Working with my hands made me a lot happier than the mantle of leadership ever did. For that reason, and by that measure, I was a supremely happy man right now. My construction crew was making outstanding progress, propping up each new stockade log as it was set into the ever-lengthening trench. Drillers bored holes to connect each log with its mate, then I got the supreme privilege of pounding the heavily greased pegs, stitching the stockade timber as securely as any seamstress ever hemmed a dress. By the time drying shrinkage could noticeably affect such perfection, we’d have the trench filled in and firmly packed, not to mention the catwalk that kept everything in line as a bonus.
Voices drifted up to our work-in-progress site on the bench, men shouting down by the riverbank as they spotted the next delivery. “Lo-o-o-o-gs HO!” We’d found a whole forest worth of good trees some nine miles upstream. Fir, spruce, pine, even larch. The loggers limbed every other bit of each trunk but left a number of branch stubs protruding near either end of each long log. This allowed our skidders to get ropes on the timber before any of it could get past us.
Still upstream, but not nearly nine miles away, I caught a flash of movement and lifted my cheater glass for a better look. Sure enough, Grit Smith had found another bunch of wild cattle and was bringing them in like he’d promised he would. The fire-snorting bulls weren’t all that convinced a mere human could herd them. Most of those bulls would be slaughtered first, providing tough but highly nutritious corned beef and lots of it. We’d get sick and tired of the stuff if there was nothing else available to disguise the scary gray color of heavily salted beef without the other additives used in Before times to give it a pink color, but nobody would starve when winter came.
Not again. Not on my watch.
Corned beef and cabbage. Lots of that, along with potatoes. Both cabbage and spuds were above ground and growing well in their respective fields, though it did keep the younger children pretty busy, chasing birds and rabbits off, plucking hungry beetles from the leaves, hoeing out the weeds they couldn’t pull up by hand, and the like. Black city folks, transplanted to the wild new west, intending to live on what was essentially an Irish dish. Maybe we were all Black Irish, eh?
Of the many urgent projects that were well underway, the Gathering couldn’t have even begun a tenth of them without young Smith’s knowledge of the west and its ways. The lad was a true blessing…mostly. Ninety percent blessing and ten percent curse, the way I figured it. Not that he did anything other than be himself to earn the 10% coulda-done-without-it rating, but come on, think about it. Strong young white man, one of the rescuers when we were all starving in the cold, free and easy cowboy romantic image sort of guy who just happened to be keeping a sharp eye out for the right girl to marry. Or so he said. Could he help it if half the unmarried young ladies in the Gathering wanted to wed him and quite a few of them were more than willing to bed him to prove their bona fides? As a result, there were catfights every now and then, usually after dark and well away from too many prying eyes. Our women were serious. No wonder more than half of Grit’s newly trained wild cow hunters and rounder-uppers were female. Impressively, few of our men, even the younger males among us, bothered with such a useless emotion as jealousy or even envy. Escaping 13 Bloody Crips and then surviving starvation on the Roil had put things into firm perspective.
Unfortunately, female hormones in the presence of an exciting male did not always worry much about perspective.
I could wish the boy would settle down but laughed at my own hypocrisy. If I’d had women by the score trying to climb all over me when I was his age, would I have been able to walk away from the feast? Not only no, but hell no.
We’d all just have to wait things out. Maybe somebody would get a double fisted hold of Smith’s heartstrings in the next year or two. Thought the optimist.
A faint yell, carried over distance, wafted up to the bench. I turned, swinging the glass westward, picking up the river bottom rider coming our way at full gallop, thundering between the new fields before turning to angle toward the bench. His right arm was held straight up, full extension. Palm forward, fingers splayed. The signal for visitors. Friendly visitors.
I turned my sledge hammer over to the nearest man. With the urgency our messenger was lathering his horse, it seemed doubtful I’d be pounding any more stockade pins today. Washburn Conroe, having experienced another remarkable recovery after venturing well into Death’s domain, let the fleet gray gelding slow to a walk when they reached the road leading up to the bench. The scout could be hard on horses if he had to, but he never winded one unnecessarily. When he stepped down, he was grinning ear to ear. “Guess who’s coming to dinner, Randy? Wait, wait. Three clues: He’s old, he’s white, and he rides a horse a lot of guys would kill for.”
Realization dawned. I felt my eyes widen. Could it be–“Moss Feldman? You’re saying they finally made it out?”
