Summary: A Cartwright 21st Century tale
Rated: K+ Word Count: 6980
21st Century Cartwrights Series:
Within the Circle
With a Two-edged Sword
With The Best Intentions
The Art of Weaseling
With All Deliberate Purpose
Death Walked This Way Today
Is This Normal?
Withholding the Dream
“I just don’t think I should be the one. I mean, Hoss has lots more experience than I do and he says he’s free,” I said. I was trying my best not to sound whiny. If there is one thing that will set my father off it is sounding whiny like a little kid. Guess I didn’t succeed too well since he laid his fork down on the table, folded his hands together and just looked at me. A glance across the table showed me that I wasn’t going to get any help from said brother Hoss. And Adam? He was the one who’d started it all.
Pa cleared his throat and old habit coupled with newer experience told me to look at him because he was about to seal my fate. “Joseph,” he started and I knew when he called me by my full first name that I was a goner. “If Adam wants you to go with him, I think he’s telling you that he thinks you have ample experience.”
“After all, how do you think I got all my experience, Joe?” Hoss piped up just before his forkful of mashed potatoes stalled anything else from coming out of him. I sneered in his direction for good measure. Pa saw it and it got me the equivalent – he put one of his hands over mine. I wouldn’t be eating anything until he had his say.
“Son,” – Oh, I dread it when he takes that soft tone of voice with me. I just know whatever it is, I have lost the battle no matter what I do- “I really think that you should go with Adam.” Then he did it. He patted my hand. That said plainly to everyone around the table that the discussion was over. Adam had the audacity – great word to describe him right then- to smirk at me. Hoss swallowed his mouthful of potatoes and grinned at me.
Me? What else could I do? I wanted to argue with all of them. It wasn’t my job, I would state. I was the family’s construction project manager on site. I was the one who saw that the jobs we bid on and won were built the way the plans said they were supposed to be. My place was in the field. Closest I ever wanted to be to that glass-walled battlement (or dungeon, however you want to call it) better known as the home office was when I figured out how much a project owner needed to pay us for the work done that month! Yes, I had a fancy office in the home office in Carson City. Just down the hall from Adam’s. Had a nice view looking west toward the Sierras. Don’t ask me what color the carpet was because I never spend time there. Don’t even know on what side of the door the light switch is, for gosh sakes. Like I said – field work. Getting dirty, watching a building go up, turning lines on paper into walls. Not—this.
“Meet me at the base of the gondolas at one o’clock sharp tomorrow afternoon, okay?” Adam asked, not bothering to even look in my direction. “I promise that we’ll be done in time for your date.”
I don’t know what stung more: the fact that I had lost the battle without ever getting to fire anything more than my opening salvo or the fact that Adam was so damn smug about it – like he’d talked it all over with Pa beforehand ( he probably had). Or was it that I didn’t have a date for that Friday night – not that I couldn’t have found one if I’d really wanted one, you understand.
All morning I was out of sorts. Just to show the family that I was my own man, I spent it out of the office, walking around the site of the new hotel we were building for Grissom and Associates up on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. The project was about done. The electricians were putting in the final touches and I had the cleaning crews scheduled for two weeks out. Final inspection would be shortly after that. Cartwright and Sons Construction had held up our end of the deal and the place would be ready for their first guests the Fourth of July weekend. I made a point of stopping and talking to the various guys I ran across, wasting time.
I had just tested the elevator for the third time when I saw the crews were knocking off for lunch. Guess it was time that I got in my Jeep and headed down to South Lake and Big Brother. But I just had to put it off for as long as I could so I strolled down to the trailer we worked out of. Jenny, our secretary who is older than dirt, was waiting for me.
“You forgot to take your cell phone with you – again.” To underscore her point, she waved it at me. Like the stern, dour expression on her face would change me? Ha!
“And let me guess who called?”
“Well, it wasn’t Ed McMahon and Publisher’s Clearing House.” Jenny is so subtle with her humor.
I took my electronic leash away from her. “And it wasn’t the President either? Gosh, now how am I going to tell him that I figured out how to control gas prices? Did the United Nations call back? I know they want to hear about my plan for world peace.” Two can tease as well as one.
“Nope. And NASA isn’t returning your calls either. But your brother Adam is looking for you. Said something about a job walk up at Heavenly?” A job walk is what all of us contractors do before a potential job comes up for bid. You go, look around at the site, ask questions of the architect, the designer, the owner, scratch you head and come away with the desire to either bid on the job or run away from it as fast as you can.
