Davis L. Bigelow
Muted morning light finally seeped softly through the holes in the tent, dappling the two weary men with splashes of illumination as they fitfully slumbered. Above the shredded tent, the sky was completely hidden from view. A thick blanket of fog hung in the alpine air, obscuring the plentiful overhang of tree limbs. The moist murk seemed determined to remain attached to every leaf and blade of grass it could touch.
Stan’s eyes popped open. The big man hadn’t meant to fall asleep. “Glen?” Came his harsh whisper. “Are you asleep?” The wiry Scotsman stirred, then drew in a sharp breath of the humid air.
“What? No.” Glen shook his head and then opened his eyes unusually wide as if trying to stretch his eyelids. Suddenly, a powerful yawn contorted the small man’s stubbled face. “Ok.” He finally conceded. “Maybe I was asleep.” The small man peered out through the nearest overhead hole and scowled. “I must have been asleep. I was dreaming again, except this time it wasn’t very nice.”
“Did you hear the bear again?” Glen asked, now wide-awake and worried.
“Not a sound.”
“I still can’t believe we chased it off like that. I thought we were dead men!”
“Me too.” Came the wheezy reply.
Glen pulled his feet out of his sleeping bag and donned his clothes. “Well, my friend…” Glen sounded a little playful as he buckled his belt. “If that bear comes back now, at least I can outrun you.”
“You mean… out limp me!” Stan countered adding his own efforts to the stress relieving humour. The truth was however, that the tension was like the fog that hung over their tent – thick, oppressive and inescapable!
The small man laughed as he unzipped the tent door, but then cut his chuckle to silence. “Aw!” He chortled. “What is this?” Glen picked up one of his boots and displayed it to Stan. A large portion of the boot’s tongue was missing, obviously gnawed away by some animal. Stan face reflected Glen’s scowl.
“It must have… been a squirrel… or something.”
“Disgusting creature!” Glen glared at the boot, fingering the ragged edge of the padded leather tongue. “I guess it could be worse.” He rationalized. “At least I can still wear the boot!” The tired Scot blew out a breath and pulled on his footwear.
With all the food gone, their morning rituals took less time than usual. Glen McPherson hustled to get the tent off of Stan. “Ok Big C.” He said. “Time to get onto your chariot.
“After I go… to the bathroom.” The big man groaned.
Fifteen minutes later, still under the thick grey repression of fog, Stan Calderbank was nearly back in his place atop the tent. “Almost there!” Glen encouraged, tugging once again on the sleeping mat and sliding it a little more. “We’re definitely going home today!”
When the mat, and its prone human cargo, were finally positioned on the flattened tent, the struggling Scotsman wrestled the travois back into its place. Punctuated by furtive glances in all directions, the wary Scotsman attended to his work. In minutes, Glen’s practiced fingers tightened the ripped tent back onto the travois.
With the litter ready, Glen hobbled to retrieve the hanging backpack. Stepping over the strewn tent poles, the determined man untied the rope and let the pack drop to the dirt. He withdrew a water pouch and took a deep draught. “Ahhhhh! That’s nice!” Dropping the pouch back inside, Glen shouldered the backpack and limped over to Stan and spoke evenly. “Hey Big C, you’d better have a drink before we go.”
The big man was still panting from his bathroom and repositioning ordeal. “Ok.” He said and reached out a hand to accept the half full pouch. Glen watched as his friend swallowed the cool liquid.
“I think we’d better leave as much stuff as we can.” Glen said, obviously still thinking about their escape plan. The small man’s eyes mechanically swept the perimeter of their campsite. “The less we have on the travois to get caught in the current, the better.” Stan continued to drink, but nodded his approval and grunted slightly. “We’ll send someone back to get our things.” Glen’s eyes swept the edge of the trees. “Right now, all I wana do is get us to the truck and find some help.”
Stan stopped drinking. “Just remember… the cell phone… and keys.”
“I’ll put them in my fanny pack.”
Glen rummaged in the backpack and held up the trophy. “Here are our tickets out of here.” He said, trying to mask the tiredness in his voice. The small man zipped the phone and keys into his fanny pack and looked around again. The fog was still low, but beginning to lift. “At least I can see across Skull Creek.” He muttered to himself. The fact was, a bear could be napping in the bushes on the opposite bank and Glen still wouldn’t be able to spot him. In the distance, the foaming bank was just barely visible. The proximity of Stan’s unseen pickup truck fuelled his strange sense of optimism. The determined Scotsman drew in a full breath and pushed it out past pursed lips. He shook his head and prepared to move. “I feel like a paranoid homing pigeon!”