“If it walks like a–”
“He did it! They did it!”
“Some of ’em did, anyway. Moss has five riders with him, including ol’ Stirk and a pretty young Jewess, not to mention a white boy who’s way tall and even skinner’n me, I swear. Feldman told me they have a wagon train but left it camped the other side of the lower ford on the Roil. Way he had his maps figured, it’d be better to scout this bottom before committing to extra river crossings for the whole bunch. Didn’t say much else, just sent a rider back to tell the others he’d made contact with us and might not be back before daylight, depending on how much catching up we all needed to do. I got the impression he would’ve grabbed this spot to settle if we hadn’t got here before him.”
My heart swelled within me. Felt like it was about to burst, the joy was so overwhelming. None of us would have made it out of Five Nations Country if Feldman’s people hadn’t run sort of a latter day underground railroad for us. 13 Bloody Crips leadership had hundreds of gangers out looking to keep us from running away by any means necessary, including execution. Western Jewish State leadership had been nearly as bad, their top brass in corrupt cahoots with 13, willing to take bounty money for every one of us they could stop. The border corridor between WSJ and United Tribes Eternal had been heavily patrolled; not a mouse could have squeaked through. Yet Moss’s loyalists had gotten the job done, hardcore Badge men and women spiriting us right through the heart of Mean Jew Territory to the open road beyond.
Every one of those folks had put their lives on the line to help us gain our freedom. Some of them had paid the ultimate price. It was not something any of us would ever forget.
Man, I’d never seen this many black people before. They were scattered out some along the river bottom, tending fields, working hides, harrassing what appeared to be a sizeable herd of feral, sharp-horned cattle, not to mention building what looked like a mighty stockade up on a high bench near the far end of the Roil River oxbow. Down at river’s edge, men and horses were towing floating logs to shore. Adding them all up…”Gotta be a couple hundred, eh?”
Moss Feldman flicked a glance my way from atop the tall bay he was riding. “Should be, but I don’t think there are. I’d estimate one-forty at most. Could be crews working elsewhere out of sight, sending those logs downriver, maybe. But I’m thinking they’ve had some losses.”
What? “You know these people that well?”
A lone rider trotted his horse down the steep bench trail, then kicked the animal into a full-out gallop as he headed our way, whooping like a storybook wild Indian. His sorrel mare wasn’t a match for any of the Badge’s outstanding equines, but she was fast, an arrow of flame, long mane and tail streaming back in the wind of her passage. When the stocky man pulled her to a sliding halt, there was a whole lot of ear-to-ear grinning and shouting and hearty handshaking that went on, Moss every bit as enthused as his counterpart.
Which was my introduction to Randy McGee, leader of the Gathering on the Roil. We wouldn’t be settling here, but we sure ’nuff did have us some allies now.
It didn’t take our wagon boss long to realize he and McGee needed to spend some time together, bringing each other up to date. Stirk was dispatched back to tell our people camped beyond the lower ford that we’d be there for breakfast and ready to roll out again, but don’t hold supper. I began to understand why I’d been instructed to bring two notebooks with me; my hand was cramping up from excessive note-taking before the sun dropped below the horizon.
The Gathering’s women put on a feast for us. We ate heartily enough–the food was excellent and it would have been impolite to pick daintily–but it was the flow of information that most glutted the senses. We learned about the five major groups in this northwest territory…five counting us, that is. Fort Steel, the Roost, Fort 24, the Gathering, the Badge. Five tiny groups compared to the Five Great Nations back East, but our five looked like we’d be able to get along. They heard about the attempts to take us out before we’d gotten fairly started, then the thwarted hijacking at the Great River crossing, followed by the demise of Queen Slaughter’s gang, courtesy of the OrgaMins.
Randy startled at that one. “Those rock cliffs you describe…Moss, they were there when we came through a year earlier, but only eight feet high or so. We never gave them a thought. You’re saying they grew hundreds of feet tall in a single year?”
“Guess so,” the old Jew shrugged. “But tell me more about this Michael Jade. He sounds like a man we need to get to know. Saved your people twice, first from King Arthur’s raid and then from starvation. What’s he really like?”