Didn’t mean to let that sigh escape that loud. Jenny shook her head sadly. “Joe, just go. He wants your input and since you’ll be the one running the job if we get it, it only makes sense.”
“No, what he wants to do is rub my nose in his knowledge. If he asks me how long it will take to do a particular little piece of the job and I tell him two days, I know he’ll figure twice that. So why ask me in the first place? Just go, look at things and when the time comes, put in your bid, Adam. If we’re low bidder, so be it! I’ll go and build the thing; just leave me out of the estimating end of the business.”
“Why? You think you’re gonna be able to run these jobs for the rest of your life?” She crossed her arms over her pigeon chest. I could almost hear her foot patting.
“Why not?” I leaned over the intervening desk and tweaked her cheek. “You have.”
I had to leave right after that but I heard the stapler hit the door right about head high. Teasing Jenny sometimes is best done at arm’s length – or longer.
So, with the wind whipping through my open Jeep, I drove down to South Lake Tahoe. The consortium of big money down there has built up that sleepy little community in my life time to a happening sort of place. The big casinos are there along with the fancy restaurants and all the tourist traps. Up the lake side of the mountains, Heavenly Ski Resort has put a gondola run that goes up to above ten thousand feet. In the summer, riding in the glass-enclosed gondolas you get a spectacular view of Lake Tahoe. At the very top, the view can be breath-taking but unless you are sports-minded, there isn’t anything else to do but turn around and go back down. So it was that the big dollar guys wanted to build a restaurant up there at the top. In winter, during ski season, they figured to rake in the long green just on the liquor they would be offering. Forget about what they’d make in the summer. They’d been in the planning stages of it for a hair over two years, getting permits and the regional planning authority’s blessing – no easy task. Now they were ready to start the construction phase.
Personally I thought they were more than a little nuts. We would no more than get the foundation down and maybe a few walls up and winter snows would catch us and shut us down. Adam and I had looked over the plans more than a few times, trying to figure things out. Grissom’s hotel had been about like that, timing-wise. It was only because of late snows the year before that we had gotten the roof on and been able to work inside of it all winter. What were the odds we could do that again, this time with a fancy restaurant? I put it at slim to none.
I saw Adam leaning on the side of the parking garage when I pulled in and found a place right next to his Grape. (Okay it was a close fit but he always tries to take up two spaces so his Jag doesn’t suffer from parking lot dings. I was just saving my brother the embarrassment of being accused of not knowing how to park. And if a brother can’t ding your door….)
He huffed as he looked at his wristwatch. “You’re almost late.”
I shrugged my shoulders and proceeded on past him. “Yeah, and if you don’t quit trying to hold up that building, we will be,” I blithely commented over my shoulder.
His long legs out-matched mine and he made it to the gondola before me. Our pass was shown to the operator and we were on our way up the slope. Adam sat so he could look out over the Lake. Not me. I’ve seen that Lake a time or two in my life – lived right next to it all of my years. I didn’t need to see it from another couple of thousand feet higher.
“Is that why you didn’t want to come with me? The heights?” Adam teased.
“You forget that I ski up here all winter long and this is the ski lift.” I couldn’t help myself. The smugness seemed so appropriate.
Adam countered with his own smug grin and said “And when you use the lift, you are facing uphill then too.”
Okay, my smug wasn’t as good as his smug. Lasted about the same length of time though. Namely until we got to the top and got off. There were lots of representatives of other construction outfits standing around, hands in their pockets to keep them warm, waiting for things to get started. We talked with one of the electrical contractors until this fella steps into the middle of us and raises his hand.
“I’m Mike Perkins. I represent the owners and I would like to welcome all of you here today.” He said some other things that had to do with the project, lining out how they envisioned it all happening and such. There were some questions asked, mostly about getting access to the mountain top for the trucks carrying men and materials. He snaked his hand in and around the air some, explaining how they thought a road could be built. Then he invited us all to look around the site and talk to the experts they had there. “But, gentlemen, please remember that the last gondola down is at four-thirty sharp and you don’t want to miss it!” We all dutifully chuckled then went about our separate ways.
Adam and I talked with the guy from the soils labs that had determined where the building spot should be. “Lots of solid rock underfoot here, about as far down as the bottom of the foundation. Won’t have to do much blasting.” I breathed a sigh of relief over that since I hate blasting rock out of the way just to pour a concrete foundation there.
