Leighanne was the first to reach the river and she plopped down on a big rock to catch a breather and wait for the others. AJ was the first to join her and when he sat down a little ways from her there was an awkward tension that had never been there before. When Leighanne looked at him she was full of wonder, but the questions running through her head were ones she didn’t know she wanted answers to.
AJ knew she was wondering why. He knew it was why she was upset and he wanted to explain, but he wasn’t sure he could make her understand. He wasn’t sure he could make any of them understand. In fact, after seeing all the animosity he’d caused, he wasn’t sure his reasons for doing it were good enough anymore.
AJ and Leighanne didn’t sit alone for more than a minute though. Nick joined them and the others weren’t far behind. Nick studied them both for a minute with a frown and then couldn’t curb his curiosity. “This is driving me crazy,” He said placing himself between his friends, “What the hell did you write in that book?”
Nick looked at AJ, but he could only look away, so Nick looked to Leighanne for answers. Leighanne wasn’t about to explain everything, some things deserved to remain a secret, but she had to tell him something that would appease his mind. “It’s about him before he came to Mercy, about what happened with his parents.”
Nick thought for a moment and then did something that surprised both AJ and Leighanne. He curled his hands into fists and began to tremble slightly as his face turned red. “You did what?” he yelled furiously.
AJ and Leighanne stared wide-eyed as they realized that Nick knew about Brian, and he didn’t read it in AJ’s book. It made AJ feel even worse because he was sure now that the fight between Nick and Brian was because of him. Brian believed Nick had betrayed his secret and Nick had no idea.
Leighanne on the other hand, had quite a different reaction to the revelation. As bad as she felt for Brian, she couldn’t help but be angry with him again. Brian had never breathed a word of this to her. He claimed he loved her and yet he couldn’t be honest with her when he could obviously share with both Nick and AJ. The fact that Brian didn’t trust her with something that could have easily eased her pain all those years ago hurt just as bad as any of the heartbreak he’d already caused her.
“Who did what?” Kristin asked startling the three of them.
They looked at Kristin not wanting to explain themselves and Nick’s eyes drifted to Brian. He stared apologetically for only a second and then gave AJ a look that could have killed him. “Its nothing.” He hissed and then stormed off a safe distance from the rest of the group in order to gain control of himself.
Everyone was a little surprised, but no one was more confused than Brian. Nick hadn’t looked at him with anything but hatred since he returned to Mercy and the way Leighanne couldn’t take her tearful eyes off of him at the moment suggested that he had been the topic of conversation.
After the drama that had been going on around them over the last few days, everyone knew better than to pry, so they let the subject drop. Howie looked up at the sky, concerned at how low the sun appeared to be, and happily changed the subject. “You guys think maybe we should camp here tonight?”
“No way man.” AJ said, “If I can’t soak in those hot springs all night, I’ll be so stiff tomorrow you’ll have to med-evac me out of here.
“You always were a wuss.” Howie laughed.
“Yeah,” AJ shrugged, “Well now I’m an old, out of shape wuss with a bad knee.”
“We lost a lot of time going up the hill today, and then that storm set us back a little too. It’s not fun setting up camp in the dark.”
Kristin joined them looking up at the sky as well. “It’s only three or four miles. If we push it we could still make it.”
“All right. Then we’d better get moving.”
Brian joined them with a puzzled look. “Does anyone else remember that river being much smaller?”
“How are we supposed to cross it?” AJ said with a frown. “It looks too deep to wade across and I am not taking a swim.”
“You couldn’t just swim it anyway, it’s moving too fast.” Howie.
“Plus you’d get hypothermia.” Nick said, finally deciding to rejoin the group. “We used to wade through it in the end of August when it was only 2 feet deep and that still stung like a bitch.”
“How’d it get so deep?” Baylee asked staring down at the river curiously.
“It’s been like that ever since they opened the spillway at the lake.” Kristin explained, “We’ve had a lot of really wet winters over the last decade. The lake got too full and the dam started to give. They opened the spillway to relieve the pressure and it basically cut a new river. It’s moving pretty fast, so the spillway must be open again.”
“Well that’s just great.” AJ whined, “We came all this way and we can’t even get across?”
