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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Trip of a Lifetime

Making Connections

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

Ed and Brenna are now traveling downriver with Sergei and Pavel. They're wet, miserable, and on the run. Their plan? That's easy. Get back to the United States any way they can. Meanwhile, Jack's got a few plans of his own.

A REMINDER This is a work of fiction. All the characters are figments of the authors' imaginations. It's NOT a paddling guide. If you're planning a trip on the Albany River, consult the most recent edition of a good guide-book and be sure you're thoroughly familiar with all applicable regulations. While maps of Ontario show some of the waterways mentioned here, the places depicted in our story exist only in the authors' minds—and in yours.

If you've missed a chapter of our Trip, or if you're joining us for the first time and you want to catch up, just use the hot-linked title to go to the In the Same Boat Archives. It's all there.

Our story continues….

December 3, 2002

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Moses watched the river with single-minded concentration. An infinity of black spruce and jack pine stretched back away from the lip of the cut-bank, framing the clump of poplar where he squatted. The light green leaves were the brightest things to be seen in the long northern twilight, but Moses' dark face and worn clothes were lost in shadow. A fine drizzle was falling, but Moses didn't notice. Every few seconds, his right arm twitched involuntarily and his right foot kicked out at nothing, sending a small clod of sandy soil tumbling down the bank. Each time this happened, Moses carefully re-aimed the rifle-scope. He was determined to keep his targets in sight.

The objective lens of the scope was beaded with drops of water. Moses wiped it carefully from time to time with the cuff of his shirt—the left cuff, the cleaner one, kept clean especially for that purpose—but mostly he just watched. His face showed the strain of unconscious effort. He swiveled slowly to his left, tracking the two canoes as they moved downriver. Moses aligned the crosshairs on each paddler's head in turn, counting to himself as he did so. His voice had a childlike lisp: "Wwon, tooo, thweeee, fowwer…."

"Yep," he whispered to the trees around him. "Fowwer of 'em. Fowwer peeples in tooo canoos."

At last the mist swallowed up both boats. Try as he might, Moses couldn't bring the image back by polishing the lens with his sleeve. He lowered the scope, resting his hands on his thighs, and stared moodily out at the Albany. Then a grin stole across his smooth, mahogany features.

He drew a tattered bandanna from his jacket pocket. Without taking his eyes off the river, he wiped the glistening tube of the rifle-scope. His hands moved back and forth. The right one twitched from time to time, but his grip on the scope never loosened. It was his pride and joy, a gift from his father, dead ten years back. Drowned, maybe. Gone, for sure. He'd been the best hunter working the Albany, but now he was gone. Lost in a gale on the big river that he'd known so well. Moses' wide grin narrowed, then collapsed. A soft moan escaped from between his compressed lips, and a new and much thicker mist suddenly hid the river from him. He rubbed at his eyes, but the mist only grew more opaque. He rubbed harder, trying to rub away the sudden pain.

Things hadn't been the same since his father had gone. Nobody understood him like his father had. His father hadn't laughed at him, hadn't hurt him, hadn't called him names. Not like some of the others.

His right leg beat an involuntary tattoo on the bank, sending a small avalanche of sandy soil spilling down into the water below. He didn't mind being called names so much, though. It was better than being ignored. His father hadn't ignored him, ever. And he'd given him the wonderful treasure he now held in his hands, the magic tube that brought far-away things almost close enough to touch.

His father had taken him seriously. Told him stories. Listened to him when he struggled to talk. But not many people did that now. The mist before Moses' eyes grew thicker again. He rubbed them once more.

Then, with a supreme effort of will, he pushed the image of his father out of his mind and turned his attention back to the river. His hands resumed their earlier work, burnishing the rifle-scope with his torn bandanna. The voices of his memory were now silent. He lived only in the present—the rushing water cutting away at the bank beneath him, the constant drip, drip, drip from the branches above, the deepening twilight. This was how he spent his days, waiting, watching, noting whatever passed by. He'd see men and women from the village, and often he'd watch an official floatplane touch down across the river at Ogoki. Sometimes he'd even spot a swimming moose or foraging bear. And always he'd hear the river sucking at the cut-bank, the constant drip of rain, and the harsh croak of ravens. He liked those sounds.

