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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Trip of a Lifetime


By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader The gang have survived a surf landing on James Bay, and Ed has Henry Hudson's bronze seal in his pocket. Now he and Brenna just want to get home.

A REMINDER This is a work of fiction. All the characters are figments of the authors' imaginations. If you've missed a chapter of our Trip, or if you're coming aboard 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.

The story continues….

April 1, 2003

Chapter Thirty-Three

They waited uneasily, the broad St. Lawrence River stretching before them. Low on the western horizon, dark factory chimneys towered against the backdrop of a deep-velvet sky, fitfully illuminated by yellow-orange flares of gas. Further off, beyond the smelter's stacks, a hazy smear of light marked the location of Aluminum City. By contrast, the riverbank behind Jack Van Dorn was a pool of shadow. On the other shore, scattered points of light were all that could be seen of the Mohawk Nation of Handsome Lake.

Jack's eyes never left the river. He stood on the very end of Ann Laughing Deer's wooden dock. "Almost home," he whispered to the moonless night. "At last. Jes' two miles to go."

The rhythmic thud of an unseen helicopter echoed over the river. Jack craned his neck, willing his vision to pierce the blackness, but he saw nothing. Drops of sweat ran down the gullies of his spine. The late August night was hot and humid. Impatience and anxiety added their measure to his growing discomfort. He rocked on the balls of his feet, hands shoved deep into the pockets of his grimy chinos. Between his right thumb and forefinger he clutched the black, egg-shaped pebble he'd carried all the way from Ship Sands Island. His thumb moved over the smooth surface again and again. "By God!" Jack whispered, still addressing the night. "When this fool's errand's over, I'm stayin' home for good!"

Gone were all thoughts of the Albany country, far to the north. "One more river," Jack hummed tonelessly. "One more river to cross." The thud of the helicopter faded away. Jack wondered when the next one would come along. Ann Laughing Deer had dismissed the erratic border patrols with a shrug, and cracked jokes about America's "phony war" against the elusive Lesserson Null. Jack didn't think it was all that funny, though. He reckoned innocent bystanders could be killed just as dead in a phony war as a real one. It wasn't a comforting thought.

Behind him, invisible in the deep shadow of the riverbank, Sergei and Pavel gripped their Kalashnikovs. They were also watching and listening. Pavel was tired. For a few seconds his attention wandered and he thought fleetingly of Montana. In his mind's eye he saw a lone horse, standing proudly on a high ridge, silhouetted against the golden disk of the rising sun. Then he shook his head, dismissing the vision from his conscious mind and resuming his watchful waiting. He could day-dream later, once they reached the other side of the river. Now he must stay alert. They had to avoid capture at any cost. He and Sergei had come too far to end their trip in a Canadian internment camp or an American prison. Failure was unthinkable. To be locked up now, with freedom only a couple of miles away.… It would be far better to die. Pavel did not need to ask Sergei if he agreed. He knew.

Ed leaned back against a log piling at the river's edge. He eased his rucksack to one side, wincing as a corner of the sextant case gouged him in the small of his back. A sextant wasn't the easiest load to carry. Not that he'd have left it behind, of course. If Jack could take it safely across the north Atlantic, defying U-boat patrols and every other hazard of that all but forgotten war, Ed figured he ought to be able to bring it back in one piece from a summer holiday. "Holiday," he muttered, snorting involuntarily at the incongruity of the notion. He waited for someone to say something, but no one seemed to have heard — or if they had, they'd taken no notice. "Some holiday!" Still, he had to admit it'd had its moments. He patted his shirt, tracing the outline of the Dutch East India Company seal in his buttoned chest pocket. "Souvenir of James Bay," he thought, and a soft chuckle escaped his throat. "Trip of a lifetime, indeed!"

His reverie was interrupted by an almost inaudible footfall behind him. Sergei or Pavel must be stretching his legs, Ed guessed, and he returned to his thoughts, a half-smile on his lips. Yes, it had certainly been a trip to remember: he'd gone from being a small-town shopkeeper to an international criminal in one summer. Ed ticked off his crimes. Murder, to begin with — well, manslaughter, anyway, though he could always plead justification, he supposed. "Necessity of war." He chuckled again, but the quiet croak that made its way between his teeth this time had a mirthless quality it hadn't had before. Smuggling, too. Accessory after the fact, at any rate. Plus some sort of immigration violation for evading the Canadian authorities' internment order. And theft, of course. He had a priceless piece of Canada's cultural heritage in his pocket, after all. "Mustn't forget that," he mused. "I'm a thief of time, now."