“Sure we can, Kev and I made a bridge last time we came out here.”
Kristin grinned when she suddenly had everyone’s attention. She cast her eyes upstream where what looked like a few logs had fallen over a narrow part of the river. Kristin grabbed her pack and headed upstream with the others falling in line behind her. She stopped at the foot of the so-called bridge her husband had rigged four or five years ago. It was three logs ascending from one bank to the other. It was held in place by big rocks and tied together with expert knots. “You actually made this?” Baylee asked rather impressed.
“Kevin did most of it, all I did was help lift the heavy stuff.”
“That’s pretty cool.”
“And you said being a boy scout is lame.” Leighanne laughed as she teasingly patted her son’s head.
AJ frowned down at the homemade concoction that spanned the river two or three feet above the rushing water. “I am not crossing this.”
“AJ don’t be such a wuss.” Kristin teased as she examined the condition of the bridge. Despite the moss that had grown over the surface that had once been sanded flat, it was still holding together as nicely as the day it was made. She set her backpack on the ground and then slowly made her way across to the other side of the river. When she was on solid ground again she held her hands out to ether side. “You see? Nothing to worry about.”
“Alright.” Nick said stepping up to the bridge. “Let’s get to camp before dark.”
“How come we’re leaving our backpacks?” Baylee asked when Nick and the others began removing the gear from their backs.
“We’re not leaving it, we’re just gonna hand it across.”
“That pack you’re wearing weighs close to forty pounds.” Howie explained, “Even more when it’s wet. You fall in the water with that thing strapped to your back, you’re not coming back up.”
“Oh.” Baylee said eying the water with a new nervous feeling that he quickly hid from everyone.
One by one everyone took off their packs and handed them to Nick who walked them across the bridge to Kristin. Once everyone had handed him their packs he crossed the bridge one last time. AJ slowly began to make his way across next and then Leighanne with Baylee close behind her and Brian right behind him making sure he was safe. “Hey guys.” Kristin called out as they made their way across. “You forgot mine.”
Everyone looked back to see her pack still lying on the ground where she’d left it. Everyone watched as Howie went back for the backpack and during the pause Baylee looked down and stopped walking. The tough kid from the big city hated to admit that he was scared, but seeing the dark rushing water beneath him made his body want to tremble. “The sooner you walk, the sooner it’s over. Brian said patting Baylee’s shoulder. “Just try not to look down.”
Baylee looked up at the man and his smile was reassuring. He took a deep breath and then slowly moved his feet, but his tennis shoes were no match for the moss beneath his feet and in a split second he lost his balance and plunged into the water. “Baylee!”
AJ grabbed Leighanne, holding her back before she could jump in after the boy and both Brian and Howie went in her stead. Without even thinking, both men dove into the water and AJ guided a hysterical Leighanne safely across the bridge. They immediately followed after Kristin and Nick who were already running alongside the river.
Brian was the first to reach the frantic child and he pulled him close against his body, helping him to stay afloat. “I’ve got you.” Brian shouted, “Lie back against the current. Try and keep your feet out, like you’re sitting.”
Baylee did as he was told and began to relax as he heard Brian muttering a prayer above his head. The words seemed to sooth him from the inside out and the panic left him. “At a boy Baylee.” Brian said when he felt Baylee’s body relax in his arms.
Brian did all he could to keep their heads above the water as the current swept them down stream. He kept his eye on Howie who was almost within arms reach of them now holding a rope that Nick had thrown to him. “I’m going to have to let go with one hand now Baylee.” Brian said as Howie was making his way beside him. “I promise I wont let you go.”
Tears fell from Baylee’s eyes and he clasped Brian’s hand with both of his as tight as he could. When he had a good grip, Brian let go of Baylee with one hand and reached for Howie. They clasped hands and held on with pure adrenaline as Nick and AJ pulled them to shore.
Leighanne plucked Baylee from the water and they cried together while AJ and Nick helped Howie and Brian from the water. No one said anything while they caught their breath. They were all still trying not to think about what could have just happened. Kristin noticed both Howie and Brian’s teeth chattering and Baylee was shaking violently in his mother’s arms. “I’ll start a fire if you guys go back for the gear.” She said to Nick and AJ. “We need to get these guys warmed up.”
