The day was pleasant, although quite chill, and a stiff breeze was blowing. The sky was full of clouds in a broken layer, not far above them; like dirty cotton balls spilled on a glass table, tumbling over each other in the heavens.
They climbed fairly steeply, but their way was smooth enough it was not nearly as difficult as yesterday’s path. There were no visible trail markings here, but Glen led them on without hesitation through the woods.
After a short hike, they began to hear rushing water and presently came to the edge of a river. Skylar measured the width with his eye and estimated it to be approximately three times his height and moving very swiftly.
Skylar walked to Glen, who crouched at the water's edge, shaking his head. Mike knelt on one knee beside him, saying, "What do you think, Boss? It looks pretty rough to me.”
Glen eyed the water critically as it roiled and plunged downstream, frothing in places as it splashed against submerged rocks. "Get everyone over here for a council, would you?"
Mike nodded, stood, and moved off.
As the group gathered in a knot, there were several concerned looks at the river. Glen stood and began to speak.
"I’ve never seen this river flooded so badly before. The water is swift and will be deep. The best hunting is on the other side. If we don't cross, you probably won't get your deer, unless you're willing to settle for one like John's."
“No way.” Charles stated flatly. There were a few chuckles, and Skylar could feel the humor easing the tension in the group.
Glen continued. "If we take precautions, we can cross the river safely at a place upstream where it is a little more shallow. Also recall the cat is somewhere on this side of the river, which is a consideration. If the water rises much further, however, crossing back will be difficult. Should the rain continue, the river may become treacherous. This is a decision I feel needs to be made by the group as a whole. Let's hear your comments."
Mike was the first to speak. "I vote to cross. I think we can make it."
Skylar asked, "What kind of precautions do you mean?"
Charles answered before Glen could respond. "String a rope across and inflate Rory's raft to ferry the packs. Cross in twos, helping the horses. Build a fire on the other side to dry us all out and warm us up." There was an air of smugness about him which said he rather thought Skylar was a bit slow if he didn't even know how to cross a river.
Ignoring the sarcasm, Skylar said to Glen, "I'd like to cross and continue then."
Rory nodded his agreement and said, "Let's get started."
Charles walked upstream, saying, "Might as well get on with it."
Jenna went with Charles, still avoiding Skylar. Blaize snorted nervously and tossed his head as she led him along.
Fifteen minutes’ walking brought them to a small clearing. It was wider here, and a large tree had fallen part of the way into the far side of the river, causing angry currents in its wake.
Everyone removed their packs and went to work upstream of the fallen tree. Obviously they'd done this before, as they were a well-synchronized group. Skylar helped where he could, without disturbing the rhythm of their silent, seamless teamwork.
Glen pulled a barbed spear attached to a rope from Coco’s pack. Taking careful aim, he threw it to the other side of the river where the barb caught in the low fork of a tree. Applying his weight to the rope, Glen proved the connection sure. Turning, he passed his end around a sturdy tree near the water’s edge and carefully tied a knot that wouldn't slip. The rope now hung about an arm's reach above the water.
Mike and Rory inflated the small raft Rory carried. Jenna and Charles removed the food packs from Coco and set them in the raft along with the other packs. The poles and pack were removed from Blaize’s back and lashed to the outer side of the raft. Skylar still hadn't seen the use for those poles yet, but hoped he would before the trip was over.
Charles pulled a tarp from his pack and wrapped all the rifles in it, stowing the bundle in the raft. Another, smaller tarp was used for the pistols. Skylar's laser being waterproof, he decided he'd rather continue wearing it and no one asked him for it. In fact, no one had asked for any of the weapons. The smaller tarp had simply been spread on the ground and the sidearms had all found their way onto it in time to be wrapped up and placed protectively in the craft.
Once all the packs and weapons were loaded in the raft, it was secured to the safety line, then all looked to Glen and waited. The division of duties for each were assigned. Charles and Skylar would ferry the raft to the far bank and Charles would gather wood for the fire while Skylar prepared a fire pit. Mike and Rory would follow with Coco. The last trip would be Glen and Jenna with Blaize.