He didn't like the big, loud planes, though. He hated them. They flew low, so low he sometimes thought they'd strike the straggling spruce growing along the river. And the noise they made…. The noise! It hit him without warning. It hurt his head and made his ears ring. The first time the big planes flew over him he even dropped the rifle-scope, his father's gift to him! He could still feel the new scratch on the tube—feel it right through the threadbare fabric of his bandanna.

The big planes made him very angry. They had no business here on his river. They had no right to make him drop his rifle-scope. His father's gift. When it happened, he'd tried to stretch up and pull them down out of the sky, to smash them and put an end to their terrible noise. But they were too big and too fast for him. And though they flew so low, they still flew much too high for him to reach. So he went back to watching the river and trying to rub away the gouge on the rifle-scope's tube.

But now he'd seen four strangers in two canoes. He needed to tell someone, so he struggled awkwardly to his feet, clutching his rifle-scope, and then he began to run. It was a stumbling, shambling lope, and he had to duck his head to keep from being stabbed in the eye by a low-hanging branch. But he never dropped the scope.

Red Moon was the first person he met in the village. She was returning to her cabin with a handful of wild plants when she heard the dogs start to howl. She looked up just in time to see Moses trotting into the clearing. He jerked to a stop opposite her, panting. His eyes rolled wildly. A tumult of sounds came out of his mouth, but none of them formed any words she recognized.

She knew enough to wait patiently. In eighty years, Red Moon had seen a lot of crazy kids come and go. Moses wasn't the worst. Not by a long sight. And anyway, she'd known his mother before she'd died of a fever…twenty-five…no, thirty years ago. She wasn't blood kin, but she'd kept an eye on Moses ever since, anyway, for his mother's sake. So she stood quietly next to her cabin steps and waited, turning her walnut-shell face toward the giant child-man standing before her and laying a spidery hand on his trembling arm.

Slowly, the sounds that Moses made resolved themselves into words. "They…there's fowwer a' 'em. In toocanoos. Fowwer a' 'em. Onthewivver…." Moses' head jerked back in the direction he'd come. His right leg did a dance in time to the music only he could hear. "Peeple onthe wivver. Fowwer a' 'em. I seen 'em, gran'muvver. I seen 'em.' He held the rifle-scope up to his eye to show her. "Seen 'em. Me"

Red Moon spoke softly to Moses, as softly as she had spoken to her children's children when they were newly born. "It's all right, boy. I'm not goin' anywhere. So you jes' take your time and tell me. Tell me everythin'."

Moses began again, forming his words with great care. "There's fowwer peeple on the wivver, gran'muvver. In tooo canoos. Goin' downwivver." He held up his right hand, curling the thumb against his palm so that only four fingers were visible. Then he folded the third and fourth fingers against the thumb, leaving a only crooked V. After that, his whole arm began to tremble, and he dropped his hand.

"Four people in two canoes? Goin' downriver?" Red Moon repeated Moses' message in a questioning tone. Moses nodded violently. "They still there, boy?" she asked.

Moses gnawed at his lip, an expression of deep uncertainty on his face. "Naww," he replied after a long pause. "I lost 'em." And he began to polish the lenses of the rifle-scope with his sleeve.

Red Moon's wrinkled face grew thoughtful. She laid her plants down carefully on the steps of her cabin, then took Moses by the elbow and began gently steering him down the trail. She looked like a small tug maneuvering a carrier. "Take me to where you saw those people, Mose," she said. "I want to see."

Mose headed back toward the river, matching his lurching gait to the old woman's shuffling steps. When they reached the clump of poplars, he pointed toward the dark water. "Ri' there. I seen 'em. Fowwer peeple in tooo canoos. I seen 'em." Then he raised the rifle-scope to his eye and peered out into the twilight. After a minute, he lowered it and shook his head. "Nuttin," was all he said.

Red Moon also looked out at the river. She was listening, too, and her ears seldom failed her. She thought she heard something other than the constant, soft drumbeat of rain and the rush of water. Voices? Did she hear voices? She thought she did. She listened for a while longer, but heard nothing more. Moses waited patiently by her side.

Finally, the old woman turned to look at him. "I seen 'em," he repeated, and his hands twisted around the rifle-scope.

"I know you did, boy," Red Moon replied gently, and she placed her hand on his arm once more. "Your father would be proud of you. Now come with me. We're going to visit Singing Wolf." And she led Moses further along the trail, away from the village.

