, had not pinpointed them close enough.
One way or another there should have been a bear to take out in the net they would lower, but there wasn’t. They could take Hal instead, and save him some grief, and maybe an injury, and them, the frustration of dealing with an idiot.
They were on a good stretch of high ground, and instead of waving it off, they could get the Helicopter to hover low for a moment, for long enough for Hal to scramble inboard, and if it couldn’t get low enough, then the net would solve that problem. One way or another they could send Hal and the lost collar back to base, and he could tell his uncle that they would not be in the base office tomorrow, but would try to pick up the bear’s trail and get that bear darted, and the new collar on it.
Hal appreciated that too. He didn’t mind the indignity of the ascent in the net, or the tales that would go around. Scott and Melissa would see to everything in the morning. This way made it easier for everyone and would let everyone get back home an hour earlier than they would have done with Hal slowing them down, and ample time and opportunity to work the frustration out of their systems.
After the helicopter had gone, taking Hal and the old collar with it, they turned to each other on the bare rock outcrop on top of their small world. The helicopter would have scared off everything within a mile of them, so they could now relax properly.
Scott said nothing but just stripped off Melissa’s shirt without any hesitation as she began on his shorts. He laid his rifle on it, and then unclipped her bra, took it off her slowly, aware of how uncomfortable it had been for her, and massaged her sore breasts, feeling how hard her nipples were, as she sighed contentedly. They kissed each other, and then he kissed her breasts, as she began on his undershorts. Her own shorts and panties followed his to their knees. She felt his hand move into her again and caress her.
He was ready for her, and she could feel that he was almost as wet as she was. Slippery-wet. He had leaked all day in anticipation of her. They sat and eagerly helped each other off with everything except boots and socks, and sat back on the heap of their clothes. They kissed, and caressed, bringing their bodies closer together with purpose. They had both been tormented all morning, and there had been nothing they could do about it with Hal there.
Finesse in their coupling was not necessary. The entire tormenting day had been foreplay enough for them both, and had gone on for the last six hours. How they had survived it they did not know, but it had fired them up to waste no time now that they could express their love for each other.
She was still wet, was always wet for him, and there was no resistance. They both came just a few minutes later as he stiffened up on her, driving deep into her as he came, and came, and came. They would rest like that, kissing, caressing, not leaving each other, and then do it again when they had recovered and before they started their leisurely descent.
What had just happened would be repeated more than once as they made their way back to the truck, except she could leave her shirt open, or off, without her bra to constrain her, and never mind either shorts or panties. There was no one within twenty miles of them. He would leave his shirt open too, and everything else off.
They could take off everything when they got back to the stream near the truck, wash each other in the cool water, inspecting for ticks, and drive home like that as they relaxed together and played delicately with each other, taking turns driving. None of it was on public roads and they knew where all of the other wardens were at that time of day.
They had the best of all worlds.
August 24th. Thread two: Twin Falls.
“Are you going to accept that teaching job, filling in for your uncle Phillip, up at Hudgin’s Mills?”
The speaker’s son, Doug, paused from scraping down a shelf. He knew it would come up for discussion eventually. His father had been too quiet.
“Yes, Dad, I decided I would. I already accepted. It’s just for a year, or it could be less if uncle Phil recovers quickly.”
“It’s a waste of a good Physics degree, isn’t it, going to teach in a high school of all places, and taking you away from university? And why would they take on a twenty-year old like you with no teaching experience?”
Doug knew his younger sister, Mary, sixteen, was listening to their exchange. She was taking inventory before they restocked the shelves in that section of the store.
“I have some teaching experience, and good references. That’s why they offered me the job. That university appointment will be waiting for me when I get back. They gave me a year off to finish my thesis, and to get those papers I was working on, published. Then I can move into the new building going up, and begin teaching there. Teaching at a high school for a year will be a good experience.”
He knew the university wouldn’t let go of him that easily. His salary at the university had already started. They knew a winner when they saw one. He might be the youngest-ever assistant lecturer at any university, but they wouldn’t take him on in that role until he was twenty-one, in another year, and had finished his PhD thesis on a topic that no more than half a dozen people in the Physics world might understand. The name, Douglas B. Haldane, was already recognized in the right circles.