It was an impressive list, however you looked at it, and any good prosecutor would be able to make each crime give birth to several more. But Ed didn't think he was going to lose any sleep over it. "The sin be on my head," he thought, then silently added: "Where it'll rest lightly." And that was true. No doubt about it. He'd do it all again if he had to. Getting home was the only thing that mattered now. Getting out of this war — or whatever the American government was calling it today. Out of the war and back to the World. It was déjà vu all over again. Another barely audible, mirthless chuckle fretted the silent night.

There were other disturbances. No breeze ruffled the leaves on the nearby trees, but the dark water of the river murmured against the shoreline. Something splashed downstream — a fish rising to gulp a struggling insect, or maybe a diving duck hunting for crayfish in the shallows. The dock creaked softly as Jack rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet.

Brenna squatted on the beach behind Ed. She chewed on her lower lip and stared out over the water. And like all the others, she waited. At long last she allowed herself to believe that they were going to make it. Only one final obstacle remained. Surely, she thought, that couldn't compare to what they'd already survived. In a matter of hours they'd be home. Home to a soft bed. Hot showers. Roast beef. Chilled white wine. Milk and cheese. Fresh fruit. Salads. Not to mention Shirley's World-Famous Buns. Home. The word had a wonderful sound.

At just that moment, Sergei left the shelter of the river bank. He walked quietly toward Brenna, then leaned over and whispered in her ear: "It will not be long now. Soon the waiting will be over." Hearing her private hopes confirmed, Brenna's mood soared.

Suddenly, Jack heard something — a muted thrum. The sound of a motor. He stopped rocking. The thrum grew louder. Now Jack stood as rigidly as a heron waiting for a fish. The thrum grew louder still. Jack turned on his heels and scuttled toward the shadows.

A dark shape materialized in the night. Black on black, the shape slowly took on the appearance of a sleek speedboat. It headed straight for the dock. A voice carried across the water: "Fishin's been lousy tonight, and that's the truth. Thought I'd hafta go home empty-handed. Look's like my luck might be changin' at last, though."

Jack knew that voice. He stepped out of the shadows again. " I think I can guarantee you'll catch your limit, Joe," he said, his hoarse whisper just audible over the burble of the boat's engine. "Nice night for a boat ride, ain't it?"

"Pretty fair," Joe answered, even as he made fast to the dock. "Good to see ya, you old fart. Took long enough getting back, didn't ya? Molly's been drivin' me up the wall, and so has Mary. So let's not waste any more time. How 'bout ya helpin' me load my catch?"

"Sure thing," Jack said, and he motioned the others forward.

If Joe was surprised to see that two of his passengers were armed, he didn't give any sign. With only perfunctory nods and grunts of greeting, Jack's companions stepped down into the speedboat. Jack took the seat up front, next to Joe. The others crammed in as best they could behind him, placing rucksacks and packs of sturgeon roe in the bottom of the boat at their feet. When everything had been stowed, Joe turned around. He spoke rapidly. "I'm bringin' you ashore in Indian Country. Shouldn't be any problem, but we just might run into a National Guard patrol. Seems like the Great White Father" — here Joe's voice dripped sarcasm — "sorta fergot about treaty rights and Native sovereignty and that sorta thing. Of course, with you comin' from Canada, I don't need to tell ya nothin' about that, do I? Anyway, we might run into some Weekend Warriors. If that happens, all of you are jes' a bunch of Indians, right? And we been out fishin' all night, OK? I'll do the talkin'. Got that?"

"We will keep our mouths shut and our ears open. And thank you." Sergei spoke to Joe for the first time.

"Think nothin' of it," Joe replied. "Glad to see we're all singin' from the same sheet." He paused, then tapped the receiver of Sergei's rifle with a stubby forefinger. "Jes' be sure ya keep your…ah…fishin' tackle there out of sight. We don't want Uncle Sam's finest gettin' the wrong idea, do we?"

