Disconsolate, miserable, cheerless; Duncan Morency searched for the right word to describe his current mood. Current was not even the right word, as his mood had been in the pits since the first week the mountain opened, and here in April, the last day of the season it had only grown more chapfallen. In his mind’s eye, he regarded himself as he rode up the chairlift with his young student squirming next to him.
Why do I do this, he asked himself. Duncan Morency it said on his nametag, Ski Instructor affirmed the patch on his jacket; yes, those things were true to a certain extent. At least they were what he had allowed himself to be this winter, but he wanted more, so much more.
I have had it with this place, these people and this job, he ruminated as he rode up the chair lift. This is it; I'm not comin' back next year. The ten-year-old on his right twisted around in the chair and had to be admonished once again to stay still. Just once, just once I'd like to let one of these little hellions take the big drop. How he'd love to see the look on the astonished parent's faces. How he'd like to say to the Mountain Manager, yeah, that's right I pushed him, I just chucked the little bastard out. What d'ya expect, he bit me when I tried to get him to sit still so I just let him sail right out there!
This has gotta stop, this is not healthy, let's just get through the lesson and tomorrow I'll be gone.
Gone! What a beautiful thought. Duncan had been saving all winter for this upcoming and well-deserved departure. Not the beach this year, not a trip to the city to see the folks, this year it's a profound change he chased. He had seen the ad in the magazine back in November and the thought had kept him through the winter. It was just a short ad:
PRIMITIVE STONEAGE SURVIVAL
A 30-day seminar in a primitive setting. Run by experts. You can be one too!
He had only to take one look at the ad and he was sold. All his life, Duncan had loved adventure, loved the outdoors and extremes of all kinds. This was precisely why he now loathed his present job. The adventure was gone; the outdoors was no more that a corporate playground, the only extreme was in his amount of discontent.
Finally, it was about to be over, the long-awaited day was almost upon him. He finished the lesson and went to the Ski School office.
"Here's the damn jacket, here's the damn hat and here's for every little creep and their creep parents that you saddled me with all year," he shouted as he brandished a gracefully curved and rigid finger in the face of the mountain manager.
Duncan stormed out of the office and strode down from the base lodge to the parking lot. His car was packed and all he had to do was cash his last check and hit the road.
His thoughts were joyful as he contemplated the trip. The road! The damn fine road; it’s never lonely but always lone. The always beckoning road, one of the finest of places. It takes you there. It doesn't ask where and it always gives you more. You just have to take it.
His plan had been to leave in the morning, to spend one last night with his girlfriend before taking off on the trip. Why rehash that same old tired bullshit? I think not, not when the road is ready and so am I.
He jumped in the BMW and fired it up. A screech of tires and a spray of dirty wet gravel and that was all Northstar would ever see of Duncan Morency. Good riddance he smirked and sped away.
A quick stop at the bank and he was on his way. He turned on the CD player and settled in the seat. Behind him the mountain was bathed in alpenglow and the moon was rising just above the top lift towers.
It felt good, the tunes, the car, the road stretching out before him. This is good, he thought, this is really good!
He would never go back to the Ski School. He knew that now. He had been saying this for the last ten years, but somehow each October there he was again at the opening orientation. It had become a habit and at this point in his life habits were something he didn't like. He was turning thirty this year and he wanted it to be a year of change; needed it to be a year of change.
What would he do if not teach skiing, where would he go? Why had he wasted so much time doing this inane career? Sure, there had been some good times, some truly great moments when he thought that he was doing the thing that really mattered but now he just felt that it had all been a waste of time, so much precious time.
His thoughts rolled around the cushioned walls of his mind while his body became finely tuned to the car. He felt the road, he anticipated the curves and straightaways as he became one with the machine. He drove and he thought and he sang. He sang his joy, he sang his freedom and he sang his doubts and fears, but most of all he sang his connection to the rhythm of the world.
He drove all night. The Beemer rolled out across the freezing high chaparral of northern Nevada toward Utah. Somewhere near The Great Salt Desert he stopped the car and got out his bedroll and flopped down under the stars. As he stared up at the Milky Way, the last thing he heard was the coyote song
Rising with the dawn, he rinsed out his mouth with water from the Poland Springs bottle. A roadrunner was darting from bush to bush in the dim morning light. Duncan got back in the car and drove slowly down the dirt road he had turned off onto the night before. Swinging onto the paved secondary road, he picked up speed as he headed toward the small town of Eureka. He had abandoned the main highway as soon as he got into Utah. He loved to cruise the out of the way places and it served him in good stead because this morning he knew exactly where he was going: Mama n’ Lucie’s Cafe!
He had been to Eureka once before on a climbing trip. Mama n' Lucie's had been one of those rare finds that one can only be discovered by leaving the beaten path. Those gigantic buttermilk pancakes and those home cured sausages had been on his mind for the last 100 miles of the trip and now the thought of them was making him salivate as he accelerated the BMW.
It looked just the same as when he had been there five years before. There were the same beaten down pickups in the lot, the same tacky sign above the door. He stopped the car and got out and went inside. There was no hesitation in Duncan's stride as he went straight to the table where he had eaten his breakfast the last time. He sat and waited and as he waited he began to think. Where were his buddies from the last climb that had brought them together here? Danny was dead, Chuck married with kids and a mortgage, and nobody knew where Fro had gone. Things change, he thought, things change in all kinds of ways and most of the time you can never go back. Why would you want to anyway, he berated himself? "Onward and upward" he said out loud as the waitress slapped the menu down on the table in front of him.
"How ya doin' cowboy?" she said.
"Finer n' frog hair honey," Duncan laughed.
It was the same waitress, of course it was; nothing changed here but the wind. He began to chuckle and the waitress's cheeks filled and flushed as she chuckled along with him. Her pink and white smock was stained with spots of chili and her chipped nametag proclaimed her as "MAMA".
Duncan ordered up, the pancakes, the sausage, the home fries and extra-large tomato juice. It was welcome and tasty, hot and greasy. Just as he expected, it was prime cowboy fare, good honest roadhouse food. He finished his breakfast and ordered a Navajo Taco to go for his lunch on the road. He had "MAMA" wrap up the taco extra tight with lots of tinfoil and when he got to the BMW he popped the hood and placed the taco on top of the engine block. It would be nice and hot by lunchtime.
On he drove, through Payson and Santaquin up into the Wasatch. The mountains were beautiful this time of year. The aspens were in their shiny spring green, the wildflowers were in profusion and the melted snow cascaded down in rills among moss and granite. The air was crisp and impossibly blue. Duncan's spirits soared as he drove the sweeping curves through magnificent forests and dizzying canyons.
Near Vernal he turned off at a sign that read Chicopee Canyon Ranch Road. Another ten miles down the flat track brought him to the foot of a small mountain range and the ranch of Doctor Ruben Braunfels. Doctor Braunfels had taught Cultural Anthropology at the University of Arizona for twenty years. On leaving his post at the university he bought the acreage here at the mouth of Chicopee Canyon and settled down to his two real loves, archaeology and teaching Stone Age survival techniques.