Glen paused for long enough to stuff the strewn tent poles into the top of the open pack and then turned to face Stan. “Should I leave the water and pump too?”
“You could put… one pouch and… the pump… beside me.” He wheezed. “We’re not there… yet.”
The small man’s brow furrowed, but he nodded silently. In seconds, Glen had the full water pouch and the nylon bag, containing the pump secured to the free end of the topmost tent string on the travois. “There.” He said. “Now let’s get outa Dodge before the big gun comes back to town!”
With that, Glen McPherson zipped up his faithful red backpack and tossed it to the edge of the wide trail. “We’ve sure wrecked a lot of our equipment.” He observed aloud. “I hope some bear doesn’t rip our packs to shreds before we can get someone to retrieve them for us.”
Stan said nothing. He agreed, but a few lost items were infinitely less precious than their lives. The big man’s eyes followed Glen as he hobbled to the head of the litter. He heard the wiry Scot grunt as he bent down to pick it up.
“Let’s have prayer… before we go.”
Glen knelt at the head of the litter while Stan lay quietly behind him. Glen’s pleading words carried over the rush of the nearby creek.
In moments, the heartfelt prayer was concluded. Feeling marginally refreshed from their night’s sleep, and buoyed by the prayer, the two battered and humbled hikers set out. Stan watched as the litter pivoted his limp body under the grey dawn. There was a strange smearing of colours. Streaks of muted greens and browns mysteriously blended with the brooding, translucent haze. Then, the big man felt his head fall towards the ground. Above his head, he heard Glen gasp and moan. The river crossing had begun.
It seemed to take forever before the rear tips of the fourteen-foot travois reached the damp dirt that marked the bank of Skull Creek. As the shredded tips of green wood slipped downward into the water, Stan wondered something very strange. “Why is this river called Skull Creek?” Then, with shocking abruptness, the question, like dirt in a gold miner’s sluice box was swept away by the clear water.
Ahead of the big man, Glen McPherson struggled against the powerful current. The raging waters of Skull Creek surged and swirled about his legs and the two crutches. Progress was slow, but he was moving. Glen’s good foot slid unsteadily on the thin coatings of algae that clung to the submerged and unstable river rocks. “My legs!” He muttered under his breath, screwing up his face and gritting his teeth. The small man’s legs were rapidly losing feeling and he had only just begun the crossing.
The determined Scotsman fixed his stare on the opposite riverbank. It was one hundred feet away, but it might have been a million miles! “Come on Glen!” He hissed through clenched teeth. “You can make it!” Glen felt the rear of the travois drop into the river. Then, suddenly, the river took hold.
“Ahhhhh!” Water coursed and surged about Stan Calderbank instantly soaking him through. All his aches and pains drowned as frigid waters wrapped about his body, suffocating him in a watery cocoon. There was no veiled promise of mercy here! Skull Creek boiled over the big man, its glaciated droplets of death splashing onto his face. The litter lurched ahead. “Oh God!” Stan puffed aloud. “Help me… to survive… this river.”
The tips of the travois headed downstream, dragged by the frothing current. The inflated mattresses, that cradled Stan, began to rise. For Glen, the litter was nearly weightless, but another problem quickly demanded his attention. The small man had to keep the travois from pulling him off his feet and sweeping them both downstream.
“If you fall, you’ll both die!” The terrifying thought was demanding, insistent, and reeked the acrid, stultifying scent of intolerable truth! Powerless to resist it, the anxious warning echoed through the empty corridors of Glen’s mind, and refused to fade.
“Hold on Stan!” Glen shouted. The roar of rapids diluted the small man’s voice like water does thin soup, but Stan heard the struggling Scotsman anyway. Glen pivoted his body to accommodate the river’s pull.
Big C’s white knuckles clung frantically to the travois. The litter’s stout poles now made up the rigid portion of his hull and provided the only stability within reach. The travois had transformed into an unexpected life raft! Stan grimaced, his head still miraculously above water. “At least I’m not drowning!”
Hour long seconds trickled by, and with the passing of each one, the struggling hikers floundered. The menacing river gave no quarter. Rushing, glaciated waters penetrated further and further into the flesh of each man. Then, its icy grip went after their bones.
Inch by inch, the far bank of Skull Creek drew nearer. It would have been a faster crossing if Glen could have hobbled directly across, but that was an impossibility. The best the wiry Scot could do was to maintain a heading of about 45 degrees to the current.
Breathing hard, Glen McPherson willed his good leg to pull. The small man and his hapless raft lurched onward. Fifty feet left. Forty feet left. Thirty feet left. From his thigh down, all feeling was gone.