We listened to the gal from the Tahoe Regional Planning Authority for a bit. Over and over she said that the project had the full backing of the TRPA, the State and all the other regulatory agencies. As we walked away, Adam muttered “Which only goes to say that the owners have greased the right palms. Let one of those palms come up for election and lose and there might be real problems.”
“Until that palm gets greased,” I added.
He gave me a mock hurt expression. “What? You believe that there are dirty politics in Nevada? Joseph! And our father – running for the US Senate! Shame on you!” He grabbed the front of his shirt like he was holding his heart in place.
I had to give in and laugh. Yes, politics can be dirty (and not just in Nevada) and our father was doing everything possible to clean up that impression.
Together, we walked a good ways down the slope in the direction Mike had suggested for a road. It looked terribly steep and was full of boulders and downed trees. Doing some rough figuring, Adam decided that another way would have to be found if the work was to be enclosed by bad weather. We hiked back up to our starting point and went about a mile through the woods toward the back side of the mountains. There wasn’t any better route available over on that side. In the shadows, though, it was cool and Adam pulled up his shirt collar. I was glad that I still had my jacket on.
“Seen enough?” I asked and blew on my hands to warm them.
“Guess so. Enough to know at least that we might want to think twice about bidding on this job.”
As we walked back toward the staging area, we tossed the pros and cons back and forth between us. Couple of times we stopped so we could argue things out better. (Never figured out how it is that you can’t talk and walk at the same time when you want to make an important point. It isn’t like the two acts are counter of one another.)
It was only when we made it to the flat open area that Adam thought to check the time. It was four-forty. We were ten minutes late to catch a gondola down. And the shadows were lengthening quickly. It can get dark in the mountains really fast and the clouds marching in from the west didn’t help matters much.
“When they do a head count, they’ll realize that they left someone and will send a car back up. All we need to do is be patient,” explained Adam, ready to wait it out. Me? Nope. I paced to the back side of the clearing.
After a few minutes, I rejoined my brother. “They didn’t take a head count so how do they know they’re two shy?” I asked.
“Call that Mike guy. That paper he gave us has his phone number on it,” Adam shot back.
I reached for my phone and came up empty-handed. Adam scowled at me.
“Whatever happened to Pa’s admonition to be prepared for anything when you go into the woods?” he fussed. “That a lesson you conveniently forget?”
“No. Since this isn’t technically the woods, I left it on the seat of the Jeep.” I tried my best not to sound sassy. Missed it so I tried a counter attack. “Use yours and call him.”
With a self-righteous expression plastered on his face, Adam pulled his out and studying the paper I was holding up for the best light, dialed the number. Even I could hear it ringing and when it stopped, Adam put it immediately to his ear.
He turned his back so I couldn’t see his face but I heard him. He was telling an answering machine the state of our affairs. With a metallic and plastic snap, he turned back around and slid the phone into his pocket.
“So?” I prodded.
“I got his answering machine. I am sure that when he picks up his messages…” He let the rest of the sentence dangle in mid-air, flopping around just like his hands were.
I don’t remember now what I was going to say but I am sure that it had an appropriate bite to it. However, Mother Nature said it for me in the form of a long, low rumble of thunder and a huge, noisy splat of a rain drop on Adam’s flapping hands. I do recall that both of us used the same single syllable word to express our dislike of being in the rain.
Another roll of thunder had both of us looking at the sky. The flash of lightning momentarily blinded us and the earth beneath our feet vibrated at the same time.
Adam grabbed hold of my arm and we started running for what cover there was. The trees. Okay, I can hear you now: Going into the trees during a thunderstorm is not smart. Well, my answer is this: standing next to a metallic tower (that’s what the gondola wire-ropes are suspended from) higher than the trees in a cleared area is dumber yet. And no one has ever accused either of these Cartwright brothers as being dumb (at least outside of the immediate family).
Like I said earlier, it gets dark in the mountains fast. Give it a bank of thunderstorm clouds and it gets darker faster. Within minutes not only were Adam and I drenched to the skin but we were in near pitch blackness. We managed to escape the worst of the golf-ball size hail stones. The ones that did find us left painful bruises. Together, we took shelter on the lee-side of some boulders, jammed tight with each other into the crevice. A panicky sniff told us both that it had been used as a bear’s den but how recently? Couldn’t tell.