Duncan's BMW ground to a stop in the coarse gravel of the dooryard at the ranch house. A couple of molting chickens scratched idly in the dust and an overburdened cow lowed over a split rail fence. Some distance away from the house, on a concrete pad sat a gleaming yellow and black helicopter. It loomed like a gigantic wasp and the tinted glass of the bubble cockpit glistened back Duncan's reflection in an eerie way. He felt at once wildly attracted to and repulsed by the helicopter that sat in counterpoint against the sere hills. He stepped out of the car and laid on the horn.
The bray of the horn echoed off into the distance but only the chickens and the cow seemed to notice. Duncan sat on the hood and waited. He leaned back on the windshield and closed his eyes and felt the warm desert air drift through his hair. He had just started to space out when was startled into wakefulness.
"Ah-hah! It looks like one of you finally got here!"
Duncan started bolt upright and found that he was in the presence of a short powerful man with a fierce black beard and intense jet eyes. The man wore black horn rim spectacles and his rolled-up sleeves showed his arms to be covered in blood up to the elbows. Fresh blood, he observed. The man's right arm shot out in a proffered handshake as Duncan scuttled backward and jammed both his hands into his back pockets. The hand stayed extended to him, and a small sticky droplet formed and began to hang down from the bloody wrist.
"C'mon boy don't be squeamish; a little blood won't hurt you. My god, son, it's the stuff of life!"
"Doctor Braunfels?" Duncan stammered.
"That's right kid, who'd ya expect, the king of Siam? C'mon in the barn, we can't let the flies get at it, can we?"
The doctor grabbed Duncan's hand and pumped it vigorously while pummeling him on the shoulder with the other bloody paw. With Duncan, still at a loss for words, Doctor Braunfels ushered him toward the barn in a peculiar rolling gait.
The inside of the barn was still and gloomy. In the darkness Duncan could hear the buzz of flies and a steady pat, pat, pat. Before him was a full-grown bull elk hanging by its back legs on a pair of wicked rusting hooks. The head and neck were stretched forward and the forelegs reached out in an inverted gesture of supplication. The abdomen was opened and the body cavity cleaned out. A steady trickle of blood dripped from the chin and nose into a metal washtub placed on the dirt floor of the barn. To the side of the carcass near a small wooden stool was the gut pile. A multitude of blue bottle flies swarmed dizzily in the musky, fetid odor.
"He's a beauty ain't he? My neighbor bagged him this morning. I like to butcher them just for the practice and a roast or two. He's a bit out of season, but hunger don't know no season does it boy?"
Choking back his growing nausea, Duncan managed to get out a terse, "Nice, really nice."
"I’m going to take off the hide now and then I'll just let him hang for a couple of days." As he spoke, Doctor Braunfels fished in his pocket and came out with a small shiny, black stone. It was flat and convoluted around the edges.
It looks like a guitar pick. Duncan watched in amazement while Doctor Braunfels went, without a word, to work.
Starting on the inside of the haunch he made a quick incision from the knee joint to the groin. He inserted a finger and pulled firmly outward. Using the stone, he widened the incision until he could get all of his fingers and then his hand inside. Using the free hand to pull the hide and fur and then using the stone as a sharp finger, he gently separated the subcutaneous layer from the muscle. His movements were deft and sure. He moved quickly and confidently, with a look of concentration mixed with love he seemed to caress the skin away from the muscles of the elk.
"I'm using a piece of obsidian to do this skinning,” he said. “It’s a chip off a larger piece that I worked and flaked to sharpness with a piece of antler. It's smaller and quicker than any knife I've ever used and it won't ever go dull. You'll learn to do this and a hell of a lot more before we're through here this week. Now then, lend a hand and we'll get this cleaned up and go up to the house and wait for the others."
Duncan moved as though her were in a dream as he helped take up the great hide with newly severed head and move it to the clay vat Doctor Braunfels directed him to. They hoisted the hide into the vat and Braunfels replaced the oaken lid.
The light blinded Duncan as they left the barn and started for the house. As he stumbled a little on the rough footing of the yard, he could see a cloud of dust rumbling down the road toward them. He climbed the warped wooden stairs of the modest porch and sat on the hanging swing as he watched a white station wagon roll into the dooryard. Duncan sat, strangely weary, as he watched the doctor's greeting ritual re-enacted before a rotund gray-haired woman who stood blinking behind a pair of suitcases and a drifting cloud of barnyard dust.
By early evening all of the other participants had arrived and there was an informal orientation session in the ramshackle farmhouse at the mouth of Chickopee Canyon. His initial astonishment given way to rapt fascination, Duncan listened intently while Doctor Braunfels outlined the learning activities planned for the week.
“You all saw the helicopter out there. I call it the Yellowjacket. She will take us to a remote area of Dinosaur National Monument called Echo Park. Echo Park is near the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers. In the spring, the rivers are in spate and all roads are awash. We could gain egress into the area by raft, but due to the high spring runoff and the sheer canyon walls this could prove foolhardy and even fatal. The Yellowjacket will deliver us neatly and safely into a place virtually forgotten by time.
During this seminar, we will be practicing weapon, tool and trap building techniques using materials found at the site. We will forage and hunt for our food, there will be no other sustenance provided. Survival is a make or break game and the only way to prepare for it is to make it a realistic undertaking. We will be practicing shelter and fire building, tracking, and group defensive techniques.
At night, we will cook and eat what food we have gathered or killed and we will tend the fire while participating in rock painting, clothing making, dancing and ritual story telling. The spiritual aspect of primitive man is one of his most important tools for survival in a savage world. We will learn to shed away our twenty-first century veneer and view the primitive core that exists within us all. Some of the things you will do will disgust you, some of them will surprise you and all of them will excite you.
This is not a Disneyland ride we are about to embark upon; ladies and gentlemen this is reality. Cold, harsh reality, more intense than anything you've ever known. Once the Yellowjacket lands at the site, she will not be leaving until the exercise is completed. This must be absolutely clear to everyone from now on. This is the jumping off point, people. Anyone not feeling like they want to go through with the seminar can back out now with full refund, but be advised that now is the time to do it because from here on out there won't be anything done halfway."
The doctor’s talk went on and covered some edible plants that would be found in the area and what game could be expected to be present. The questions from the group were many and diverse, but most tended to be a bit on the apprehensive side. That was not surprising to Duncan, given the diversity of the group and the somber tone of the orientation talk that Doctor Braunfels had given.
Duncan had expected to see other people like himself, that is to say, young, adventurous, and semi-athletic. What he found instead was really a mix of the least likely folks he would ever have picked to be interested in a course on Stone Age survival.
There was Colleen Marchamps, fifty-five years old, a grandmother and crafts teacher at a senior center from Danville, Illinois; Tom and Beverly Goodwin, parents of two elementary school children, and owner/operators of a restaurant in Bellingham, Washington; Carley Walsh and Royce Addison represented the greatest disparity in age. Carley, eighteen, newly graduated from high school in Portland Maine, and Royce, seventy-three, a sculptor from Ashville North Carolina seemed as unlike as any two people could get.
The evening wore on, with everyone chatting about their homes and their lives. Everyone did but Duncan. He spoke little through dinner and sat apart from the group, gazing at the cow and wondering just how in the hell he could ever kill an animal that was bigger than him and what he would ever be able to do with all the parts. He wrestled with the moral question of killing in general and was becoming increasingly morose. The taste of the food in his mouth, however, did bring about a bit of a resolution. He decided it was ok to kill something as long as he was going to eat it.