“Ahhhhh!” Glen’s water-anaesthetize foot slipped and he went down. Suddenly, everything began to move in slow motion. “No!” He heard himself scream, but his pathetic sound was drowned out by the raging river. Glen’s mouth filled with chilled water. His eyes were wide with terror. The small man’s hind parts struck the slippery riverbed. The merciless river tore at his body. Then, before he could break his fall, water boiled over his head!
Big C felt Glen collapse. The big man’s face went white as his mind released a clear message to his body. “This is it!” As the roiling waters of Skull Creek powered over him, he drew in as big a breath as he could. He wouldn’t go down without a fight, but he was virtually helpless. Stan’s eyes stared up at the morass of murk smothering the landscape. For a prolonged moment, the big man noticed the wispy gauze that reached out from the ragged bottom of the overhead fog as it attempted to brush against his upturned face. The fog was spectral, a phantom reaching with gentle tendril-like fingers to claim the stricken hiker. Then, the nightmare took a turn for the worse. The litter went into full reverse. It was picking up speed. “Alida!” Stan moaned. Then, Stan’s helpless head was buried in the rapids! “Oh God, not yet! Please not yet!”
From the protection of the thick evergreens that rimmed the northern bank of Skull Creek, the large bruin stared at the surging stream. His black eyes were fixed on the strange spectacle. The human and his human cargo were bobbing up and down in the water like pieces of driftwood during the spring runoff. Silver-tipped hair caressed the press of foliage that camouflaged the massive bear as he watched. The Grizzly’s encounter with the two men in the tent had been painful, but with the coming of dawn, curiosity had prevailed. He would not be cowed a second time by these puny humans!
At the head of the travois, Glen McPherson’s fingers raked at the slimy riverbed. Sputtering, the struggling Scotsman fought for breath. The front bar of the travois pressed into the small man’s stomach, dragging him forcefully backwards. Hiking boot heels and unprotected hind parts scraped and bumped unceremoniously across the slippery, submerged rocks. Glen’s injured ankle begged for relief. Suddenly, the small man’s backside hit a high spot in the riverbed. Glen was propelled upwards. His lips found air, but the moment didn’t last. As the small man frantically tore against the turbulence, he slid off the boulder. Icy water again boiled onto Glen face. “Dear God help me.”
Holding a precious breath of air, Glen took firm hold of the travois’s crossbar and flexed every muscle in his midsection. The wiry Scot pivoted his legs downstream and twisted his body until his stomach faced the river bed. His traumatized ankle bawled. His concentration was all consuming. He knew what was required. “If I don’t find my footing fast, we’re both dead men!”
Face downward and still buried in the frothy fray, Glen McPherson dug the tips of his hiking boots into the riverbed. His feet shuddered, stuttering over the slippery stones. Fire filled his injured ankle, but he blocked it out with all the mental power he could muster. The travois stopped! Glen struggled to stand, pulling his shoulders clear of the raging river and gasping for breath. A mighty upward pull lifted the head of the litter clear of the river. Behind him, Stan Calderbank sputtered and coughed.
Like a lone fence post in a brutal prairie blizzard, Glen McPherson stood stoically in Skull Creek. His chest heaved for breath! His crutch was gone! His hat was gone! His body was numb! Somehow, he was still alive!
The determined Scotsman glanced around. The southern bank of Skull creek was only fifteen feet away. “Are you Ok?” He panted.
“Yeah.” Stan wheezed.
“I have to crawl the rest of the way out of this river.”
“OK… just let… me catch… my breath…first”
“Me too.” Glen replied, hyperventilating hard. The small man shook his head. His muscles were close to failing from hypothermia. “We might make it out of the river alive” he thought, “but surviving the next half an hour will be the real trick!” He looked down at his waist. “At least I still have my fire starting kit!”
“Alright Big C, are you ready?”
Glen sucked in a deep breath and dropped to his knees. Froth, from the closest rapids, lathered his stubbled chin as it plunged into the river once more. Head down, travois crossbar pressing against his stomach, Glen scratched and scrambled forward with all his might. Eternity passed, but Glen’s numb bald spot finally struck the earthen bank. On hands and knees, a dripping apparition rose from the deadly waters into the hanging fog, dragging the litter behind him. Glen shut his eyes in concentration. As the laden litter lifted from the river, it’s weight returned. The spent Scot heard Stan sputter and cough once again. In spite of their perilous predicament, Glen grinned for a split second before sagging to the dirt.
Several precious seconds passed. The two soggy hikers lay panting and shivering on the southern bank of Skull Creek. Across the boiling water, twin beady eyes stared on.