A narrow path ran along the crest of the bank, which gradually diminished in height until it was only six feet above the river. Here the path opened into a clearing containing a single cabin. A large aluminum canoe was pulled up on the narrow gravel beach.

Red Moon looked around for Singing Wolf—her first daughter's youngest boy. She found him behind the cabin, repairing a fish-net in the half-light. Singing Wolf nodded a greeting as the old woman and Moses approached him. He put down his net and motioned his guests toward a rough-hewn bench running along the side wall of the cabin. Red Moon sat down immediately, but Moses remained standing. Singing Wolf joined his grandmother on the bench. He offered her a cigarette from a crumpled pack. When she refused, he offered the pack to Moses before putting one in his own mouth, then lighted them both from a single wooden match that he struck on the dry undersurface of the bench. He took a deep drag and then turned his attention to Red Moon, who told him of Moses' discovery. When she had finished speaking, Moses nodded vigorously. "I seen 'em," he said.

Singing Wolf also nodded. "I heard something that sounded like an aluminum boat hitting a bar earlier. Thought I heard voices, too, but I was busy with the net and the light was dying and I was in a hurry. I did not go to look."

Red Moon spoke again. "Your cousin Sarah Jock—you remember she went to live in Fort Hope, but she came back later for the wedding?"

"I remember," said Singing Wolf.

"Sarah's been telling everyone about some white people that wrote her askin' after their kin. They say they've gone missing on the river since the troubles began. Four white people. In two canoes." Confident that Singing Wolf had made the connection, Red Moon continued: "Sarah's asked folks to tell her if anyone sees 'em. She says some of our people over to Fort Albany are interested."

She paused and shot a worried glance at Moses, who had thrown the cigarette away and was once again polishing his rifle-scope. Then she turned back to Singing Wolf. "So maybe you oughta come into the village with me and use that new phone they got in the Chief's office. Tell Sarah what it is that Moses seen on the river."

"I seen 'em!" Moses yelled. His right leg kicked out at nothing.

Singing Wolf stared thoughtfully in the direction the river. Then he stood up and helped the old woman to her feet. Without another word the three of them headed down the trail toward the village.

*   *   *

Downriver, four people in two canoes grumbled at the constant drizzle and cursed the occasional unseen gravel bar in hushed tones, but they welcomed the low rolling mist. The land beyond the cut-banks was an unbroken panorama of stunted spruce and pine, the only interruption coming at places where an old burn gave quick-growing birch and poplar a toehold. In daylight, these burns were islands of light green in an otherwise dark universe. Now they were only pale gray smears against a black backdrop, as false dawn brightened the sky. It gave just enough light to allow the paddlers some sense of the brooding landscape that framed the river. They paddled onward, hurried along by a quickening current.

The Albany River was moving faster. It had risen noticeably since late evening, when they'd both hit hard on a bar just outside the Native village. Such unexpected groundings were now becoming less frequent, and their frayed nerves gradually knitted. They'd no real idea how far they'd come since setting out at dusk, but they guessed they'd come a long way, and a growing optimism held their fatigue in check.

Suddenly Brenna stopped paddling and turned around to look upstream. "What's that?" she said, and her hoarse whisper carried across the water to the other boat. Everyone listened.

"I don't hear anything," Ed said after a moment's silence.

Sergei only shook his head in reply to Brenna's inquiring look, but Pavel's face was a study in concentration. Then he whispered, "I hear something, too! It sounds like a motor. Yes, that's it. It is a motor."

Pavel reached forward into the bow of the aluminum freighter, its black paint now scarred and peeling. He started to pull his Kalashnikov free of the tarp which shielded it.

"Not yet, Pavel," Sergei cautioned from the bow of the XL Tripper, only a boat-length away. "We will wait to see who it is. And then we will decide what to do." But Brenna noticed that he, too, freed his Kalashnikov from its waterproof envelope. No surprise there, she thought. They were in the middle of the big river, with no island anywhere to be seen. They couldn't run from a motor, and there was no place to hide. Only the mist and the swirling drizzle concealed them. And it was getting lighter by the minute. "Trip of a lifetime, my ass!" she muttered under her breath. A stifled chuckle from the bow seat told her that Sergei had heard. Brenna found that she was grinning despite herself.