Spit roasted venison was the main course; the doctor also provided cattail roots with wild rice and lamb’s quarters, a form of wild spinach for the evening meal. The cooking methods were simple, and not much seasoning was used. The venison though had been rubbed with wild sage and as the evening cooled the desert purple sage gave forth its pungent odor and the mingling of the smell and the flavorful juices of the venison gave Duncan a sensual experience that set him imagining himself as a primal hunter on the Eurasian Steppes 40,000 years in the past. He was catching the spirit and he was happy about it.
The dinner over, people split off into small groups, relaxing until drowsiness overtook their excitement. Colleen was showing Carley how to start a basket using pine needles. Tom and Royce were involved in a raucous game of cribbage and Beverly was pressing Doctor Braunfels for all of his cooking secrets.
Duncan just wanted to be alone with his thoughts and so he took his bedroll and slunk off behind the barn. He lay on his blankets in the grass and gazed up at the stars. The same stars I'm looking at were looked at by the first humans on earth, he imagined. He thought of the connections that ran the gamut of eons and became the common thread of humankind whether modern, primitive or prehistoric. Somewhere inside all of us, there is something essentially the same. Maybe I'll find out what it is out there this week, he thought dreamily.
"Onward and upward" he said out loud to the stars.
The sky had not yet lightened perceptibly and Doctor Braunfels had come and quietly awakened everyone, playing an eerie melody on a curious bone flute.
"Everyone up, everyone ready, today's a day” he intoned over and over again.
One by one people made last minute preparations and ablutions. Duncan was up and ready immediately and began to help Doctor Braunfels load what meager gear he allowed into the helicopter. In the murky dusk of false dawn, the entourage boarded the Yellowjacket, Duncan taking the co-pilot seat next to Doctor Braunfels.
The rising sun gave a surreal hue and shine to the sheer, time washed rocks of the canyon wall and the speed of the flight made the earth seem to rush beneath their feet. Everyone was glued to a window, fascinated by the geological display that spread before them.
The flight was an exhilarating experience, a passage that all of them needed to make the transition from their normal mundane lives into uncertainty. Dr. Braunfels took the Yellowjacket over uninhabited terrain, not hurrying toward the site, but hoping to show his charges just how remote the area was. They were almost two hours in the air when dropping suddenly over a huge red sandstone buttress, they saw beneath them the lush serenity of Echo Park and the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers. The doctor flew in an ever widening and descending circle around the gigantic pocket in the canyon that was Echo Park. A flock of Canada Geese flew up from their bed in the reeds at the edge of the Green and across the big meadow by the bend a herd of mule deer ran leaping through the millet and lupine.
"This is truly God's Country here. This place is virtually untouched by man. During the 1870's a sheep man called Rile Chew tried to cut a road in here so he could use this pastureland for his flocks in spring. The cougars killed off a lot of the sheep and between the Indians and the brutal labor he lost his wife and both sons. What's left of the track they started is now called the Chew Boy's Ranch Road and that's about the only way to even get close to this place by land vehicle. The only other road is over 100 miles away and that's the closest we'll be to any car. The Chew Boys’ road is impassable in the spring and there won't be any rafters with the water this high. This place stays completely vacant for ten months of the year and even in the height of summer, very few rafters stop here and the sun makes it too miserable for any but the most determined four-wheelers to come in here. Once every five years or so there is a dig, but most of the bones that were accessible have already been found."
The doctor went on to describe the various dinosaurs that once inhabited the area and how very different the landscape was 60 million years ago. As he bent from the seat to replace the headphones on their davit, Duncan could see the allosaurus tooth the doctor wore on a leather thong around his neck.
Flying closer to the red sandstone buttress, Doctor Braunfels gently set the chopper on a small rise many feet above the meadow. Above them a huge flake of red sandstone leaned dizzily out from the main wall, two ravens perched on the top. As the rotors stopped, the only sound that greeted them was the gentle croaking of the ravens and the white noise of the river.
Royce was the, first one out of the helicopter and as the others piled out onto the vermilion ledge he stood, faced into the wind, pounding his chest and breathing deeply.
"Ahh..." he said, "I've been waiting for this place a long, long time, I've seen it in my dreams you know, starting when I was a child, I’ve always seen this place...." He trailed off, starting down the ledge toward the meadow whistling a small and repeated bird song.
Tom and Beverly followed, shaking their heads and grinning bemusedly at the old man.
"Yes, yes. Go on down to the meadow" extolled the doctor. The others followed and within a few minutes they were all gathered in the tall grass and wildflowers on the valley floor. The doctor came last, carrying rolled buckskin under one arm and waving a gnarled staff of ironwood.
"This is where we will establish our base camp," he said, "This will be our home for the next week. Oh, we'll roam far afield, believe me, but this is where we will place our brush shelters and build our common hearth." So saying, Doctor Braunfels flopped down the buckskin, unrolled it and taking a large piece of homemade pemmican he squatted and began to gnaw.
The others shuffled and looked at him with curiosity. The doctor didn't seem to see them anymore. In fact, he seemed not to be present at all; he just chewed his pemmican and looked across the river at some flying geese.
"Well, what should we do now?" asked Beverly. Duncan had started off toward the river and Colleen was gathering some of the tall grasses in which they stood.
"Well then, what would you do?" cajoled the doctor. Carley just stood, hugging herself and looking from one to the other, her anxiety beginning to mount.
"I guess we should make a place for the fire,” she said.
"That's right, fire, beautiful fire my dear lady, the most important consideration, and the most nurturing one is fire!" The Doctor leapt to his feet and began to wave his arms. "Gather rocks! Gather brush! Gather sticks, logs, go my friends and gather materials from which we might make shelter and fire! Use your imagination... nature has provided everything you need, it is all around you, just find it, gather it, and use it!"
Now with a task, a direction of sorts, the party dispersed to all corners of the meadow in search of building materials and wood for their fire. Duncan squatted by the river and cupped some of the green-brown water in his hands; He brought it up to his face and splashed it over him. He liked the way it felt, liked the way it smelled.... new and wild. Standing, he turned and looked at the others and started toward them and the meadow to help in the gathering. As he walked he felt strangely detached and aloof from the group.
The rest of the day, well into afternoon was spent in making the fire circle and each person making their own rude shelters from brush and bark. Duncan had scooped out a depression in the soft valley soil and built his debris hut over it; he lined the floor of the hut with juniper boughs and then covered them with dry grass. He covered the outside framework of sticks and boughs with clumps of long grass and then, using his tee shirt, he carried mud from the riverbank and applied it to the structure. The result was a wattle and daub conformation that resembled a large and hairy wart. It was cool and dark inside and to Duncan's pleasure, the doctor pronounced it a "Goddamn bombproof house there boy, well done!"
The other huts were similar in shape and varied according to their proprietors' ambition. They formed a rough circle and all faced inward toward a central fire pit that Carley had engineered and built with the help of Royce.
Having put together their little village, the doctor called them all to sit around the fire pit.
"The inauguration of the communal fire is probably the most important ritual known to primitive man. It is a gathering of the community, a sharing of common fate, a banding together to protect and nurture one another. I ask at this time that each person take a piece of wood and hold it while we chant and while we are chanting I ask that each of you ask the Great Spirit for guidance and wisdom in the week to come." Doctor Braunfels got out the bone flute and played while the band reassembled around the pit with their ritual firebrands.