AJ and Nick took off running again and Kristin got to work gathering sticks. Leighanne looked down at her son and dried his tears, unable to stop her own from falling. “I’m sorry mom.” Baylee whispered, “I shouldn’t have looked at the water.”
“Oh honey it’s not your fault.” Leighanne promised. She pulled her son even tighter against her and kissed his forehead. “I’m just glad you’re safe. What would I ever do without you?”
Baylee looked up into his mother’s eyes, never more grateful for her love and buried his face in her chest as he hugged her. Both Brian and Howie watched the reunited family with sadness in their hearts. Both wanted to hold them and comfort them but both knew they couldn’t. As much as either of them may have wanted it to be so, the fact is, neither of them were the man in their life.
Leighanne and Baylee were truly on their own, and as Howie watched them, he vowed he would change that. His heart nearly collapsed when Baylee fell into the river and in that moment he knew he would never be the same. He would become the father that that little boy deserved no matter what it took.
Everyone remained pretty quiet for the next few minutes until Nick and AJ returned. They each had a pack on their back and were carrying one in each arm. Kristin stood up from the fire that was now starting to come to life and smiled. “I guess we’re camping here tonight. If you guys want to start setting up tents, I’ll go back for the last pack.”
AJ and Nick both gave her puzzled looks. “But this is everything.” Nick said and then looked at the packs again.
“There’s only six packs,” Kristin stated, “Where’s the last –
Everyone glanced at each other and when it dawned on them that Howie had been holding a bag when he jumped in the river they all turned their gazes to Him. Howie’s eyes got really big as the realization hit and he looked out at the rushing water. The group followed his eyes and one at a time mouths began to drop open and Kristin gasped in horror. Howie felt sick to his stomach and turned to Kristin practically speechless. “Kris.”
Everyone watched tears fill Kristin’s eyes and waited for the emotional breakdown that was guaranteed to follow. Nick wrapped his arms around her but she pushed him away. Howie shrugged helplessly as he took a step toward her. “Don’t!” Kristin choked. “Just stay back.”
Howie’s eyes glazed over. He tried to apologize but nothing he could think to say seemed near good enough. “I’m so sorry.”
“You’re sorry?” Kristin’s tears stopped falling as anger took over. “Is that supposed to make me feel better? You dropped my husband’s ashes in the river! Kevin’s gone!”
Baylee finally realized what was going on and pulled his shivering body from his mother’s arms. “It’s my fault.” He whispered, “Please don’t be mad at him.”
Howie was stunned by Kristin’s attitude, but it was Baylee’s plea that hurt. He looked at the child just in time to see him wipe his cheek. Seeing the guilt and the fear in his eyes was too much. The boy nearly lost his life. He needed to be taken care of right now, not attempting to mediate a fight.
Howie was normally a very calm, very cool under pressure kind of guy, but everyone has their limits and the feelings of being a protective parent were a new discovery. “Damnit Kristin, how selfish can you be?” he screamed, silencing the entire camp with pure shock, “I’m sorry I dropped your bag, I am, but they were just ashes. Kevin is already gone and my son’s life was in danger! What did you expect me to do?”
Howie took a deep breath and lowered his voice. He grabbed a sleeping bag from one of the packs on the ground and wrapped it around Baylee. “It’s not your fault.”
Baylee starred at Howie, overwhelmed by the love that was being shown for him and without warning he dove into Howie’s arms. Howie was shocked at first, but tears finally fell from his eyes for the first time since he’d come to town, as he held the boy in his arms. He caught a glimpse of Leighanne and she was just as teary-eyed, but Howie couldn’t tell if they were the same happy tears that he was crying or if they were something else.
Tears once again returned to Kristin’s eyes and she finally allowed Nick to hold her. She collapsed into his arms sobbing uncontrollably. Nick ran his fingers through her hair, urging her body to stop shaking. “I’m sure it’s fine.” He assured her. “They were sealed in an airtight bag. The pack probably just sunk. It’s probably still sitting right under the bridge. I’m sure we can fish it out in the morning.”