The drone of the motor grew louder. Now even Ed could hear it. Then the mist parted long enough to reveal the outline of an unpainted aluminum freighter, a tarnished silver crescent in the morning light. A lone figure sat just forward of the stern, his hand on the motor's throttle. The canoe's bow rode high in the air, but not so high that it didn't throw a good-sized bow wave. It was closing the distance between them fast.

Sergei had his monocular out. "It is an Indian," he said. "He sees us, and… yes, he is coming over this way." He raised his voice to be sure it carried to Pavel. "I do not see a weapon."

They waited. Their canoes revolved slowly in the muscular current until they both faced bow upstream. Now they drifted backwards down the river. >From time to time a chorus of ripples told them they were passing over a submerged bar, but they didn't ground. Soon the motor canoe was close enough for them to make out the pattern of the solitary occupant's checked wool jacket, and see the barred feather in his sodden felt hat. From time to time, an orange ember winked from near his lips. Brenna realized it was a cigarette. The man—she was sure it was a man—throttled the motor down to a rumbling idle. The big canoe's bow settled back into the water, and nestled snugly between the two other boats. All three drifted downstream together.

The man in the checked jacket regarded the four paddlers silently for several minutes, examining each in turn. The ember at his lips glowed and faded as he breathed. Water ran down from the brim of his felt hat in a steady stream. The breeze brought the mingled smells of cigarette smoke, wet wool, and gasoline to Brenna's nostrils.

Finally, the apparition spoke. "I am Singing Wolf," he said. "Sarah Jock at Fort Hope has a message for you." He paused, searching the four faces before him. "The message is this: "Everything is wonderful…." Then he stopped and waited, his eyes moving from one face to another.

Ed was the first to break the silence. "And nothing hurt!" he exclaimed, answering the questioning look from Brenna with one word: "Jack!" And then he laughed.

Singing Wolf smiled at him. "You must be Ed. Sarah said that someone named Ed would understand the message."

"Right. I am. Ed, that is. And I do. Understand the message, I mean." And then Ed introduced the others.

Singing Wolf nodded gravely as each paddler was named. "Sarah asked me to tell you that a métis called Crazy Dog will come up from Fort Albany to meet you and bring you out. He's looking for four paddlers in two canoes. It is all arranged. You can wait for him at one of my cabins, just downriver…." And he gestured with his left hand. "I will take you that far."

"So," Sergei said, turning to Ed, "we are to wait there for this…ah, Crazy Dog…to take us downriver? And it is all arranged?"

"Looks like it," Ed replied.

"And do you think it is safe?" Sergei asked.

Singing Wolf's smile disappeared. He turned away to stare out over the water. The ember at the end of his cigarette now burned with furious brightness.

"If Jack's involved, I'd bet my life on it," Ed answered.

"And that is just what you are doing," said Sergei emphatically. "Make no mistake."

Singing Wolf's gaze now slid expressionlessly over Sergei before returning to Ed. "Jack will be coming upriver with Crazy Dog. Crazy Dog lives in Fort Albany. He goes everywhere in his big canoe. Much bigger than any of these," and he rapped the gunwale of his boat. He shrugged his shoulders. "The middle of a river in the rain is a bad place to have a conversation. My cabin is not far. Follow me."

Once more, his eyes swept over Sergei. For one minute the two men stared silently at each other. Then Singing Wolf shrugged his shoulders again and engaged reverse gear. His canoe drew apart from the others. In a minute, he had gone around them. He throttled down and idled, waiting.

Now it was Sergei's turn to stare at Ed. "'Everything was wonderful, and nothing hurt'? That is your Kurt Vonnegut, I think. I have read his book. Well, as I have said before, we are in the same boat now. I look forward to meeting your friend Jack." He twisted around to look at Singing Wolf. Raising his voice, he yelled over the water separating them. "My apologies, my friend. We will be happy to accompany you to your cabin. And we thank you for your hospitality. I am, perhaps, too suspicious."

"Maybe so," replied Singing Wolf, and he flicked the still-glowing stub of his cigarette through the drizzle into the river. "Let's go," he said, and he opened his throttle just enough to gather way. As Brenna brought the stern of the Tripper around to follow him, she saw his sodden cigarette butt swirling aimlessly round in a paddle eddy. Then it disappeared below the dark surface of the water.

To be continued…

True North

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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