"Certainly not," said Sergei. "We would not wish to give the Great White Father any cause for complaint."

"That's the whole idea," Joe said. And he laughed. Slowly, the black boat began to pull away from the dock.

*   *   *

Sergeant Burke was in his element. This was what he'd trained for, what he'd lived for, for almost twenty years. Twenty years of weekend exercises and summer camps. Twenty years of spit-shine and Brasso. Now the big day had come.

He faced his squad and barked: "Lissen up, men. We're patrollin' Indian Country tonight. Intelligence says Lesserson Null may be usin' the Rez to move his people in and out of the States. It's our job to stop 'em. But we gotta be careful. Real careful. This here's a mighty sensitive area. So we can't afford any screw-ups, unnerstan'? You go an shoot some dam' Indian kid who's out night-fishin' and you're gonna be in a world of hurt. Doin' hard time in Leavenworth for the rest of your natural life. And that ain't gonna be the worst thing, neither. Worst thing is, I'm goin' to see to it personally that your ass is dragged in the dirt till there ain't nothin' but bone showin'. You hear me? We got us a job to do. We're goin' to do it. An' we're goin' to do it right. Clean. Perfessional. No screw-ups. Now, anybody got any questions?"

He paused. No one spoke. "OK. Clear your weapons." Twelve bolts were drawn back. "Clear?" He waited for the last "Yes, Sarge" to die away before giving the next command: "Close your bolts." Twelve bolts slapped home. Then Sergeant Burke gave the final order. "Load up!" Twelve loaded magazines were pulled from their carriers and snapped into place.

In the glare from the headlights of the six-by, Sergeant Burke remembered to look each man in the squad right in the eye before speaking. Maintain command presence, he reminded himself. That was the important thing. Just like they said in NCO School. "Lissen up!" he repeated. "You fire on my command only. If any of you guys even chambers a round without my say-so, he's goin' to wish he'd never let go of his mama's titty. You hear what I'm sayin'?" There was a grumble of acknowledgment. "Now switch on and move out. Single-file. And you be dam' sure you keep your interval."

Private Collamer switched his night-vision goggles on, waited his turn, and moved out of the circle of light onto the trail. The dark landscape beyond the six-by was now an eerie, monochrome green. That was a little spooky, but Private Collamer still couldn't believe his luck. His first night patrol. The real thing at last! To his surprise, though, he found that he couldn't stop yawning. And he noticed that his hands were shaking, too. He hadn't expected that. He hoped no-one else noticed. The night-vision goggles made it worse. The green wash gave the familiar meadows and woodlands the look of a landscape enchanted by some evil witch. It was all too easy to imagine that Lesserson Null's terrorists were somewhere Out There. Waiting.

Waiting for them. Now that was one scary thought! Private Collamer realized he should have gone to the bathroom before they'd moved out. "Gone to the bathroom"? Had he actually thought that? No infantryman said "go to the bathroom"! He was sure Sergeant Burke hadn't used those words since he left home for his first day of kindergarten. But Private Collamer really did have to go. Bad. Real bad. He'd have to do something about it soon. Or else.

The patrol was approaching the river now. Alder and buckthorn grew along the high bank. Private Collamer looked at a particularly dense tangle of alders and wondered if Lesserson Null might be hiding in it. Just then, someone put a hand on his shoulder. He jumped involuntarily. His bowels contracted, too, and though he tried his best to stop anything from happening, he had the horrible feeling that he'd had what his mother used to call an "accident." Then he realized that the hand wasn't the hand of Lesserson Null. It belonged to Sergeant Burke, and the Sergeant was ordering him forward. He was going to walk point! He, Private Collamer, was going to lead a patrol through Indian Country. He double-timed it up the trail, hoping that he was wrong about the accident, or if he wasn't, that Sergeant Burke hadn't smelled anything. Sweat ran in steady streams down his forehead and back as he jogged along.

Soon, however, there was no doubt at all in Private Collamer's mind. His pucker had let him down. Worse yet, it felt like there was a lot more to come. Painful cramps assailed him at every step. The walking was getting harder, too. Long grass tugged at his feet and legs, and his neck ached with the effort of keeping the heavy night-vision goggles focused on the trail ahead. His M16, which had once seemed so light, was now starting to drag his arms down. It was going to be a very long night.