For once I was truly glad Adam was taller than me. If it had been me that had seen that bear headed right for us, Adam would have had my boot tracks on his forehead for the rest of eternity. He would never have heard me because I would have been half way to Reno before I got the word out. As it was, when he said the word “bear,” we both bolted from our shelter at the same time.
While running through the woods away from the presumably irate bear, the old joke about how fast do you have to be to outrun a bear popped into my head. Not the joke, per se, but the punch line: you only have to be faster than the other guy. Gauging how fast old Adam was flying along, jumping downed trees and charging through thick brush, I figured I was a goner. Unless maybe the bear liked his victims quiet. Adam said he didn’t have to look over his shoulder to know where I was, I was bellowing so loud.
Just about the time we both ran out of steam (and prayed that the bear had too), there was one last thicket. We took it together like hurdlers in a track and field event. There was just one problem. On the other side was a steep slope. A very steep slope. A very steep slope that was now slippery with wet pine needles. A very steep slope that was slippery with wet pine needles and studded with VW size boulders. Shortly thereafter, several of those boulders bore up well under our battering.
Too bad we didn’t fare as well.
It had just about quit raining when I decided to open my eyes and look around. I had no idea how long I’d been out. (You never think to check your watch just before you get blasted by something, do you? Would be a silly thing to do while you are theoretically fighting for your life, wouldn’t it? Besides, I don’t wear a watch. Use the one on my cell phone.) By then it was darker than dark with no moon showing in the sky. No stars either because the sky was still pretty clouded over from what I could see sprawled on my back. The only light reaching down to us was a faint glow that told us the casinos were still operating somewhere far below us.
There was enough groaning going on around me that I figured I wasn’t deaf but there was something very heavy pushing down on my chest and I couldn’t free my arms to figure out what it was. I did manage to raise my head enough but I still couldn’t see what it was. Oddly enough, though, fabric brushed my chin. Dark fabric.
Now I knew it wasn’t me moaning, groaning and mumbling so I had it in my head that it had to be Adam or the bear had caught up to us and had learned to swear somewhere in the process. The bear would have also decided to start wearing clothes. Adam had to be close by – most likely right on top of me. I tried calling to him but couldn’t get enough air in my lungs to really shout so it was more like a whisper. Nothing. I tried shifting around but the weight pushing me down was too complete, too heavy. Nothing. I finally did the only other thing I could think to do to get his attention.
I bit whatever that dark fabric-covered body part was that was across my chest. Maybe it was a little more excessive than was necessary but since I didn’t know what it was, I had to make sure it got his attention. And, I swear, I didn’t know that the backside of a knee was so sensitive. (Adam should be grateful that I couldn’t reach to my left and chomped down harder or he wouldn’t have been able to sit down for a few days without remembering.)
Once the weight was off my chest, I was able to sit up and sort things out. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness and quit spinning around in their sockets every time I moved my head, I took inventory of body parts – damaged and undamaged; mine and my brother’s. The good news was that we would live. The bad news was that we would live. The muscles in my right shoulder and arm burned every time I moved that arm. A deep breath told me that I’d done some damage to the rib cage on that same side – not broken anything since I wasn’t spitting up blood. Adam, besides the obligatory knot on his head, had fared a little better. (After all, he must have ridden the last ten feet of our pinball machine ride on top of me.) He yelped a time or two as I worked my way down his legs – most loudly when I touched his right knee and again at his right ankle.
“I don’t think they’re broken,” I informed him, hoping against hope that I was right. He could move them but I knew from experience that you can often move broken body parts – just not very far and not without a good deal of pain. “Stay put,” I ordered – like he could have got up and run a marathon?- and he did as he was told. (Must have grated on him to be bossed around by his little brother but what else was he going to do?).
Using every handhold I could, I went back up the slope we had careened down. I had to get my bearings and figure out where we were. As I stood there on that little rise, I had to admit to myself that I was lost. I can give you a thousand reasons why that would happen. First, it was night – and a dark one to boot. Second – my head hurt so my sense of direction was somewhat scrambled. Third – yes, I’d skied around here for years but the ski runs were on the other side of the mountain (you don’t downhill ski through thick trees) and without snow, things look different. I did have the sky-glow to orient myself toward the lake but that was all.
Getting back down to Adam wasn’t quite so hard as the first trip down. By now, he was sitting up with his back to one of our friendly boulders. I was glad he couldn’t see my face or he’d’ve known then just what shape we were in.
