Saturday, February 12, 2011

"In Ravenscrag's Shadow" - Chapter 43

In Ravenscrag's Shadow
Davis L. Bigelow
Copyright 2011

Chapter 43
Midnight Lake shimmered calmly in the sunset’s afterglow. It would be dark in just a few more minutes. Alida’s oldest son Richard had just lit the propane lantern before retaking his seat by the warm and cheery campfire. The full spectrum of yellow, orange and red danced in the eyes of the onlookers, four boys and two adults. The four Calderbank boys each gripped short sticks and were thoroughly entertaining themselves by poking at the coals. Four pairs of dirty knees shifted in the dirt as swirling smoke determined the source of each boy’s next breath of fresh air.

Just out of reach of the smoke, Glen’s son-in law, Kelstern McTaggart, chatted amiably with Richard Calderbank about the latest stock market trends, but the boys paid no heed to such boring conversation. As smoke and flame gently rose into the night air, six muted shadows danced against the backdrop of ebony evergreen trees.

Twenty feet from the fire, Lillie McPherson sat with Alida at the picnic table, wrapped up in a game of Saskatchewan Rummy - which Alida was winning. In fact, the picnic table was surrounded by six additional, card playing adults as well as two children.

Beside Lillie nestled her five-year-old granddaughter, Val Marie, intently studying Lillie’s cards. Juniata Calderbank sat quietly on her grandmother’s lap. Cobwebs of sleep were knitting thickly over the two-year-old’s closed eyes and her head lay against Alida. In the lamplight, Juniata’s fine features gave her the look of a porcelain doll. Apparently, keeping up with her four older cousins had run the little girl completely out of steam.

Spread out on either side of the two grandmothers sat Lillie’s only daughter and Alida’s two younger sons as well as all three of the Calderbank daughters-in-law. Sixteen in number, the only missing members of the two families were Glen and Stan.

“It ‘s a campfire!” The pinpoint of light twinkled through the trees. Glen turned his head towards the open rear window of the cab. “We’re here Stan! We made it!” Tears swelled once again into the eyes of the big man. Glen guided the pickup truck into the Calderbank campsite.

Val Marie was the first to notice the slow-moving headlights in the darkness. Her sharp emerald eyes peered through strands of claret hair, an unspoken question on her alert mind. Then, a dirty black pickup swerved into the campsite’s driveway.

Four red-tipped sticks and one energetic card game abruptly froze as sixteen sets of eyes focused on the dusty pickup. The headlights winked off and the engine died. Except for the gently crackling campfire, the air in the Calderbank campsite went as quiet as a funeral. Then Val Marie pulled away from her grandmother’s embrace. “It’s them!” she cried out, joy gushing. “Grandpa! Grandpa! Grandpa!” The scampering of Val Marie’s bare feet in the dust was instantly followed by an audible gasp as Glen opened the door of the pickup, activating the truck’s interior light. The light’s glow revealed only one occupant!

Alida let out a cry and shot to her feet. Lorlie Calderbank reached to grab the waking Juniata. A dozen slightly curved cards fell unnoticed from Alida’s trembling hand, landing helter-skelter on the picnic table. Concerned murmurs sounded. Both families mobilized.

Val Marie reached the truck first, her bright green eyes curious. When she saw Glen, however, she stopped short. “Who was in Uncle Stan’s truck?” The man rose to stand, retreating a little from the dim light that seemed to eerily emanate from within the cab. The man’s face was streaked with dirt and dried blood. The little bit of hair he had was tousled. The stranger’s shirt was badly torn and he only stood on one foot. Val Marie took a step back. Tears spilled from the man’s eyes, tracing silver rivulets on his cheeks. “Sunny Valley!” called a familiar voice. Val Marie’s eyes widened, but her response was drowned in the cacophony of approaching voices.

“Where’s Stan?”

“Are you OK?”

“What happened?”

“Are you hurt?”

Lillie rushed forward to embrace the spent Scotsman.

For a brief moment, Glen McPherson wrapped his aching arms around his Lillie, more tears gushing. Then, as if trying to halt traffic, Glen held up a hand. He drew in a deep breath. Glen had rehearsed this speech several times in the past few hours, but now that he was about to give it, everything felt so different. He opened his mouth to speak. “Stan…” The name caught in his throat as another powerful wave of emotion pulsed through him.

Alida stiffened. “Stan?” She screamed, but the sound was squeezed from her throat by raw realization. Her hands flew to her open mouth. Her eyes were whirlpools of terror. The fine features of her face were twisted by unspeakable grief. Her shoulders shagged. Then, like a giant redwood undercut by the sharp saw of an experienced woodsman, Alida began to fall. Her youngest son, Irvington was the closest to the distraught woman. As Alida collapsed into Irvington’s strong arms, her other two sons, Richard and Harlan sprang to her side. Alida’s boys gently eased her limp body to the ground. The campsite went silent once more.

Several stifled sobs shattered the stillness. “No!” Glen blurted, shaking his head. “Stan’s alive! We just need to get him to the hospital.” Alida began to stir. The faces of the group all turned away from Alida and stared again at the battered and shadowy countenance of Glen McPherson. The small man continued, gesturing with his upturned thumb. “Stan’s in the back of the truck with a broken leg.”

As if choreographed by a master director, all eyes silently shifted to the shrouded blackness of the truck bed. Kelstern McTaggart pulled his flashlight from his belt and shattered the darkness. There, wrapped in motionless silver, lay Stan Calderbank.

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