"What'll I do if Lesserson Null is somewhere Out There?" Private Collamer asked himself. Off in the distance, a loon laughed. It wasn't the answer that Private Collamer was looking for.

*   *   *

Joe Hunter snaked his long, black boat through an island maze, well to the south of the St. Lawrence shipping channel. Moving slowly and patiently, alert for the first whisper of contact between his hull and the bottom, he eased his way across weedy shallows and over gravel bars, coming closer and closer to the American shore and the mouth of the Raquette. It was painstaking work. The floodwaters that roared downriver when Lesserson Null blew the big dam had left countless changes in their wake. In the weeks following the Independence Day attack, Joe found he needed to relearn every twist and turn. He'd done his best, but the river still took him by surprise more often than he liked to admit.

Behind Joe, perched precariously on one sack of sturgeon roe and holding another in her lap, Brenna watched the high banks of the St. Lawrence grow steadily higher. Soon they obscured a good portion of the southern horizon. She looked at the dark line looming against the starry sky and she shivered.

Finally, the Raquette opened up ahead. Joe kept the boat moving just fast enough to make headway. He was creeping upriver now, hugging the shoreline, navigating more by ear than by eye. Only the muted rumble of the big engine broke the stillness of the night. There were no fishermen along the banks. No friendly voice called out to them in the dark. It was as if they were alone on the river. Joe found that his hands were slipping on the steering wheel. "I'm sweatin' like a pig!" he thought. "Mary's right. I'm gettin' too old for this game. It's time I retired." First, though, he had to deliver his night's catch safely. It wasn't just good business. It was a matter of honor.

A toppled poplar loomed dead ahead, the tips of its submerged branches vibrating in the current. Joe eased the boat out toward mid-channel, moving away from the shelter of the shore.

*   *   *

The National Guard patrol approached the place where the Raquette emptied into the St. Lawrence. They were deep into Indian Country now, and Private Collamer was nervous. Anything could happen here. He was sure of that. Then he heard the sound of a throttled-down motor. Or did he? He thought it was a motor, but the blood was pounding in his ears, and every step he took through the tall grass made a surprisingly loud swishing sound. He knew one thing, though. He wasn't about to hold up the patrol. Sarge wouldn't like that, and he was more afraid of Sarge than he was of Lesserson Null. The trail he was following went through a break in the trees just ahead. He'd have a better idea what was going on when he could see the river.

What he saw when he reached the gap in the trees stopped him in his tracks. A big boat was moving slowly upriver, and there were five…no, make that six…guys in it. No lights. It looked like smugglers, or maybe — it could be, couldn't it? — Lesserson Null's terrorists. "Oh, Jeez!" Private Collamer thought. "Terrorists!" And a wave of cramps knotted his gut. For the second time that night, his pucker had let him down.

"Shit!" he wailed, and it was just loud enough for Sergeant Burke to hear. At the same time, Private Collamer pulled back the bolt of his rifle, released it, and chambered a round. There were 29 more rounds waiting in the magazine. His selector was set to fire three-round bursts, and his finger was on the trigger.

Behind him, much too far back to see what was happening, Sergeant Burke heard the bolt go home, too. He started to run forward, shoving each man in turn off to the side of the trail as he passed him. Only when he heard the first rattle of fire did he start shouting commands, but it was already too late. Then he put his foot into a rabbit hole and went down. His leg made a noise like a breaking stick as he fell.

*   *   *

Private Collamer's first three rounds went wide. He had forgotten to light up his night sight. But that didn't matter to Sergei and Pavel. They were overboard in an instant, and each had his rifle in his hand. Together, they side-stroked silently toward the shore. Only the tops of their heads showed above the water's surface.

At the sound of gunfire, Joe opened the throttle. The black boat leaped forward. Jack's head snapped back hard. Ed tried to push Brenna down, but he, too, was thrown backward by the sudden acceleration. Then the boat hit a gravel bar. The motor screamed. The stern skidded round, and the boat shuddered and careened to one side. In a matter of seconds the downstream gunwale was under water. Joe's forehead struck the frame of the windshield, hard. Blood poured down his face, blinding him. The motor screamed even more loudly for several long seconds. Then it stopped.