“Don’t suppose you found my cell phone,” he half-asked. “I think I dropped it.”
There wasn’t any ‘thinking’ about it. The cell phone was gone.
“Well, we can get help the old-fashioned way.” My brother Adam – the eternal optimist. “Give me your lighter. You go find some wood to make a fire.” I guess when I hadn’t moved, he figured something was wrong. “You do have your lighter on you, don’t you?” Like the obligatory cell phone, a disposable cigarette lighter was on Pa’s list of emergency things to never go into the woods without. “Don’t tell me. Down in the Jeep?”
I did what he told me to – I didn’t tell him. It wasn’t in the Jeep either. The last time I remembered having it, I was starting a fire on the Sand Harbor Beach to keep a couple of lovely young ladies warm on a winter’s evening. And I distinctly recall that it was hard to get a spark out of- probably about out of fluid and needing replacing. But Adam didn’t need those details.
“Where’s yours?” I countered. We had the same father and he’d never said which one of us was to carry what emergency supplies into the woods so, theoretically, what was good for one of us went for all of us.
“Busted it against a rock. Or a brother’s head. I can’t be sure of which. Either way, my pant leg is soaked with butane.”
I had the overpowering urge to spit, thinking there was the unmistakable taste of lighter-fluid on my tongue. Yes, I know. Mind over matter. Just in case, I rolled my tongue around long enough to make sure and spit into the night anyway. One can never be too sure, you know.
“Okay, so take off your jeans. We’ll use the flint off the lighter to get a spark and we’ll use them as tinder. That should be enough to get the wet wood started. I’ll gather up a big armload of the stuff in the dark while you’re doing that. That is if the bear helps me.” Yes, sarcasm is one of my strong suits yet so few in the family find it amusing. The picture I had painted in my head of us being found the next morning more than made up for Adam’s response – something about snowballs in Hell.
“How about if we just started shouting?” Adam suggested as I sat down next to him, backed up to our boulder.
“You go ahead,” I offered. “I can barely draw enough air in to keep body and soul together. Besides…” I let the rest of my spoken thoughts dangle in mid-air.
Adam prodded me gently with his elbow. “Besides what, Joe? What do you know that I don’t?”
I wanted to joke and tell him that there was a lot I knew that he didn’t. Like who was trying to make time (unsuccessfully, I might add) with his new girlfriend, Doctor Conover, behind his back. Like what Pa was getting him for his birthday. Like what Lisa in Accounting thought of him (that woman has no understanding of men – she mooned over his hands, for gosh sakes!) Sensing that he wanted serious information (like the three examples weren’t serious?), I told him what I knew from my excursion.
The track the ski lift/gondolas make up the mountain is steep. The mountainside itself is about a sixty-degree slope. Mother Nature has done a great job on that slope, slicing down through it about seven times, making steep-sided cuts perpendicular across the mountain face that keep melting snow from sliding directly into the casinos and then the lake itself. We were in one of those cuts. If we followed the floor of the cut, we would have to go a good five miles before we hit anything akin to civilization. Then, because they ended chopped into a county road, we’d have a drop of maybe fifty feet before we hit asphalt. These ravines are good for stopping stuff other than snow, too. Like downed trees, rocks…and were the favored haunts for critters like bears, skunks and the occasional marijuana patch gardeners.
“Well, we can’t be that far from the base of the lift.” I love it when Adam gets assertive – and I know he’s wrong. Just one of those little gifts from the gods who watch over younger brothers. Mine kept me from opening up and laughing at that moment. His leg hurt, not his fist and he might be tempted to use it. But never mind. Pa doesn’t like to know about such behavior.
I helped Adam stand up. No mean feat, let me tell you, what with my shoulder trying to out-scream my side and me trying not to show him how much I hurt.
Guess I wasn’t all that successful because Adam up and says ” Maybe we should wait until morning. Surely by then, Perkins will have checked his answering machine and come looking for us.” There was a lot of concern in big brother’s voice and most of it was directed at me.
“Would you give out your personal home number if you were Perkins?” I asked and took one of his long arms over my good shoulder. Thankfully, we kind of matched up side-wise. He wouldn’t need my busted up side but I would need his good side to help us along.
One tentative half-step. “Probably not but what’s that got to do with the price of eggs in China?”
“Because tomorrow is Saturday. Odds are that he won’t get that message until Monday. You want to sit up here, cold, wet, and hungry for two days?” Another half-step.