"Repeat after me" he said. "Fire burning, fire bright; give us the light, keep back the night."
The others intoned the chant over and over with Doctor Braunfels playing on the bone flute. They all stopped at once, much to the surprise of everyone and the doctor produced from his pocket a small nest of dried gorse and two dull grey stones. He knelt by the pile of sticks in the fire pit and placed the dry material in its center. He struck the stones together sharply over the gorse, bent lower and began to blow gently. There was a tentative wisp of smoke and then, adding more grass, the doctor cupped his hands around a small orange glow. He blew more insistently and the flame sprang to life. Then he stayed kneeling, his brow sweating and his hands trembling. He stared at the fledgling fire and as his lips moved without sound, he looked as though he was praying. The fire took energy from the wood and itself and as it grew, the others added more fuel.
"This fire must not be allowed to go out; it is the single most important thing that we can have to insure our survival, both mentally and physically. Someone must maintain the fire at all times." With that, Doctor Braunfels got up and from his buckskin roll he produced a stone knife about five inches long.
"Now is the time to think about how to procure food for the evening meal. I suggest trying for fish, frogs and snakes by the river's edge." He grasped the stone blade in his palm and taking up the ironwood staff he strode off through the tall grass toward the bend in the river.
There was a palpable silence around the fire pit while everyone tried to sort out just what in the hell they were doing here with this maniac. They were receiving little or no instruction and seemed to be here just as an after thought so far as Doctor Braunfels was concerned.
"Well, I guess he means it" Duncan said. "Who'll stay to tend the fire?" he asked.
Colleen spoke up immediately and said, "I will, it will be a good opportunity for me to braid some grass into cordage and if Carley will stay too, I can get her started on a basket, I think we'll need one."
Where is this lady getting this stuff, he thought, this old bat just might be all right after all?
"OK", he said, "Let's the rest of us fan out and see what we can find to eat."
The hunting and gathering brought meager fare for the group. After three hours, all except the doctor were back in camp with little or nothing to show for their efforts. Tom and Beverly had found some burdock roots and nasturtiums along the riverbank. Royce had rigged a Paiute deadfall trap with sticks and rocks and had actually managed to trap a fat marmot under the flat boulder's weight.
“Well, roasted rat and raw root" quipped Duncan. Their long faces perked little at the sorry joke about their dinner.
"Maybe Doctor Braunfels had better luck than we did" said Royce hopefully.
"He sure seems to be taking a long time,” said Carley. "I hope he comes back with a bunch of trout or something."
Duncan stood up and threw a stick, "If we could rig up a bow and arrow, I bet I could get one of those geese. I was so close to them I think I could hit one with a rock or a stick. Maybe one of those throwing sticks like the Aborigines use in Australia!"
"How about making a boomerang?" offered Colleen.
"How about a Big Mac?" said Duncan to nervous giggles from the others.
The conversation around the fire grew more and more apprehensive as dusk fell and still the Doctor had not returned to the camp.
"He's such a weird old guy, he might just be staying away to teach us to do on our own" said Beverly.
"Honey, that would be entirely inappropriate and if that is the case he will be hearing from me long and loud. I didn't come out here to be stranded and left on my own with no instruction or food or anything, and what about the old people, what are they going to do, they don't need surprises like this."
"OH! Tom, really!" she said
"Speak for yourself, wimp" shot Royce.
"Yeah, who are you callin' old, what about us kids?" put in Carley.
"What kids?" poked Duncan "You're the only one!"
"Shut up" she said and threw a nest of matted, muddy grass at Duncan.
Duncan scooped up a double handful of the grass and hurled it at Carley who ran off laughing.
The tension relieved somewhat, the group though hungry and a bit angry began to relax. The prevailing feeling was that the doctor had actually left them to their own devices for some kind of perverse lesson.
Tom, Beverly and Colleen had begun to sing camp songs while Royce and Carley were braiding grass, calmly talking about the stars, wondering if there were alien beings out there right now, maybe even within their sight.
Duncan stretched and yawned wearily, the day's excitement catching up with him. He got up, put the end of a damp, six-foot log in the fire and banked it.
That should burn all night. Walking outside the ring of light the fire provided he took a long breath and smelled the river smells. This is good, this is really good. He stretched a last long stretch, looking up at the sky wondering, connecting with nameless fears and age-old feelings of unknown dread. This must be how they always felt, he mused, thinking about the first humans. Everything was danger, nature was death to them, but at the same time it was benevolent life, a ruthless and unpredictable taskmistress.
"Tomorrow's a day" he said to the stars and slunk off to his wattle and daub hut.
The night passed in quiet and everyone slept the sleep of the wearied. Morning came with the honking of geese and still no Doctor Braunfels.
Duncan was up just before first light and with the others still in their debris huts he walked towards the river to relieve himself. He squatted on the riverbank and slowly splashed his face with the brown water. To his right about ten feet away he thought he saw a muddy foot print at the water's edge. It's probably the doctor's, he thought, maybe he took off his boots to hunt. Duncan stared sleepily at the footprint in the uncertain light of dawn and his reverie was interrupted by a flock of more than a hundred Canada geese flying up river at eye level. They were no more than twenty feet from where he stood, flying in formation and honking for all they were worth.
Intrigued by the proximity of the geese and their apparent indifference to his presence he followed their flight up river hoping to find where they would nest. There was a big roasted goose on his mind as he wound along the river's bank after them. A half-mile or so up river brought him to a small cove where an eddy in the river had carved a deep pool. He saw that the cliffs above were too high to allow him to go up and around so he resolved to swim across the pool to the other side. As he lowered himself into the cold water, he noticed on the other side a white log floating gently with a darker branch sticking out of it. Duncan stroked and kicked, then dove under the surface, reveling in the cool, dark water. A couple of powerful breaststrokes took him almost all the way across the pool.
He burst from the water, gulping air and shaking his head. His right hand reached out and grabbed the log and what he saw made him thrash backward in horror and disbelief. What he had thought to be a log was the lifeless body of Doctor Braunfels. The nude corpse floated on its back with the ironwood staff sticking out of its chest. Both of the eyes were gone and the mouth was frozen in a grimace of pain and soundless scream.
"Shit, oh shit!" he said. "No way! Oh fuck, no!"
Duncan stayed in the center of the pool and splashed frantically to stay afloat and to keep the body from floating onto him, as it seemed inclined to do. The water made the ironwood staff bob obscenely. After a minute, he hauled himself out onto the bank and lay on the damp rocks, his chest heaving and his thoughts bouncing all around. Breathe, just breathe dammit and deal with this!
What am I gonna do now? he asked himself. How am I going to get him back to camp, what will I tell these people, they're already freaked out, they can't handle this.... I can't handle this!
He lay on the rock, trying to think, trying to reason. As he realized that he was faced with the unthinkable, the unreasonable, he lapsed into a strange calm. He focused on the calm and tried to help it grow, tried to just be in it. He lay there for the better part of an hour and finally resolved to the task, he decided to haul the body out of the water. He was grim and resolute as he dragged the wet sack that had been Doctor Braunfels out of the water. He pulled and rolled the body up onto the rocks and placing one foot on the doctor's chest, he pulled the ironwood staff from the remains.