“It will give me time to research more on those papers I am writing, and I can finish my thesis by the time university starts up again. I would like to help out Uncle Phillip while he’s in hospital, and recovering. He helped me enough. He got me where I am, so I’ll return the favor and protect his job.”
Doug’s father knew enough just to listen after that first prompting. He was proud of his son and the unbelievable progress he had made in just the three years he had been at university.
“I filled in at the high school near the university on a part time basis for two terms, and they appreciated it. I enjoyed it. I learned more than they did. Bright kids.” He was still a kid himself in his father’s and mother’s eyes, and they wanted to protect him.
But there had been more to his taking the job than that.
All the way through school, and for the first years at University, he had been the odd one out. He still was. He’d been two-years younger than anyone else all the way through school and university. Intellectually, he was far beyond them, and even beyond some of his teachers and lecturers, but psychologically inferior for a while.
His fellow students had all jockeyed for position in the hierarchy of things. Being the new kid and much younger than any of them, Doug had been made to feel at the bottom, in the cruel way that older children, and the intellectually insecure, had in their struggle for any advantage, where might, wit, and cutting sarcasm prevailed, but where intellect eventually triumphed. It had begun to change for him in his third year, when he had learned to assert himself physically as well as intellectually; to speak out, and to fight back from his position of undisputable mental prowess.
When he had gone to teach in that Jesuit high school, filling in for a missing teacher, albeit for only four hours a week, everything had changed for him. He had then been looked up to by the students he taught; respected for once; top dog. Rooster on the top of the manure pile of his own small world. It felt good to be appreciated.
He had been a popular teacher because he knew how the students felt, how deficient and inferior they were made to feel by some of their peers and even a few teachers, and he identified with them. He went above and beyond his unspoken contract, helped them in every way, treated them as human beings and as equals while he towered above them in a calmly intellectual, but unassertive way that they could feel and respect, without him using it as a club to beat them down. He had shaped their entire futures, and they felt it.
He never met any of the other teachers at that school, and he was glad of that. They would be petty and territorial, and resent his youth and intellectual abilities. A snotty-nosed heathen upstart.
He had entered the school, had gone straight to the classroom, and then had headed back to university when the class ended. The school principal, a calmly confident intellectual in his own way, and with few prejudices or hang-ups about what would be taught, entrusted one of the appreciative students to pass him an envelope containing a modest check, once each month. He’d be teaching three of those same students when he started teaching in another year, having laid the groundwork for their future careers.
Doug’s father said nothing to put him off. His son had the world by the tail and would make his own way in life. He’d already got a good start on it, and would be back at university when his uncle Phillip got out of hospital and had recuperated.
“When do you go?”
“School starts the seventh of next month. Just over two weeks. I’ll walk there for the hell of it. I need the break. It’s a couple of valleys over. Only fifty miles.” It would be a tough fifty miles.
“Why?” His father paused in his restocking the shelves. “Why would you want to do that? I can drive you there in a few hours, or Phoebe can drive you. Mary has her license too.”
Phoebe was his elder sister by four years, While Mary, listening to their conversation, and knowing better than to interrupt, though she would have a lot of questions for her brother, later, was the youngest by four years. “It’s a hundred miles by road.”
“I need a break, Dad, and I enjoy the fresh air and good exercise.” His father knew better than to argue with him. Young men had their own way of doing things, and needed the freedom to do so.
His son, continued. “I wrote the Principal last week; Prentise, and told him I would be there on the fifth, to get signed in. They sent me the contract to read. It’s all boilerplate, and pretty straightforward.”
Mary said nothing of her understanding of what those contracts meant. She’d read it.
‘No screwing around with the female students at any time, or letting them screw you, the horny little bitches’. But she kept that outspoken and rebellious thought to herself.
Doug’s father accepted his son’s decision.
“Let us know your route, Doug, and then if we don’t hear from you…”
“I’ll be okay, Dad.”
He had an afterthought. “There are a couple of cases in my bedroom, and two cardboard boxes of books I’ll need. If you could get them up to the high school, or Uncle Phillip’s place, by the fourth or fifth, or see they get on the bus before then, that should do it. They are already addressed.”