We stopped talking for a while because it was just easier not to. Up the other side of the slippery slope we went, a three legged, panting, silently cursing, wet creature from some horror movie. I would have added cold to the list but we weren’t. Pushing off rocks, fighting for footing, dragging each other’s weight from time to time, that all works up a sweat. When we stopped at the narrow-edged top, I was all but done in.
“If we follow this edge, Joe,” Adam puffed, “we should be able to get to the gondola stanchions, right?”
I started to shrug my shoulders then remembered one of them wouldn’t like it very much. “Be hard going, Adam. This ridge is kind of narrow from what little I can make of it. One slip and we’re billiard balls again.” I looked toward where I knew the lake was. There was another ridge – at least one- between us and a clear look at the lights and Lake Tahoe. That meant that the next ridge we would have to climb would be steeper than the one we had just managed. I wasn’t sure I could make it but I didn’t want to tell Adam that.
Adam had a plan.”Okay then, this is what we do. Find a stick you can use like a blind man would a cane and work your way over to the stanchions. Then, down the slope. You get down there and send help back for me.”
I had a plan, too, and it had nothing to do with leaving one of us behind. “How about if I find a couple of sticks? I use two of them to splint your leg- just to hold everything in place so you can walk a little more on it. Another one – hopefully with a crotch in it- becomes your crutch. And we both sneak along this ridge-top until we get to the towers.”
Adam was softly chuckling then he found my good shoulder in the darkness. “And then we start beating on the metal legs, hoping someone hears it and reports us to the police for trespassing.”
“Or we piss off the bear.”
“Whichever comes first.”
By the time I had found the requisite number and soundness of sticks, Adam was shaking with cold. While the rain had fallen off to the timid variety, it was still soaking and chilly. There was no way other than physical movement that would warm him so I went about fixing his splint, using my shirt sleeves to tie it to his leg. He didn’t like how I solved one problem: his ankle was swollen and had filled his boot completely. I used my little pen knife and cut the boot off his foot. Truthfully, I figured his foot – and his life- was worth more than that cowboy boot but you wouldn’t have known it that night. Okay, so I missed cutting it on the seams but it was very dark, remember? Besides, I needed the boot in one piece on the sides to hold the splinting sticks in place. When Pa saw it later, he swore he thought Adam’s foot had been chewed on by the bear. (Nope, just a pen knife, Pa, I swear it.)
He tried it out. It worked but I could tell that he was in some pain. So was I. I was about to admit that his idea of one of us going on ahead was a good idea when he turned back to me and asked if I was going to sit on that rock until he came back for me. That stirred me, and I got to my own two sound feet and legs and got in front of him on that narrow edge.
“Hey!” he panted and I turned back, sure that he was about to fall.
Adam grabbed the front of my jacket and using the speed of a striking rattler, had my bad arm cradled and held by the buttoned front of it. The pain brought glittering white stars with it and I must have stumbled. The next thing I knew I was butt-down on the ground, staring at Adam’s kneecaps.
“Can you get up?” he asked and I had to swallow hard before I could answer him. “Good. Otherwise….” The threat of being left behind in his last word wasn’t really a threat. More like a promise. Either way, I got to my feet, albeit a little wobbly. “Don’t you dare fall on me again,” he warned.
I had to remind him that it was him who’d fallen on me in the first place. Did my imitation of Pa, warning him about falling and how I didn’t exactly relish the idea about pulling him back up that steep-sided slope. “After all, who do you think I am? Hoss?”
“At least Hoss would’ve been softer to land on.”
So it was that we inched along in the dark, teasing, bantering, occasionally swearing when we stumbled into one another or ran into a tree trunk we had to go around. Once we caught a whiff of skunk and that had us rooted in place for a good five minutes until we decided he must have gone the other way (oh, please Lord!) .
By the time we reached the clearing and ran head-on into one of the gondola/ski lift stanchions, we were both pretty well spent. It was a relief to sit down with our backs against something man-made. It meant that civilization couldn’t be that far away. At least now, I figured, we had a clear path to help. At least where we were then, there was a little more ambient light from down below us.
Adam picked up a fair sized rock. The panic-thought ran through my mind that it had all unhinged him and he was about to beat my skull in (not that it wasn’t already half stove-in). He hit the metal leg between us instead. The vibration made my teeth rattle and my eardrums dance.
He pulled back to do it again and I stopped him just long enough to scoot away from the target.