"Just like King-fucking- Arthur" he mumbled. He turned his head and retched violently.
Leaving the body, he walked fast, back toward the camp. He was sweating profusely despite the morning chill. His sense of dread rose as he approached the bivouac.
He could see them a hundred yards off and even then, he knew something was wrong. Colleen was sitting, crouched, her head in her hands. Royce was gesturing wildly and Carley was pacing back and forth. Tom and Beverly were nowhere to be seen.
As Duncan approached he could hear Colleen sobbing. Royce was pacing around the fire circle waving his arms and saying to no one in particular, "What the fuck! What the fuck is going on here!"
Duncan stopped short of the fire circle and just squatted on the ground. He didn't like what he saw. He was afraid. Afraid to ask what had happened and afraid to tell what had become of Doctor Braunfels. He looked from Royce to Colleen and around the small encampment. Everything looked normal except their frantic behavior and they seemed not even to notice him squatting there like that. Then he looked up and his stomach rose to his throat and his head whirled in a sick, blackening buzz.
On the ledge above camp sat the crumpled remains of the helicopter. The huge sandstone flake that had hung so precariously from the cliff had toppled and crushed the machine beyond recognition.
Duncan got up and not stopping to ask the others anything, ran to the ledge and climbed up to the wreckage. He stood, teetering on the new scree from the flake and began to moan at what he saw. The cockpit of the copter was smashed flat and sticking from the shattered windshield were Tom's severed right arm and Beverly's head, the neck bent at an impossible angle and her sightless eyes pointing up to where the sandstone flake should have been. This is impossible, thought Duncan. What is happening to us?
He walked around the wreckage, carefully avoiding Beverly's fly blown face. Scrabbling over the jagged shards of sandstone, he stood at the base of the cliff. At his feet were several large, round stones and three stout poles. The poles were three inches in diameter and about fifteen feet long. The bark had been removed and the wood smoothed.
These have been hand worked, he thought; panic seeping in through the wall he was trying so desperately to build.
“These stones are not part of this sandstone cliff, they're river rocks! They must have been brought here on purpose!” The cold truth oozed into his reason even as he tried so hard to push it out. "Somebody pried off that damned flake. I can't believe it, but that's just what happened, somebody pried off that flake and somebody rammed that staff through Doc." He was aware that he was speaking aloud to no one, succumbing to his mounting pressure.
He stood there, weak at the knees, rubbing his hand over his nose and mouth as if to make the bad things go away, to be clean again. He left the ruined helicopter with the ruined bodies and made his way back down to the camp. He walked slowly, not knowing what to say to the others. He came into the camp and sat at the fire circle.
Carley sat, weeping and rocking back and forth, her knees at her chest. Colleen stared at the fire pit and swatted at the ground with a stick. Royce hunkered across from Duncan and stared at him, shaking his head back and forth. Duncan looked up at Royce whose jaw had begun to work spasmodically, a thin trickle of drool running to his chin. With a heart-stopping howl of rage, Royce launched himself across the fire pit at Duncan. Duncan leaped to his feet and side-stepping Royce’s rush, he grabbed the old man's collar and pinned him in the dust, one knee firmly in the center of his back.
"What the hell do you think you're doing man?" Duncan held Royce by the back of the neck and jammed his face down into the dust repeatedly. "I don't need this shit," he shrieked at Royce and swung a hard slap to his ear.
"Where were you? Where's the doctor? What have you done to those people?" growled Royce.
"I didn't do anything. I want some answers too dammit!" Duncan hauled Royce up by the scruff of his neck and knelt before him, wiping the dust and tears of rage from his dazed face.
"The doctor's dead" Duncan murmured. "He's dead. I found him in the river. Somebody stabbed him through with that staff he carried."
"The helicopter.... Tom and Bev..." Royce stammered.
"I know" said Duncan, "I know." He rubbed Royce's head and they held onto each other rocking back and forth.
I'm so tired, I'm so tired and so is Royce, poor old Royce. It's ok. It’s ok...
The wind had begun to come up and Duncan built a fire. As much to keep himself occupied and gain time to think, he concentrated on the fire making and then had Colleen and Carley sit close to it and next to him. Royce squatted across from them, staring at the river, his back to the cliff and the wreck of the Yellowjacket.
Duncan spoke quietly, slowly telling them how it had been with the doctor. His calm came from deep within him, from a place he did not know. The others felt it and with the fire, the age-old symbol of protection and hope, they began to tell, each in turn, of what they knew of Tom and Bev.
"They got up and were tending the fire just after midnight" Colleen said. "She said she couldn't sleep in that hut because of bugs or something. They went up to the helicopter to sleep inside.... just to sleep inside." Her sobs came and choked off anything more.
"There was this giant cracking sound just after the sun rose above the canyon rocks" Carley said. "And then a big crash... It shook the ground, and I got up, and I saw the dust, and I ran up there... and they were there.... like that." She stared into the fire and shook a little and pressed closer to Duncan.
"The Helicopter is trashed... we're stuck here. That's all there is to it...we're stuck here and these people are dead because somebody is out there who killed them that's what!" Royce jumped up and continued. "Did you see those rocks and those poles? They pried that flake off the cliff right under our noses and we didn't even know what was happening. We are in serious danger and I for one want to know just what we are going to do about it." Royce was shouting now and the wild glazed look was coming back.
"Calm down buddy" Duncan said “We're in this together and we'll get out of it together".
"Not on your life!" exclaimed Royce. "I'm not sitting around here waiting to be killed off. I'm doing some hunting of my own!" With that he got up and strode off from the fire circle toward the river.
"Royce, don't! Come back here...."
"No, no, no..." Carley started to weep again.
Colleen just sat, looking after Royce, saying “Shit...oh shit, what next?"
The three of them sat by the fire all through the afternoon into the evening and Royce had still not returned.
Duncan picked out three of the most solid and straight staves left over from the hut building and handing each of the women one, he began to sharpen his with one of the large obsidian flakes from the Doctor's buckskin roll.
"It looks like it’s going to be a long night ladies. We each need to make a spear and then harden it in the fire. Colleen, you and Carley go into my hut and take turns sleeping and guarding the doorway with your spears. Take some rocks and loose dirt and pebbles to throw into somebody's eyes if you have to. I'll stay by the fire all night and catch some sleep when Royce comes back."
The darkness slithered down around them, chilling them with its inky fingers. Carley and Colleen took their spears and small projectiles into the hut that Duncan had built. The solid mud walls of the hut gave them a little sense of security and seeing Duncan in the firelight made them feel a little safer. Colleen took a position just inside the door and Carley curled up in the back of the hut and was soon asleep.
Duncan built the fire up and walked a small perimeter at the edge of the light gathering brushwood and sniffing at the night air. He stopped and strained his ears into the blackness, hoping for some sound of Royce. The popping and the hiss of the
fire was all he heard above the swirling river sound.