The lone white man living with the Gathering spoke up. Grit Smith, he said his name was. “I been around him the most, so I reckon I should say? Okay. Moss, Michael is young, not even out of his teens yet, but his eyes are old. He don’t talk about it, but he was a slave at Fort Steel when he was younger. Got his freedom–I never heard just how that happened–and then freed every slave Steel had, killed off the military guy they had chasing him, and basically ended slavery altogether. He’s racer-snake fast and thinks faster. Don’t miss much of anything. Got himself two of the best looking women I’ve ever seen and both of ’em seem to dote on him. Which is saying something, ’cause one of his gals is a warrior woman from Fort 24 and the other is some sorta shaman or I miss my guess. She knows stuff, and there’s something extra-spiritual about her. A God-woman, maybe, more than just a shaman. He’s a natural tactician, born with it. He’s the one come up with the MAP treaty idea.”
Which got us off into a discussion of the Mutual Assistance Pact. Randy showed us the Gathering’s copy of that document, which led to me having to write it out in my second notebook, word for word. Twice. Feldman signed one copy on the spot, tore the pages out of my book, and left it with McGee. McGee signed both copies, including the one we’d be keeping, and Moss added his signature to that as well. “You see this Jade before we do, you give him a look at that and tell him we’re in.”
Feldman never did lack for decisiveness.
Not that joining up took much thinking. We wouldn’t want the Badge being left out of a defense pact every one of our neighbors had already signed. Besides, the day would come when we’d all need it and then some. The Five Great Nations were still bickering among themselves, so far as we knew, but that couldn’t last forever. Somebody would get a handle on hammering everybody else into line sooner or later, and once that happened, the East would start thinking of ways to send an expedition westward to claim our territory by force. It was inevitable. Power hungry humans were just built that way.
When the discussion finally turned toward the wild mountain country Moss intended to explore next, McGee and Smith both shuddered even though Randy hadn’t actually been anywhere near the area. Grit, as it turned out, had been there.
“Some years back, with my Dad and two of my brothers. The old man decided he wanted to explore the Wild River country. The stories told by rare travelers had captured his imagination. A huge, green mountain valley, a great rectangle full of rivers rushing down through jumbled rocks and sheer-sided ravines and canyons, all of which were crossed at the mouth end by a smaller creek running through a ruined viaduct atop some ancient Before structure. Might have been a dam at one time, though nobody knew for sure. The magic that drew Zebediah Smith was a challenging fact. No one could access the valley, not even on foot. The headwaters of Rocky River, Wild River, and even the Roil sprang from these impenetrable gorges, lacking the great volume they would amass farther downstream but making up for it by plunging down through sharp-cornered boulders not yet worn round. Every bit of this high-speed, multi-pronged moat, he’d been told, was white water of the deadliest kind. There were trout in there, some thought, but not even the hardiest salmon could fight its way up through that gauntlet to spawn.
“If you’d known my father, you’d know a tale like that would draw him as surely as Helen of Troy’s beauty drew trouble to an entire civilization. Even better, it was only a few days’ travel south of our Smith Mountain home. He had to go, and young as I was, I made a pest of myself until I was included in the expedition. Mom didn’t even blink; she was used to her men’s adventuring ways.”
Grit paused for a long moment, looking inward, remembering. “It was everything the storytellers had said and more. We bumped up against the northern edge, guarded by Rocky River, first. There was no way to cross. It shook Dad, I think. He hadn’t really believed there could be such utterly wild and forbidding terrain so close to our home, or anywhere at all for that matter. We followed the jumble downstream, saw the northern end of the maybe-dam, and had to continue on downstream to the ford we’d always used in the past, crossing exactly where the Fort Steel road ran. Then on south, taking the branch road that runs to Fort 24, crossing the Roil and then Wild River where they both go inexplicably underground for several miles before resurfacing in full force. There is surface water flowing where we crossed, but never deeper than knee high on a good horse.
“And then…back up the south side of Wild River. Not an easy trek, that, but if we steered wide, stayed in the timber, the climb was doable on horseback. Barely. After two hard days of this, the horses could go no farther. We left them in a clearing, hobbled but free to graze, hoping no wandering grizzly or cougar happened by before we returned. I was terrified Dad would leave me there to guard our transportation, but he apparently knew this was as important to me as it was to him or my older brothers. I should have been grateful, but at the time all I felt was relief.
“The edge of the Upper Wild River Gorge wasn’t far off. Maybe a mile, probably less. I’ll never forget the sight.”