We looked at one another.
“You suppose anyone heard that?” I asked before he could do it again.
His eyebrows, dark against his shock-white face, danced up and down once.
“Try S O S,” I suggested.
BWANG! BWANG! BWANG! Pause, followed by another three and another pause then three more.
At the rate he was going, I was going to be deaf before help showed up. “I thought it was three shorts, three longs and then three shorts,” I argued, trying to recall my Morse code from boy scout days.
“Three longs, three shorts, three longs,” Adam countered and ran through the BWANGS! again.
“Those all sounded alike.” At least to my eardrums, they did.
He swore differently and began once more. During the “O”, Civilization conquered Mother Nature and his rock broke. I wanted to cheer.
“Find me another rock,” ordered Adam, tossing his pieces aside.
“Only if you promise to knock me unconscious with it before you start that racket again.”
Old Adam is nothing if not persistent. He went through four rocks (and a younger brother’s eardrums) before he gave up. By then, the eastern side of the mountain was being lit up – proving that Mother Nature won after all. In the gentle pre-dawn light, we once more played the three-legged beast. Seeing where we were going made it a lot easier. Okay, so on the down-slope sides we used gravity and the rear ends of two formerly perfectly good pairs of jeans. Adam got pretty good at using his crutch to steer with, fending off boulders but ass-kissing pine cones at the speed of sound was another matter. On the up-slopes, we panted and huffed, swore mightily and even prayed upon at least one occasion. It was full daylight by the time we got to the top of that last rise.
It stopped us cold, what we saw there at the foot of the mountain. It was as if all of the gondolas and the wire rope lines they ran on had been gathered up by some monster. Smashed glass and metal was tied together into a ball half the height of the hotel behind it. Wreckage without true form. Over it, looking more like ants, were yellow-jacketed firemen and rescue personnel. German shepherd dogs pulled at leashes as they scrambled over it, searching for the scent of an injured person. On either side, massive cranes hovered, ready to drop down into the carnage and lift away part of it. It didn’t surprise me that one of them belonged to Cartwright and Sons Construction. And that the white-haired man at the controls owned it.
“Oh, Jesus,” Adam said softly and I echoed the sentiment. “Do you realize…” he began but he didn’t need to finish his thought.
“That first lightning strike,” I ground out but couldn’t get past those words. Like Adam, I didn’t need to finish my thought. He had it figured out too: We had come within minutes of being part of that twisted ball of metal and wire. The lightning had struck one of the towers and severed the line, dropping all of the gondolas like so many beads of a broken necklace, only to have them roll down the last slope and end up….
The whole vision made me sick. I could feel Adam’s arm across my stomach, holding me up as my gut tried to empty itself of the notion of how close we’d come to death. “Easy, Joe,” he kept saying over and over again but it was useless. All the words in the world couldn’t make that feeling disappear.
I fought myself, knowing I had to look, had to go down that slope toward what was left. As I straightened up, someone crawling over it saw us and pointed. He must have shouted. I saw Pa turn in the cab of the crane, his hands hovering over the controls. I couldn’t see his face but I didn’t need to. He launched himself out of the machine and was tearing toward us. Hoss wasn’t far behind.
Adam sat down, laughed once then sprawled on his back. He smacked at my leg and told me to join him. “We’ve gone far enough, brother.”
I would have done as he said but Pa was all over us by then. It felt kind of good, you know what I mean?
Just before they loaded us into separate ambulances (even though I’d sworn that I wasn’t hurt bad enough to warrant a trip to the hospital), I heard Adam chuckling again. I caught his eye and saw that little smile of his that said he was ready to concede a point to me.
He did. “I don’t think we’ll bid on this job.”
“Why not?” came Pa’s deep voice right beside me. He must have thought we were both loco.
“Joe can’t handle the height.”
They closed the ambulance door before I could argue.
The final story in the 21st Century Cartwrights Series:
Other Stories by this Author
- 21st Century Cartwrights # 3 – Calculated Revenge (by the Tahoe Ladies)
- 21st Century Cartwrights # 9 – Is This Normal? (by the Tahoe Ladies)
- 21st Century Cartwrights # 8 – Death Walked This Way (by the Tahoe Ladies)
- 21st Century Cartwrights # 6 – The Fine Art of Weaseling (by the Tahoe Ladies)
- 21st Century Cartwrights # 7 – With All Deliberate Purpose (by the Tahoe Ladies)