There was a second burst of fire from the shore. As he struggled to pull Brenna out, Ed heard the sound of splintering fiberglass.

*   *   *

From his vantage point on the bank, Private Collamer watched the big boat surge forward. Then it stopped just as suddenly as it had accelerated. He saw figures spill out into the water. Terrorists. He was sure of it now.

"They're comin' this way!" he shouted, just before he lit up the PAC-4C sight. He put the laser dot on one of the figures who was still in the boat and fired a second burst. He didn't feel the recoil. He didn't hear the reports of the rounds or Sergeant Burke's screams, either. In fact, he didn't hear anything at all. Private Collamer was in a world of his own — it was just him and Lesserson Null, and only one of them was going to get out of this fight alive. Private Collamer didn't have any doubt who the survivor was going to be. He moved the dot over a second figure and fired another burst.

*   *   *

Joe wiped blood away from his eyes. He thought he was seeing stars, then realized they were muzzle flashes. He heard Jack groaning beside him. "We gotta get outta here!" Joe yelled to his old friend, but before he'd even started to move, a hand jerked him out of the boat. Someone was pulling him toward the riverbank. He swallowed some water, choked, and blacked out.

*   *   *

Ed and Brenna were in the water, too. Ed was tugging at Brenna, making her swim toward the shore. Then the tugging stopped, and Brenna felt something strike her arm. A curious numbness seemed to grip her right side. Struggling to stay afloat, she flailed out with her left hand and hit something — something large, inert. It was a body, face down in the water. Ed. She rolled him upright, but he didn't move. Gripping the collar of his shirt and paddling frantically with her one good arm, Brenna struck out for the riverbank. She was certain of only one thing now: they were going home together.

*   *   *

Private Collamer moved the laser dot around, hunting for more targets. Each time he found one, he fired a burst, then moved on to the next. He was getting the hang of it now. Time seemed to stand still. It was just like the Combat Course. And the riverbank gave him a great angle of fire. "Like shooting fish in a barrel!" he thought. Then the bolt locked back. Outta ammo! He threw the empty magazine away and reached for another. "Yessir," he reminded himself, "It's jes' like the Combat Course!"

At that moment, he heard Sergeant Burke screaming at him, from somewhere not very far away. Something was moving in the trees, too. It was even closer than Sergeant Burke. Very close. And then…"What's that?" he wondered. A loud snap. Sort of metallic. Like an old-fashioned switch, only louder.

He turned toward the sound. The trees swayed. Just a little. Green on green. Shadows on shadows. Something was moving in the trees. Whatever it was, it was very, very close. Private Collamer's hands were greasy with sweat. The loaded magazine he was holding slipped through his fingers before he could lock it in place, and he bent down to pick it up. He couldn't find it, though, and the stink from his pants made him gag. Then he heard another noise. It sounded like somebody had whispered "Montana." Somebody with a funny accent. That was crazy, of course. He knew it was. But then he heard it again. It seemed to be coming from a different place.

That didn't make any sense at all, so Private Collamer stood up to see if he could see anything, and just as he did, a white fountain blossomed out of the green treescape. It seemed to grow as he watched it, and it was joined by another, and then the two fountains converged until the green disappeared and all he could see was pure white light. It was the most beautiful thing Private Collamer had ever seen, too, but then the image faded to black, and he was conscious of a popping noise. It was very loud, however, not really a popping at all, and almost in the same instant he realized that someone was hitting him. Hitting him in the chest. Hitting him in the stomach. Hitting him hard. Hitting him so hard that he spun round under the force of the blows. But he still couldn't see who was hitting him. In fact he couldn't see anything at all. Then his legs buckled and he went down onto his knees.

"Jeez!" Private Collamer whispered. He wanted to yell at whoever was hitting him and make him stop. It just wasn't fair, was it? He couldn't see, could he? And he tried to yell, he really tried, but he no longer seemed to have the strength. "Jeez!" he whispered again. "Cut it out, will ya? It jes' ain't fair!" And then it didn't seem to matter anymore.



Copyright 2003 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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