We came out of the trees to find ourselves atop a bare, level rock surface. Nothing grew there, not for the last thirty yards or so to the precipice. On the far side of the gorge, there was an area of level rock just like where we stood, as if Paul Bunyan had taken his mighty axe and cleaved the stone in a surgically clean cut some half-mile long or more. The gap from rim to rim seemed to my young eyes like it went on forever, though it was really no more than fifty yards across, if that. The stone walls dropped straight down for what seemed like a thousand feet, the white-froth river’s thundering voice rising to our ears only faintly but with menace, at this distance a quiet growl that lifted my neck hairs straight up. It was dark down there where sunlight never reached except for a few minutes at whatever passed for high noon in this awful place.
I was scared. Never been good with heights.
Ah, but beyond the impassable barrier! How long before I was able to lift my eyes away from the Cleft of Death, I had no idea. The far side sloped sharply down, dipping into a valley more incredible than my youthful imagination could have ever conceived. First, the size. Zeb put some calculations together later, concluding Wild River Valley had to be nearly twenty miles across from rock-jumble to rock-jumble…and twice that long. Eight hundred square miles of waving green grass, bushes, patches of timber, and water. Everywhere, water. From trickles to creeks to ponds to small lakes, bounded by two of the rivers with the beginnings of the Roil running down the lower center. Animal life, too; a small herd of bison could be seen in the distance–at least I thought they were bison–and others that had to be deer or elk or both. With all that water, there’d be moose, too, or I missed my guess. We were looking at the westerner’s Shangri La.
And no way to reach it. Not unless we had wings like the great golden eagle that soared above us right at that moment, making its way valley-ward without a care in the world other than which rodent to scoop up for supper. The ancients of Before could have managed it easily with their bridge building and dam building expertise, their helicopters and casual disregard for Nature’s puny defenses. But we were people of Now and we had no such tools or skills at our disposal. The valley would be safe for some time.
Moss Feldman’s eyes were literally glowing. Grit’s account had caught the old Jew’s brain afire. Mine was a bit overheated, too. Merrilee’s lips were parted in a sensuous expression that would have done credit to our time beneath the blankets. Even stolid, unshakable Stirk had been affected, his eyes blinking rapidly as he assimilated what he’d just heard.
Strangely enough, I found my voice first. “Bet you a spring colt to a side of beef we’ll find a way across that gorge.” Not that I owned either a colt or a cow.
Grit gave me a strange look. “Maybe you will, Slim. Maybe you will. All I know is that gorge scares the rabbit pellets outa me still today. But if you do succeed, your people will have the most unassailable redoubt in the entire territory. Even more so than Fort 24 or the Roost. Just…leave me out of it.”
No problem. We never intended to include him in the first place.
Six days later, we crossed the unnamed watercourse guarding the southern boundary of Wild River Valley and teardropped the wagons for what might be weeks. That night was both eager and anxious, at least for Merrilee and me. On the morrow, twenty of us on horseback plus half a dozen heavily laden pack horses would begin the forested uphill trek along the turbulent flood’s southern flank, staying well back in the timber to avoid the jumble of oversized boulders that gave the area its grim reputation. A lot of those giant, sharp-edged rocks boasted lines never seen in Nature; I strongly suspected they’d been part of some great Before project prior to the Fall. Adorned with lichen of a hundred different varieties, ranging from blue-green to yellow to a truly virulent orange and even a few spots of crimson, these formidable objects were clearly stone of the granite sort, but had they been dressed by our ancestors or simply grown like the OrgaMins? Whatever the truth of the matter, they made me distinctly uneasy and I was more than glad to see Moss and Stirk giving them a wide berth as we followed game trails up into the mountains.
In places, there were no game trails, which didn’t seem to bother our leaders. They simply struck upslope through the towering fir trees as best they could, creating a new trail as they went.
Neither Merrilee nor I believed they would find a way to access the valley Grit Smith had described. I was more than relieved he hadn’t taken me up on my rash offer to bet a spring colt I didn’t own. Yet neither Moss nor the broad-built scout showed the slightest sign of discouragement. They were like two little boys playing hooky from school, out exploring, exercising their imaginations and having a high old time.
What Zebediah Smith had estimated at a bit more than twenty of the forty-mile valley’s length took us two full days to cover. Ten miles a day. The uphill factor accounted for a lot of that, naturally, but even more slowing was Moss’s insistence on stopping frequently to blaze a tree with an axe, leaving an endless series of flashing white to mark his chosen way. Stirk did the actual axe-swinging, but Moss told him where to strike. There was obviously a plan percolating in the old Jew’s mind. Whether or not it was a sensible plan remained to be seen.