Mary spoke up. “I’ll go with you, Dad, when you do that. Or I’ll go with Phoebe.” Of course she would. They might let her drive back, and she wanted to see the school for herself.
“Maybe I can change schools for a year and have my own brother teach me. I’ve heard good things about that school. The physics teacher where I am is a dead loss. I could go and live in Uncle Phillip’s house with Doug. Uncle Phillip won’t mind.”
No one said anything to put her off. Arguing with either of the Haldane girls caused them to dig in deeper, like jiggling a tick that was well embedded.
August 30th. The Third Thread: Hudgin’s Mills Lake.
Susan Whitcomb’s eighteenth birthday, and that of her brother, James, six years younger, were both on the same day, tomorrow, Saturday, but the weather forecast was bad enough that they’d never get out in the boat then for the fishing trip their father had promised his soon-to-be twelve year old son. They’d already had to cancel their camping trip because of the longer-term weather.
They would go out today, instead, and rest at home tomorrow for their usual birthday celebrations as a family, and then on Sunday, the rest of their close relatives could join them for Sunday dinner.
After a hurried lunch, they’d motored down to the bottom end of the lake, where it went into the gorge, but half a mile above that noisy maelstrom, dropped anchor, and had fished for a while, but nothing was biting.
George’s wife and daughter were both patient with this male dominion, sensing James’s excitement every time something nibbled at his line. Another ten minutes and then they’d head home. There would be other days for fishing.
Susan had a couple of presents still to open. She was already wearing three of them, hurriedly donned just before they had left; a new tartan skirt with three yards of heavy fabric, a silk blouse, and her new coat, quilted and warm, in anticipation of the winter that was fast approaching. It extended below her waist but could be pulled down lower, to cover her hips, and she knew she would need it out on the cold water.
That was when the wind caught them by surprise. It swept in over the trees, tearing twigs and leaves off them, and swirling them around like a tornado, as it also kicked up the waves.
The anchor started to drag, and then it let go. It had never done that before.
Mr. Whitcomb moved to the engine, which he had left ticking over, and twisted the throttle.
For the first time ever, it stalled. He swore and pulled at the starting rope. Nothing. He tried again, and again, several times, and then primed it. It was dead. He did not know why it would not start as it always had before, except it must have flooded.
They couldn’t paddle against that wind, and the boat had a modest superstructure that caught any wind. Without the engine, and with no anchor, the boat was heading in one direction. They were being pulled into that gorge.
“You two,” he pointed to his son and daughter with urgency, “get into the cockpit.”
They knew what was going to happen. Usually, anything that went into that gorge did not come out in one piece.
Kayakers with a death wish, flocked there every spring and summer during the freshet, and needed to be rescued too often. If they survived.
“What can I do, George?” His wife was aware of what faced them, and was as concerned as he was.
“Nothing, Dora,”—he smiled grimly—“except hang onto me, and anything else you can hold onto, and pray.”
They could see what was happening, but were helpless to do anything about it as they were sucked down into that giant boiling maw which generated its own clouds and its own weather: incessantly stormy. How they would come out of it was the next unknown.
Part way down, was a whirlpool. In the days of sending logs down the river to the sawmills near the coast, there were tales of logs arriving from that gorge, sharpened like a pencil at one end from the swirling action against the rocks, after being caught in that and dragged down. With luck, they would make it through.
The Lesser Hell’s Canyon Gorge was fifteen miles of boiling, churning, aptly-named, hell. It was an obstacle course of rocks that would smash a fiberglass boat into shreds, and had done, often enough. Fortunately their boat was aluminum, so might just get smashed around but stay in one piece if the welding held and the metal did not tear. What it would do to them, inside it, was another story.
The first thing to go was the motor; torn off the transom, along with most of the wood it was fastened to, and taking the gas tank with it.
George took his wife into his arms and they huddled low against the small forward bulkhead, next to the crawlspace where their son and daughter had taken refuge for all the good that might do them, and they hung on.
One thought went through his mind.
Hell of a day for a birthday celebration.
It might be the last day any of them would see.