Royce Addison had his dander up. Yeah, he thought, it's on now. Fuck with me will ya? Come get some of this old bastard, he snarled to himself as he worked his way along the riverbank. He was headed to a small stand of alders where he had seen some of the mule deer the day before. At the base of one of the alders was a small stepping ledge and a number of large flat rocks. Royce took a stick and pried up the largest of the flat rocks and dragged it to the brink of the ledge. He rigged another deadfall trap here at the only open access to the tree and ran a trip wire across the ledge with some of the grass cordage from his pocket. At the base of the tree he laid a small fire and with four leg-sized logs formed a leaning star that would burn in upon itself. He gathered the biggest rocks that could fit in his pockets and inside his shirt. As night began to fall he sparked the fire with the lighter he had kept secreted in his jeans. With the fire burning on its own, he propped a six-foot log against the tree and shinning up it, he was able to stretch and reach the lowest branch of the alder. Climbing up to where the trunk split, he wedged himself into the crotch of the tree. Cradling the biggest rock inside his t-shirt, he waited in the night for someone to come. Just let them come now, he thought, staring into the dark.
In the hut, Colleen had started to feel more at ease. The fire provided a rosy glow and the night wind was gentle. The sight of Duncan’s strong back silhouetted against the firelight reassured her. The strain eased somewhat for the time being, she began to think about Royce. She wondered where he was. He had been gone a very long time and she felt he was in trouble.
She looked into the back of the hut and was barely able to perceive Carley's small curves in the darkness. Carley sighed and turned softly. She's asleep the poor dear, thought Colleen. I'll just step outside for some air before I have to wake her for her watch.
Colleen left the hut and walked to the fire circle where Duncan sat, asleep with the spear cradled in his lap. She walked quietly around the fire and placed more wood in its glowing center. Duncan stirred but did not wake. He looks so tired and so peaceful, she mused. After all we've been through I can't wake him just now. He needs rest. We all need rest. I'm so tired. And poor Royce, what about poor Royce?
She walked to the edge of the light and stood there straining to hear. The wind rattling the trees by the river sounded peaceful to her and when a branch snapped she felt sure it was Royce out in the bush near the river trying to find his way back into camp. She wanted to call out to him but she didn't want to wake Duncan or Carley. She walked a little way into the darkness toward the river and paused. Turning her head slightly back toward the fire, she took her spear in hand and turned back to the dark and started off toward the river.
In the willows near the river's edge she managed to find the small game trail that Royce had taken down river earlier. She followed the trail for several hundred yards and almost turned back. She stopped on a small ledge above the river and thought she heard a noise somewhere behind her.
"I've got to find Royce", she said aloud.
Pushing through the bushes in the dark, she fell twice and almost cried out in fear and panic but managed to hold her voice back. She gripped the spear and using it as a clearing stick she forced herself to go on through the red river willows.
At the edge of her will, unable to go any further she suddenly found herself out of the bushes and on a flat rock several feet above the river's edge. Across a small gully she saw another ledge and at the top she saw the friendly glow of Royce's fire.
“Oh, thank God,” she whispered, “Thank God, he's here!”
She wanted desperately to call out, to hear Royce's welcome in return but she didn't dare. She now felt sure she heard noises behind her.... snapping noises.... panting noises. Or was it just the river? It must be the river. Royce, oh, Royce please be there Please, oh please...
It was with a litany of fear under her breath that she went down the gully and started up the rock ledge on the other side.
In the tree, Royce had been straining to hear. In his hands, he gripped a football size rock and the spear was at the ready in the crotch of the tree.
Come on in, he thought, just you come on in here and get some of this!
He was concentrating on the blackness at the outer edge of his fire, on the edge that dropped down the ledge by the river. His knuckles whitened and his arms quivered as he gripped the rock with all his strength and strained toward the dark and the approaching noises.
Then he heard it. A snap and a dull sort of thud followed by some rustling noises from the darkness.
“Yes,” he hissed, “I got you now you bastard. I got your ass now!”
Royce came down the tree and still clutching the spear he stopped and pulled a burning branch from the fire. Scrabbling down the ledge, he gibbered with anger and delight. In the margin of the thin light from the branch he could see that his deadfall trap had worked. He could see the large flat rock was down and under it were a pair of struggling legs.
He moved in closer and sat quivering as the legs stopped their movement. From under the rock he could make out a glistening, widening slick of blood. He dropped down to the ledge and moved around the rock, avoiding the blood and waving the branch ahead of him. Coming to the other side of the rock, he stopped in fear and amazement. The legs had two dirty white sneakers sticking at odd angles from a pair of blue jeans.
Royce dropped the burning branch and took the spear in both hands. He pried up the rock dropping it heavily several times. He reached behind him and taking the brand he looked at the victim of his trap.
The head was strangely elongated and soft looking. A kind of jelly like substance oozed from the nose. The feeble light from the torch was enough to show him that it was Colleen and that she was crushed to death, her blood staining the rock before him.
“Arrghh,” he strangled, scuttling backward.
“No! No! No!!”
The hand that held the torch flung it down behind him and crying in despair to the darkness, he covered his face in his hands and reeled backward. His heel found the torch and it rolled under him, pitching him backward down the ledge. The first impact caused him to bite his tongue in half and consciousness left him as his head struck rock.
He slid in a cascade of pebbles and dirt, then dropped the last twenty feet into the waiting river. The dark water swallowed him and there was no sound save that of the rattling alders.
Duncan awoke just before dawn, stiff and cold from sitting up all night. The fire had gone out and there was no movement from the hut.
I must have been more exhausted than I thought; I should never have let that fire go out! At least it's still got some coals, he thought and shivered a bit.
He took some twigs and stooped to uncover the embers and blow them gently into flame. With the twigs crackling, he added more wood and soon had the fire back up to its promising warmth and light.
The sun was just coming up in rays over the sandstone cliff behind camp. The light was dun and the wreckage of the helicopter was gaunt and spectral in the river mist. Duncan squatted on his haunches and stirred at the fire with a stick. In the slice of growing blue between the canyon walls, high above the river, a trio of bald eagles wheeled in a descending spiral.
They must be after those geese. I know exactly how they feel. He laughed wryly to himself and thought of the elk hanging back at the Chicopee Canyon Ranch. It seemed like a year ago, but it was just a few days. One day you're out running free, chasing the wind, the next you're running for your life and wind up hanging upside down in some guy's barn! The thought chilled him and he inched closer to the fire.
"Hey, what's for breakfast?" Duncan jumped to his feet and whirled around to face Carley.
"You scared the shit out of me," he blurted.
Carley laughed and edged closer to the fire. Shivering in the early morning chill, she crouched there by the flames, hair tousled with bits of grass clinging to it. Something stirred in Duncan.
"Where's Colleen?" he asked.
"I don't know, I thought she was out here at the fire with you. She never woke me up for my turn at watch."
"Shit, I asked you both to stay in the hut. We really need to stick together now. Having Royce out there running wild is bad enough. We are in serious trouble and we have to be organized."
Duncan was starting to rant and he felt his control slipping away faster and faster. With a heavy sigh of frustration, he just shut up altogether. His dark glower scared Carley and she found herself wanting to placate him.
"Maybe she went off to find Royce," she offered.
"Yeah and maybe she went out to pick up bagels and cream cheese," he shot back.
"God, I'm hungry, is there anything to eat?"
"No, and we better find something soon or we're not going to be worth a shit to even be rescued."
"Does anybody even know we're here?" Carley asked.
Duncan heard the wavering edge of fear creeping into her voice and realized he felt very protective of her.