Amazingly, near sunset of the second day away from the wagons, we came out on the exact flat-rock gorge rim Grit Smith had described. Never mind my one-time wizardry. Old Moss had some magic of his own. Or maybe it was Stirk.
In any event, it was a sight to see. Our shadows were long, reaching clear across the gorge to darken bits of the far cliff. With the sun behind us, we could see everything with surprising clarity. No bison, but a herd of something or other, far enough away that their species couldn’t be identified. Raptors soared the late afternoon air, expending very little energy as they stiff-winged above the happy hunting ground below.
Utterly impassable, just as Smith had said.
Feldman spoke for the first time in hours. “Doable.”
Doable? The old man had lost his mind. Doable how? There was no wagon road between here and our base camp, no high tech bridge spanning the impossible gap, not even a potentially explosive dirigible with which to float across. Definitely lost his mind.
When we turned in, I whispered in my lady’s ear, “Is he insane?” She didn’t answer for quite a while. I thought she’d fallen asleep. Then, “No. Not insane. I hope. Sweet dreams.”
Come the dawn, with breakfast down and the horses watered, Moss turned to one of the men I’d never paid much attention. Took me a while to remember his name. Nathan. Nathan Burt. Driver of the thirteenth wagon from the front. Slim and wiry, maybe twenty-five or so, no more than five foot five and 125 pounds if that. Dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin. Quick, nimble fingers. “What do you think, Nate?” The driver had been sitting on the edge of the rim, feet dangling down, eyeballing the gorge with absolute focus. Gave me vertigo just looking at him. Man, a stiff breeze could tumble him over that thousand-foot drop.
“Like you said last night, Moss,” he replied. “Doable.”
Okay, so now we had two men who’d gone off their rockers.
But I was wrong. Turned out Nate Burt was a born rock climber who’d been challenging himself every chance he got since his mother died when he was six and his old man was too busy to worry about what his son was up to during the day. The rest of us watched his preparations with the fascination of an audience waiting for a Russian roulette player to blow his own head off. It was a warm day, so I could understand the short sleeved shirt and shorts. Sort of. No hat. For footgear, Burt discarded his heavy work boots and donned a pair of what could best be described as moccasins, tightly laced at the ankles, with rough-out leather soles thick enough to provide some protection while allowing him to feel the rock.
Yeah, right. Feel the rock. I had a feeling this man would be dead before long.
His only baggage involved a thin, light bit of rope tied to his belt. The rope–thin enough to be called cord, really–extended back to a stack of carefully piled coils Stirk would play out as the climber began his descent into the gorge. It wasn’t a safety rope. Far too slender for that. What its purpose might be, I had no idea.
And over the edge he went. By the time I managed to choke down my fear enough to join the others at the rim, watching him go, Burt was already a hundred feet down the side of that sheer cliff and moving right along. Not recklessly, yet somehow he was finding toeholds and finger holds, or maybe fingernail holds, where I’d have sworn there were none. Stirk was right there at the edge, playing the cord down so that it neither tugged on the human fly nor got too much slack. Another two men worked the coils, making sure they didn’t tangle.
It took him a solid hour to reach the bottom, but he did it, the string-cord-rope trailing behind him like the gossamer strand of some overly ambitious spider’s web. I couldn’t believe it.
Still, how was he going to cross Wild River down there? It wasn’t looking good. White spume shot skyward from endless boulders. They had to be slick from all that water, too. The river was almost choked with them, but…no, he didn’t.
Yes, he did. Leaping from boulder to slick boulder, he made it look easy. Except once, when his feet went out from under him on landing and he sprawled on the rock, spread eagled, only the fingertips of one hand gripping the slanting rock’s upper edge. Yet that didn’t slow him down for more than three or four seconds.
He made the crossing safely, though it looked like he was limping a little. That crash on the rock must have bruised something pretty good. Not that he let it stop him. Still trailing the mini-rope, which had to be a swinging, distracting weight by this time, what with more than eleven hundred feet connecting him to Stirk on the near rim as he began his ascent of the far-side cliff. The big scout had to keep some tension on this end of the cord now, so that it didn’t trail in the river. Sure, it was light stuff, but that much of it had to amount to a steady pull trying to rip the climber free of his tenuous holds on the cliff face.