“Jenna’s too small to handle a skittish horse in this water, Glen,” Mike protested.
Glen looked slightly surprised at his comment, then spoke calmly.
“May I remind you, that Blaize trusts only Jenna? It will be safer for the horse if she leads him.” The look which accompanied these words said far more, in Skylar’s opinion, than the gentle rebuke.
Mike looked for a long moment at Glen, then glanced at Jenna. “Sorry, Jenna,” he mumbled, “I’d forgotten. He’s right.”
“It’s okay, Mike,” she said. “I’m not going to melt if I get wet, you know.” Her dimpled smile took the sting from the words and she turned to Blaize, tightening her grip on his reins.
Glen looked around, and, seeing all was ready, gave the nod to begin. Skylar and Charles started across the river.
Charles was leading the raft and Skylar pushing it, each man holding the raft with one hand, the safety rope with the other. The water was very cold. By the time they were up to their waists in it, Skylar’s feet had started to numb.
As they waded deeper, the current became swifter and stronger, nearly dragging them off their feet. Debris eddied around them. In the center of the stream, the muddy water was chest high. A large piece of drifting wood hit Skylar and he lost his grip on the raft as well as his footing and plunged beneath the surface.
After a few moment’s struggle, he finally found a semi-firm place to put his feet and stood up again, spluttering and shivering, grateful he'd managed to keep hold of the safety line. Being washed down the icy river wasn’t an appealing way to spend his day. Pushing his hair as well as the excess water out of his face, he could barely hear Charles shouting above the roar of the river. "Are you all right, Skylar?"
Still gasping for air, Skylar nodded and took hold of the raft again as they resumed their course to the far shore, reaching it without further incident.
Charles immediately set out to find firewood so they would be able to dry out and get warm. Skylar cleared a space for the fire, rolling stones over to line the fire pit’s edge. He gathered some fallen pine cones and other small twigs from under the protective branches of bushes to use for tinder, piling them in the center of the pit.
Mike and Rory were now mid-stream, Coco between them. Mike, being slightly shorter, had a more difficult time keeping his footing against the current, but they were able to cross without a hitch.
Charles returned with an armload of fairly dry wood, dug some matches out of his pack for Skylar, and left to find more fuel. Skylar stacked some of the smaller branches around the tinder, then spent a moment contemplating the matches. He copied the motions he’d seen Jenna using with these bits of wood, soon figured them out and lit the fire. Mike and Rory rubbed Coco down with a towel taken from the packs.
After some discussion and much calming of Blaize, Glen and Jenna finally entered the water. Glen walked on the up-stream side so Jenna, being shorter, could hold on to both Blaize and the safety rope.
As they began to cross, Rory paused from drying the horse. He pointed out to Mike and Skylar the huge cougar moving slowly toward the river behind Glen and Jenna. The noise of the rushing water swallowed his shouted warning.
Coco sensed the danger and danced with fear.
Mike quickly moved to help Rory hold and calm the animal. The three men stood tensely at the water's edge, watching both the approaching cougar and the people in the water.
Just as Glen and Jenna reached midstream, the cat leapt to the edge of the water, snarling. His yowls of frustration carried to the already frightened Blaize and he reared up, as if to meet his enemy.
In her efforts to calm him, Jenna let go of the safety line, reaching for his bridle with both hands. Blaize came down off-balance in the swiftly moving water. Trying to regain his footing, the horse knocked hard against Jenna. She grabbed for the safety rope, but missed, her fingertips just brushing it before the current carried her away.
Firmly holding the bridle while the horse bucked against it, Glen could not see Jenna as the river threw her against the large tree. She screamed once before vanishing.
Skylar, already soaked and the only person unencumbered by horses, lunged into the water after her. Reaching the tree, he sucked in a deep breath as the current dragged him in Jenna’s wake. Eyes closed against the muddy water, he flailed around, trying to find her by touch. His cold fingers brushed against the fabric of her jacket and he clutched her tightly, his feet pushing against the tree to free them both. Together they came out from under the far side of the deadfall and were swiftly pulled downstream, struggling against the strong current.