EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the final chapter of a 16-part story that The Augusta Chronicle has published in Your Life on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Tune in Tuesday for the start of the next Breakfast Serials story, The Winner's Circle.
THE STORY SO FAR: Reaching a point of safety along the Green River with Aaron's dad injured, and becoming worse, a signal fire is lighted requesting emergency aid. A rescue airplane appears, only to inexplicably disappear.
"Stop!" Lisa yelled, jumping up and down, waving her arms. "Come back!" Her words were drowned by the roar of the plane as it left us standing like shipwrecked castaways on an island.
Cassidy was sitting up now, slinging a string of swear words like firecrackers at the plane.
Then, slowly, the fiery little tin can with wings tilted, swung around, angled down, and finally skidded along the water, leaving huge rooster tails of spray.
We howled and cheered beneath the deafening sound of the engine, and I suddenly found Lisa pressed against me. Before I could really hug her back, she was in Roger's arms.
The propeller kicked up choppy little waves as the plane taxied toward us. The letters BLM - Bureau of Land Management - were printed on its side. The plane came to a stop and the door opened. The pilot - a big bear of a man with a bushy red beard - stepped out onto a pontoon and tossed us a line. Willie caught it and Roger and I helped him pull the plane in. When it got close enough, the pilot jumped ashore.
"What do we have here?" he asked in a hearty voice. "A bunch of river rats making smoke?"
"The Wild Bunch," cracked Cassidy. "Never thought I'd be glad to see the law."
"We've had an accident," Roger said. "The boy here has a broken collarbone and the man in the sleeping bag is - "
"Water," Dad croaked. He pulled himself up on one elbow. With his bloody bandage, he looked like a wounded soldier. Willie tossed me a canteen and I knelt and tipped water into Dad's mouth. He looked bad all right, but it was a relief to see him finally conscious again.
"The boy there, Cassidy," Dad said. We all had to lean toward him to hear his words. "Saved me from drowning."
"And tried to lug him like a mule up out of the canyon," Roger said.
We all looked at Cassidy. His face flickered light and dark in the glow of the fire. "The raft flipped in a gust and he busted his head open on the ice chest. We were on our own and I figured you all would hold up all night to wait out the wind, and we needed to get out of the canyon and signal a plane, or this old guy was gonna bite the dust."
"He could yet," said the pilot, "if I don't catch the last bit of light and get him to the clinic at Green River. Better get you there too, son, by the look of things."
The pilot hopped back aboard his bush plane and came out with a rolled-up stretcher. We helped get my dad into it, and Roger, Willie, Lisa, and I each grabbed a handle and lifted him up.
"Wait," Dad said as we stepped by Cassidy.
Dad's swollen, cracked lips looked like burnt sausages in the firelight. "Cassidy," he whispered, "thanks, man," and his eyes welled with tears.
"You're okay, dude," Cassidy said. "Sorry ..." And we marched on and wrestled Dad's stretcher into the back of the cockpit.
We jumped back ashore and Lisa and I helped Cassidy. As he climbed aboard, I said, "Thanks for saving my dad."
"Anytime, dude." Then he looked at me, as if seeing me for the first time, and said, "And I owe you one, too, dude. Both of you."
We stood speechless, a little embarrassed maybe, then Lisa gave Cassidy a hug and Cassidy and I slid five and bumped fists.
"See ya," he said as he ducked inside the plane.
We all helped push the plane into the current and waved as the pilot fired up the engine. The plane roared down the river and lifted off and shrunk to the size of a bird in the twilight, its wings as thin as the line between hope and disaster.
* * *
The night was bursting with stars and we sat around the fire eating, and talked about Cassidy.
"Guess he thought that path might be part of the old Outlaw Trail," Roger said. "Take him right up out of Desolation Canyon."
"How could he carry a man so far?" Lisa asked.
"He works out in a gym," Willie said. "Bench-presses 150-200 lbs." Lisa elbowed me. "How much do you bench-press, Aaron?"
I made a fist at her. She made a fist back, and said, "Just joking," and smiled.
Everyone grew silent. The hush of the river and the night rushed in.
Then everybody talked at once, and went back to chowing down. Willie had made a feast with a ten-pound slab of New York steak and a dozen fat baked potatoes. And that was the best meal I ever had and probably ever will have.
* * *
On the way to the clinic in Green River next morning, Lisa sat beside me in Roger's old pickup. Her arm pressed against mine as we bounced along the gravel road. I didn't lean away.
"So you want to do this next year?" she asked. "Go rafting? We might go down the Owahee or the Snake."
"Do you?" I said.
"If you do."
"What if Cassidy goes?" She smiled, and looked deep inside me with those big dark eyes.
I thought about it for a moment.
"Sure," I said. And I meant it.
TEXT COPYRIGHT 2002 JONATHAN LONDON; ILLUSTRATIONS COPYRIGHT 2002 MAILE PICKETT
REPRINTED BY PERMISSION OF BREAKFAST SERIALS INC.
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Desolation Canyon is The Augusta Chronicle's first foray into the world of serialized stories.
Beginning Tuesday, we'll begin the second book in the series, The Winner's Circle. The 18-chapter story, written by Jennifer Armstrong and illustrated by CB Mordan, is a mystery and thriller set in the world of horse racing.Before the next story begins, The Chronicle wants to know what readers thought of Desolation Canyon and the idea of serialized stories in general.
If you have an opinion, we'd love to hear it.Send your comments to: Serial Sound-Off, c/o The Augusta Chronicle, P.O. Box 1928, Augusta, GA 30903-1928; e-mail email@example.com; fax 722-7403 or call Lifestyles Editor Erica Cline at 828-2946.