We had two men posted as sentries–never was that essential duty neglected–and the two men tending the coils never looked up from their task, but the rest of us were glued to the life and death drama playing out as our one and only rock climber began to show his fatigue, stopping to rest a dozen times on the way to the top. It took him twice the time to go up as it had to go down, despite the known fact that it’s far easier and safer to climb up a rock face than to climb down one.
He was barely moving when he finally topped the rim. Sitting with his feet braced, he hauled up a bunch of mini-rope, undoubtedly wanting to make sure he didn’t cut it on the cliff’s edge. Then he crawled on all fours, away from the edge, until he found a tree to which he could tie off his end of the rope.
Only then did he sprawl bonelessly on his back, barely managing to lift one fist skyward, thumb up.
Thirty-one minutes he rested, then began hauling on the thin rope in earnest. Which wasn’t too difficult, I suspected, until the much heavier, larger rope came into play, drawn across the gorge by its thinner friend. How did the little guy do it? I had absolutely no idea, but I did know one thing. I never wanted to mess with him.
With the heavier rope tied off at both ends, we had a lifeline across the gorge. How these Jews were going to parlay that into a working bridge, I had no idea, but I no longer doubted they would do it. I looked at the sun. Not quite noon.
I didn’t get to see what they did next, how they went from a single rope across the 150 foot gap to a four-rope system complete with pulleys and cargo baskets capable of carrying men as well as tools. Moss left eight men behind, counting Spiderman Nathan Burt, and took the rest of us back down the blazed trail toward our main camp. We made it in a single day this time, sleeping on the trail just once. Back with the others, he called Council and put it simply, “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
No kidding. I’d never been a logger, but I became one now, limbing the thousands of trees–okay, probably only hundreds, but it felt like thousands–others dropped with axe and saw. We were making a road, and in addition to the trees needing to get out of the way, they were needed to form what Feldman called a corduroy road, log sections laid crosswise wherever the soil seemed too soft or loose to support the huge freight wagons. The corduroy sections required great care in log placement, he explained, because a loose log shifting at the wrong time would be a hazard to our indispensable horses.
When we first started, I figured it was going to take years to build twenty miles of road. I mean, come on. But I’d underestimated two crucial factors: The ability of our wagoneers to flat-out work, and Moss’s eye for the least difficult route. What had seemed like nothing but trees during our horseback journey up to the rim and back turned out to be anything but. The task was still a back-breaker and extremely dangerous–two of our fallers were seriously injured while cutting timber and there were countless bruised fingers and toes–but thirty-seven days after the first tree fell, the road was complete. Every one of us construction workers sported head-to-toe sore muscles, sprained tendons, and enough blisters to start a blister farm, but the way was clear. Frankly, I couldn’t believe it.
The slaves who built the Pyramids had nothing on us.
Feldman drove his wagon first this time. I think he just had to do it. A horse would slip a little here and there, but all twenty wagons were up and gathered near the rim on July thirty-first. “Winter coming fast,” I said to our fearless leader that evening. “We going to make it?” I was afraid he might take offense, but he didn’t.
“It’s going to be close, Slim. Anybody can see that. But we left the East with dry rations enough to take us through two full years without jeopardizing our seed stock. Going to be eating a lot of grains, and we may have to do some real damage to the game in that valley, but as long as we can get across and have time enough to build a few shelters, cut enough firewood, we should be fine. Then next spring the real work starts. Figure out where best to plow, then plant, plant, plant. Irrigate. Tend the fields in general.”
That shut me up for the time being. Now I had to see how we were going to build a bridge.
I could never have guessed in a million years. Yes, I’d been told about the several wagons loaded with high tech alloy aircraft panels, the same material that made up the cargo boxes on the wagons. But to see Feldman’s plan in action….
First, the men cleared an area some thirty feet wide, extending back one hundred feet from the rim. Each metal panel measured a bit more than an inch thick, five feet wide, and eighteen feet long. Workers turned into loggers again, felling four monster old growth Douglas fir trees, two on each side of the gorge, that were nearly as thick at the base as I was tall. Next…mining. Sort of. Half a dozen of our sharpest minds, Moss included, measured and calculated and measured again, finally marking out circles on the rock, two on each side of the gorge, well back from the rims. I knew nothing about single jacks or the kegs of black powder we’d carried all the way west. Hand-drilling and blasting vertical shafts into solid rock was magic of a sort I’d never seen before.
