CROSS COUNTRY

03 cross country - crop1

CROSS COUNTRY

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        Another private plane had spotted the wreckage of Luke’s Cessna high on the steep and snowy Great Medicine Ridge.  It had been three months since he crashed during New Year’s Eve.

        Luke Steinmann is, was, like a brother to me.  Luke’s father, the Sheriff, had let me live with them like family from the time I was just a fucked-up half-breed boy.

        Luke became a Sheriff, too.  Of course, I couldn’t get accepted.  I became a Park Ranger.  It was alright.  That is, it was alright until Tahnee Hall came between us.  Tahnee.

        I am now calling-in a big favor in the hours before the Rescue Team can be assembled.  Fuck us all, it is going to be a Recovery not a Rescue.  I get Buzz, the helicopter pilot, to take me up there first and immediately.  He knows how tight me and Luke are, were.  No one is going to bust us.  But it is scary.  Buzz can’t land on Great Medicine Ridge of course, so while he manages to hover low as he can, I have to clamber out and drop down from the chopper’s skids.

        The wreckage of Luke’s plane had slid down there right to the sparse tree line.  I didn’t see any bodies yet.  It is tough footing and I have to restrain myself going down.

        There are no bodies in the wreckage.  But I see the sheet torn from Luke’s ever-present pocket notebook and stuck with gum onto the instrument panel, right over the fuel gauge.

ME, TAHNEE, CHEYENNE,

OK, HURT. 

CAN NOT STAY. 

TRY GO DOWN. 

GOD KNOWS.

        God knows, Luke, this wasn’t supposed to happen.

        Tahnee was meant for me.

        Cheyenne, our beloved Border Collie.

        Everyone that ever mattered to me.

        I can see the only way that they could have proceeded down.  A lot of the snow is now gone.  It is a slide made up of rock and branches.  Maybe they found a way to slide down when it was snow.  How far did they get?  I start down, slipping and sliding.  It’s tiring, being so tense.

        None of this was supposed to happen.

        Then I see it.  Right at the edge of the drop-off.

        The stone man.

        I get a blast of adrenaline.  Luke and I used to make little stone men as signals just for each other.  We have, had a way of making them all our own, two legs, a body, two arms and a head.  We made signals out of them.

        This stone man points up the slope to the left, not down the slope to the right along the descending ledge.  I had figured they would have kept heading down.  When I look up over to the left I am doused with adrenaline again.  On the slope is a huge flat boulder that has come to rest against the trunks of trees that did not quite topple with the blow.  It created a narrow dark cave.

        I am clawing my way uphill now, scrabbling up to that cave, heart pounding enough to blow my head off.  The cave is dark and cold.  I can shuffle in on my knees.

        “Tahnee!  Luke!  Cheyenne!”

        For a moment there I am praying for a reply.  I knew there couldn’t be a reply.  No reply is still crushing me.  I fumble my flashlight out of my side pocket.

        “Oh, God,” I am wailing.

        There in the far corner is a huddle of bundled bodies.

        Tahnee and Luke still clutch each other face-to-face.  Cheyenne is draped on top of them, face down.

        “Jesus, Jesus.”  Their eyes are still open.  Tahnee and Luke stare into each other’s dry flat eyes, their eyelids are curled back and shriveled with the cold.  Cheyenne is still on top of both of them.  His dead eyes still despair.  I can’t look.

        As I wrench my gaze away, my mind is fumbling.  I notice the pitiful cold fire pit, a depression, with a fair pile of fire-gnawed twigs and branches.  How long did that last?  I notice clusters of small bones.  Squirrels.  Cheyenne must have hunted for them.  Good dog, I know you kept them alive as long as you could and you died last.

        This wasn’t supposed to happen.  What have I done?

        “WHAT HAVE I DONE?!”

        Tahnee was mine.  I had never felt that way about a woman.  What did she think was better about Luke?  What?  God help me, I lost my mind.

        “GOD, THIS IS YOUR FAULT!”

        I was so angry, I have never been so angry, God forgive me, “I JUST WANTED TO FUCK UP SOMETHING THAT YOU LOVED, LUKE.”

        All I did was put sugar in the plane’s gas tank.  The engine never should have started!  How did the plane take off?

        “WHY DID YOU TAKE TAHNEE WITH YOU?”

        I know why he took her.  He told me he was planning to propose to her on New Year’s Eve.

        “YOU NEVER TOLD ME YOU WERE GOING TO ASK TAHNEE UP IN THE AIR!”

        How did the engine even start?

        “GOD, GOD, THIS IS HOW YOU WANTED IT?”

        It isn’t fair, it isn’t fair.  How can I go on?  I am so sorry!  I am so sorry!  I want to die, Great Spirit, Dear God, I want to die!

        Now I turn away and I can see the stone man centered in the view from this cave.

        Now I hear it, the approaching helicopter.  It’s big.  It’s getting louder.  They must have sent the National Guard Medical chopper.

        “WHAT IS THE FUCKING POINT?!”

        Then I see the stone man shiver.  The sound of the chopper is thundering, even back here in the cave.  Oh, fuck, the stone man is trembling, he’s falling apart.

        “STOP!”

        I’ve got to get out of here, now I can feel the vibrations from the chopper!  I lunge forward on my knees.  But it is too late for me.  The boulder shifts, crushing the tree trunks.  The bolder is falling flat!

        “I DON’T WANT TO DIE!”

        But I am alive.

        I am pinned with my face in the cold rocks.  I can’t move.  I can’t hear anything now except my harsh breath.  I can only see the swimming sparks in my black imagination.  I can taste blood.  I have bitten my tongue.

        Great Spirit, I am starting to laugh.

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