"Sure, they do, it's only a matter of time before a rescue copter shows up."
"I hope so, I'm scared and I just want to go home. I'm really scared....” She had started to whimper, her head on her knees.
Duncan moved closer to her and gently put his arm around her. She pressed close to him and he embraced her with both arms and rocked her slowly back and forth.
"It's ok...You're not alone, you're not alone.... I’m her for you...." He remembered the eight-year-old boy he had found stuck in a tree well one day during an afternoon sweep of the mountain. The boy had a compound fracture of the femur and he was so scared... just so damned scared. Duncan had no radio and he got down in the snow there with the boy and held him, talking the whole time, deep into the night until search and rescue found them.
"They'll find us soon," he told her.
They stayed like that for over an hour. The sun had come up and the morning was clear and crisp. They both were both painfully aware that something was amiss that Colleen still wasn't back.
"Well, I don't know about you, kid, but I need something to eat."
"What should we do?"
"I think the safest and easiest thing is to go down to the river and forage along the bank. Maybe we can get some frogs, or gig a fish with our spears. If we get lucky maybe we can surprise a goose or a duck in the reeds. Anything is better than nothing. Maybe Colleen went out to look for the old man and the two of them have found something."
Duncan didn't really believe the last part, but the idea seemed to buoy up Carley's spirits.
"Yeah, good! Let's go find Colleen and Royce. They'll have food. I know he must have found something... he seems so smart!"
Carley and Duncan took their spears and set off toward the river. The terrain was such that of necessity they followed the same trail that Colleen had taken in the night.
The bent grasses and trampled bushes gave them hope that maybe they would meet Royce and Colleen after all.
They worked their way along the river, Duncan insisting that they stay focused on finding food. Carley was becoming more and more emotionally in need of finding Colleen and Royce. He felt that they would find them too but part of him was acutely aware of the need to take care of the first priority, that of sustenance.
In a small cove that an eddy of the river had carved out they spotted a school of fish feeding in the shallows. Duncan told Carley to stay and try to spear one while he went further down river to investigate the reeds for ducks or frogs.
Fighting his way through the thick copse of red willows, he found himself on a flat rock above the river. At his feet lay a rough spear. He picked it up and with a sickening feeling in the pit of his stomach he realized it was Colleen's
His chest tightened and with a cold sweat beading up on his brow he scanned the river's edge and listened intently for any sign of the two missing ones.
His eyes were held by something across the small gully. Initially it seemed unreal, a trick or illusion, but the harsh reality came quickly. He knew what it was, he didn't want to know, and he tried not to know, to say that it was something else but he knew it was Colleen and that the fly swarmed blood was hers. Above the ledge where she lay he could see the wisps of smoke rising from Royce's fire under the alder.
That crazy old bastard! He's killed her! He's fucking killed her! His thoughts ran wild, disbelief and hopelessness battering his mind. He sat heavily on the rock and shook as he hyperventilated. Calm down, he thought, just calm down.
He could see that she was dead. The flies removed any doubt he may have had. He felt no need to cross the gully and get a closer look. Sitting on the rock, occasionally looking over at Colleen he thought, trying to reason out what had happened.
The scenario he came up with was very close to what actually had taken place. Just what had become of Royce Addison was still a mystery but he had a feeling that it wasn't good.
That's it, he reasoned, we've got to get the hell out of here. There just isn't any reason to stick around. If Royce did kill her, then he's crazy and will try to kill us too. If it was somebody or something else.... whoever did the helicopter and the doctor then we're still in deep shit. We've gotta go ... and right now, he resolved.
Duncan rushed back through the willows to the cove where Carley was still fishing.
"C'mon" he shouted. "Let's go, we're going...let's go!" He grabbed her by the arm and pushed her up the bank toward the rough game trail.
“What's wrong? Stop it, you're hurting me."
"Go, dammit, just go! We haven't got time to hang around here and talk about it", he shouted.
She sensed his fear and feared his rage. Gulping back a huge sob, Carley started to run through the bushes back toward the camp. Her eyes stung with tears of fright and frustration. All she wanted to do was be somewhere safe. Somewhere where she knew what was going to happen.
Neither of them said anything more until they arrived at the campsite. They stood panting at the fire circle, neither wanting to be the first to speak.
Her eyes held the message that she knew some cruel blow was about to land and Duncan could already see that she knew what it was.
"It's Colleen, isn't it? Isn't it?!"
"Yes....she's dead.... I think Royce killed her in one of his deadfall traps."
"We've got to get out of here. We can't wait any longer for somebody to rescue us. We've gotta go now!"
With that, Duncan grasped both of their spears and took Carley's hand in his.
"C'mon, stay with me now...we can make it."
They walked all day, Carley alternating between hysterics and morbid silence. She did keep walking though, much to Duncan's relief. He admired her and felt deeply sorry that she was being put through an ordeal like this at her age. He kept his panic down by trying to formulate a plan.
They went up river, staying as much as they could on the high bluff running along the south side. At the confluence of the Yampa they paused and Duncan pointed with his spear upstream on the smaller river.
"We'll go up the Yampa. We can try to get up on the big mesa a few miles upstream and the follow the canyon northeast, try to find a sheep ranch or something. If push comes to shove, Maybelle is about a hundred miles up that way."
He didn't for a minute believe that either of them could walk a hundred miles. He was already getting fatigued and the blisters on his feet were screaming at him. He felt weak in the knees and slightly dizzy. Carley can’t feel much better, he thought. She was just plowing straight ahead, stumbling once in a while over a rock, keeping her eyes fixed on something intangible off in the distance.
They walked like that until dark when they went to shelter under a granite ledge behind a gnarled juniper tree. Carley curled herself into a ball with her head on Duncan's lap and fell into a fitful sleep. Duncan slept little, starting at each little night noise. He tried to occupy his thoughts with a plan for the morning but his mind's eye kept forcing visions of Tom and Bev, the doctor and Colleen into his consciousness. Once when he fell unknowing into sleep he was terrified into wakefulness by a dream of Royce coming at him with slavering fangs, intent on devouring him.
In the pre-dawn light, they were both up and without much talk they continued up the river, sticking to the high ledges midway up the canyon wall. They continued the forced march until well after noon trying to make progress, but not fall from the precipitous cliffs. A rock ledge they had been following dipped down and turned abruptly to follow a contour of the river. Carley had moved several yards ahead of Duncan and as she entered a brushy hollow he saw the bushes shake violently and heard her scream.
He felt a tremendous crack on his skull, then a flash of light and pain gave way to oblivion.
He awoke to the sound of rattles. Human voices, low and menacing seemed to be rising and falling in volume. He opened his eyes, fighting to free them from the thick casting of blood that covered most of his face. He could not move and his body screamed in pain as he tried to bring his arm to his face. He could not see a thing and as he tried to reclaim consciousness he realized that his face was in the dirt and darkness was all around him.
"Agghhhhh", he grunted as wave after wave of pain assaulted him. He felt a sharp prod in his side and squirmed to get away from the intruding pain.
"Uhh...uhhhh, no, get away," he said through his fog.