It took a week to produce those four holes, each eight feet deep, and another three days to get the massive fir logs planted in them, the oversized posts towering sixty feet above the surface. A mason, whose name I never could seem to remember, oversaw the mixing of some sort of slurry he called concrete, pouring the mess in around the posts, sealing them from sloppy wiggling and water damage.
“We should be able to get thirty years out of these this way,” he explained. “If we’d left a way for water to get down into those holes, the bottoms of the posts would rot out in nothing flat.”
Okay, so we now had a fragile rope bridge across the chasm and a pair of Paul Bunyan’s toothpicks standing on either side, staring at each other. So what? I still couldn’t see the end design and nobody was bothering to explain. Merrilee didn’t have a clue, either, but she laughed at me. “Patience, my love,” she counseled. “All will come clear in time.”
Big help. Time was the one thing we didn’t have. Summer was flying by.
As it turned out, the miners among us had one more extremely tricky task to accomplish. Starting at the rim and working back to near the Douglas fir posts, they cut out two slices precisely seventeen feet apart and fifty-nine inches deep, straight arrow. On each side of the gorge. The resulting trench-cuts were a mere five inches wide. Such precision would have been a simple thing back in the Before days of high powered laser cutters, but with the equipment at hand? I’d had no idea our Badge group included men of such genius. To say I was humbled would be a gross understatement.
What else did I not know about these people with whom I’d traveled thousands of miles?
Everything finally began to make sense–sort of–when the aircraft panels came out of the wagons. Double-layers of the unbelievably strong, super-lightweight alloy were bolted together, forming a rigid girder some two inches wide and five feet deep. Several men steadied the growing girder from either side as others added panel after panel, lengthening the beam with surprising speed. They started bolting right after breakfast. Before an hour had passed, the girder was thrusting out over the rim, a rope reaching across to the other side where workers–human fly Nathan Burt among them–wrapped the rope end around a handy tree stump and kept the girder from falling into the river. Stationed in carry baskets along the rope bridge, crazy Jews physically supported the girder on their shoulders, lifting how much weight?
“It’s not as bad as it looks, Slim.” Stirk was taking a quick break from wrenching bolts tight. Sweat poured down his broad face as he upended his water bag and drained half the contents. “Each one of those panels weighs about sixty pounds. The girder is going to take twenty-three panels and weigh 1,380 pounds. By the time those guys over yonder have to haul their end up on solid ground, they’ll be lifting no more than half of that, and there’s ten of them. Plus the guys in the baskets. Very doable.”
“If you say so.”
The burly man grinned. “Hey, at least there’s no wind today. Watch and sketch and be amazed. And refill my water bag if you would. I gotta get back to wrenching.”
He was right. Almost. The first girder was complete and in place, tucked into those rock-slots the miners had created, by lunch time. We all felt really good, munching away and staring at the dull metal wall spanning the Wild River gorge. It had gone more smoothly than I could have imagined.
We should have known it was too good to last.
Tragedy struck near sundown. The second girder was being lifted up to solid rock, all ten far-side men lifting steadily and carefully on the tug-rope to make it happen. The half dozen basket workers were doing their parts…and then one man, third from the far side, got careless. Nobody was watching him; our attention was all on the slowly rising bottom corner of the girder as it inched up toward safe landing. But it could only have happened one way. Jock Meringue, age twenty-two and as cocky as guys get at that age, failed to watch his balance as he pushed upward on the girder with all the enthusiasm of overconfident youth. He overbalanced, kicking the basket sideways, and fell out of the waist-high container. It shouldn’t have happened. Everyone who worked the baskets swore it shouldn’t have happened. Jock had worked them from day one; he knew how they functioned as well as anyone. Even when the basket tipped, he shouldn’t have fallen. He could have grabbed the hang-ropes, pulled himself back into balance, righted the basket. But he panicked. Froze. And fell.
As he plummeted, his long scream drew many eyes to the rapidly dwindling form diving toward the river. Not the girder workers; none of them broke focus. They finished securing the girder in its slots before turning their attention to other matters, and good for them. Had they not remained steadfast, there could have been a domino effect resulting in the loss of many lives as well as the loss of twenty-three irreplaceable alloy panels.
Later, when the bridge was complete with cross-panels providing sure footing and great steel guy cables stabilizing the 150 foot span, I had to amend the title of my sketch. The structure would no longer be known as the Wild River Bridge. Instead, it was consecrated as the Jock Meringue Memorial Bridge, soon to be known far and wide as the Jock.