The rattles stopped abruptly and the voices began to hoot softly. He felt a menacing dread and trying once again to move, he realized that his hands and ankles were tied. He was prodded again and again by the sharp thing and he wriggled desperately to get away from it. Unreasoning fear was creeping into his whole being. The hooting stopped and the rattles commenced even louder than before. The chanting voices started again and grew louder and more frenzied.
He felt more than heard something being dragged from before him and then he felt several pairs of hands clutching at him. He was dragged along a rough surface for several yards and jerked into a sitting position. The hands held him fast. Whistles all at a fevered pitch joined the chanting and the rattles. He was clouted about the head several times and suddenly a fiber covering that was wound around his eyes was pulled away.
He cringed in fear and disbelief at what he saw. He was in a cave and in the presence of twelve people. People like he had never seen before. They were squat and burly with thick lips and broad noses. Their legs were bowed and bent and they seemed hunched over slightly. Their faces were fierce and dark, with some of them painted in red and yellow and feathers stuck onto their jaw lines.
The rattlers stopped abruptly and formed a circle. In the dim light of the fire, Duncan could see that there was some commotion in their midst. Suddenly all the rattlers and the chanters started up again in frenzy, shrieking and backing away from the thing in the center. The dark thing began to slowly whirl around, standing more erect as it did so. It whirled faster and faster and came at Duncan who recoiled in horror. It was Carley! Or more accurately what had been Carley. It was her skin, flayed from her body, painted in bizarre designs and pierced through with porcupine quills. The eyes inside that peered out at Duncan were not Carley's. Nor were the hands that protruded out past hers and held the stone blade and bowl. The thing that had been Carley reached out and nicked Duncan's neck with the stone blade and pressed the bowl under the wound. The bowl was pulled away and another hand pressed mud on the wound. The apparition whirled away and Duncan could see the rough fiber cord stitching up the back of the skin suit that used to be Carley. The thing stood, legs bowed, and held the bowl to its lips and drank from Duncan's warm blood. A floating sensation took him and darkness washed over him.
The next several days and nights passed in a blurry succession of dark terrors as Duncan danced in and out of reality and consciousness. He was summoned by the fiendish apparition again and again to fill the hideous thing's bowl with his own blood.
As he lay in his cramped dark pocket of the larger, communal cave he was continually prodded and goaded into wakefulness by a hideous crone. The old woman seemed to purposely wait until he appeared to sleep and gibbered with wicked glee as she poked a sharp stick into him or dropped a hot rock from the fire onto his tortured flesh.
Many days and nights had gone by when at last Duncan failed to respond to the mistreatment of the hag. His tormentor grew weary with her sport being so spoiled and for the next three days he was left alone in the dark. Inside Duncan's still form an infection raged. His wounds had festered and caused a somatic storm within his battered shape. While his much-daunted immune system fought valiantly to stave off the raging fever and toxins his brain spun in a mad whirl of horrific shapes and sounds. There was a howling within him and grotesque gargoyles with drooling jaws flew at him from unknown quarters. In his delirium, he stood in the center of a marble courtyard while demonic beings fought to rip him asunder. He flew through the night while dragons screamed close in his wake. Lightning struck him repeatedly and exploded his body into shards of pain. He was driven deep underground where serpents and carnivorous insects sought to devour his soul.
On the morning of the fourth day he awoke shivering but calm. His fever had broken and his thirst was intense. Duncan sat without moving in the dark recess and thought. He tried to form words but in his feverish journey he had become preverbal. His thoughts formed only pictures now and he relied on feelings more than reason.
The hag came with gruel and her stick. Duncan sensed that it was the vile gruel that had weakened him and in response to her first prod he grunted. The old woman peered at him in the shadow and moved to prod him again. Duncan's feet exploded against the branches that served as the bars of his cell. With his left hand, he tore the stick from the crone's grasp and closed her windpipe with the grip of his right. He squeezed as hard as he could and deeply went his fingers into the wrinkled flesh of her neck. He brought the fire-sharpened stick around and drove it into the top of her head. She quivered and fell limp.
Duncan dragged the lifeless husk behind him by the hair and shuffled toward the dim daylight glow at the mouth of the cave. He entered the main chamber and stood blinking against the light, his left hand entangled still in the dead crone's hair. The people sat in a semi-circle and the old shaman crouched with his bowl and feathered staff. Duncan's presence in the chamber brought frightened silence from all but the old shaman. He stood straight and began to murmur a song half under his breath. He slowly spun around with his arms held out to his sides. The people crouched on the cave floor began to shake their rattles. The rattling picked up pace and the shaman spun faster. The drummers began in earnest and as the shaman spun Duncan began to feel dizzy. He felt as if he were suddenly falling backward to melt through the cave floor and deep into an underground passage. The drumming increased in frenzy and Duncan felt as though her were propelled through a tunnel he had never seen before. One that could not exist in the world he had known but had become real to him now. The shaman spun in his ecstasy and Duncan himself began to spin. An enormous eagle met him at the end of his tunnel and he rode on the eagle's back. Far into a strange land the eagle flew with Duncan as its passenger. From his vantage point on the eagle's back Duncan could see a river far below him. His perception shifted and Duncan was a salmon in the river looking up at the old shaman riding on the eagle's back. The shaman's gaze locked with his and he felt their bodies merge somewhere in space between the eagle and the river.
Abruptly Duncan was back in the worlds he had seen in his delirium. The worlds filled with harpies and gargoyles, serpents and dragons and then he found himself at the base of a gigantic ancient oak. The tree bent to him and its branches encircled him as the tree pulsated and gave to Duncan the powers of the earth.
He found himself back in the chamber as the drumming sharply stopped. When the shaman sprang at him the horrors of the past weeks galvanized him into action. He stepped back and whirled the body of the hag in a circle and caught the shaman full in the chest with her torso. The old man was hurled backward and Duncan was on him. His teeth found the old one's face and Duncan ripped a large chunk of flesh from the cheek. He swallowed and the taste of blood drove him to a red rage. When Duncan regained his senses, he was standing again in the center of the chamber spinning slowly around with his arms out to his sides. In both his fists he clutched the oozing gray matter that was the old shaman's brains. He was covered with blood and felt wrapped in a warm protective glow. As he spun he visited places and times far away from the cave. As he spun he merged in and out with the persona of the old shaman and heard songs from the howling wind in his head. As he spun he felt a fire within him and he knew things...wonderful things that he possessed no words for. As he spun the rattles started softly and the drums joined.
How long he spun in the center of the chamber he did not have a way of knowing. Eventually he found himself on the floor of the cave and one of the younger women brought him food and gave him furs to lie on. More days passed and Duncan moved in and out of reality, a reality that was ceasing to exist for him. Time passed and with his returning strength he ventured out of the cave and onto the ledge far above the river. There he sat for three days and nights taking no food. He sang the wind and knew the songs of the birds and the stories of the clouds...he just knew.
At the end of three days he stood and reached his hand into the tattered remains of his pants. He withdrew a metal ring with shining objects on it. They were his car keys but he could not know that now. He jingled them, watching the light flash from them in the morning sun. He held them tight in his hand. In silence, he drew back his arm and then hurled the keys far out from the ledge and toward the river. He looked on in fascination as the keys described a glittering parabola in their plunge to the swift water far below. A deerfly bit him on the back of the neck, and as he turned to the cave he grunted something that meant...
Dunc Ahn wants to eat.