The camp was quickly packed at sunrise. Sarah was beginning to get used to getting up at dawn and working until dusk. In a way it was a little like her childhood. Back when helping Daddy with the farm chores was more hindrance than help. Of course back then it had been a game to see if she could get up before him. Now it was becoming her life. Sarah blinked back tears, wondering if she would ever be able to think of home and her past life, without crying.
They traveled faster than before, over fields and along streams, until they came at last to a rushing river. A forest stretched endlessly before them on the other bank. The river rushed by them, a gurgling foaming mass. They traveled a whole day along it and Sarah wondered if they intended to cross it.
She found out as they took their last break of the day. Jason was studying the river. Curious, Sarah stood next to him studying it too. ‘Is there a bridge to use to cross it?’ Sarah whispered.
Jason glanced at her for a moment and smiled. Then his face reset and he turned back to his men. ‘We will cross at moonrise, up,’ he paused and looked at Mathew, ‘about how far?’
Mathew did a scan of the area, ‘About around the next river bend, mile at most.’
Jason nodded. ‘We will rest here then till sunset. Mathew, you have first watch, the rest of you, sleep if you can.’ He removed his pack and set it down in the grass, before sitting down himself and leaning against it, eyes closed.
For a moment, Sarah just breathed the air and surveyed their surroundings. She wondered if this was what the mid-west had looked like before the white man came and carved it into farms. Sarah turned slowly and smiled. The grass was so tall that with all the men sitting down, she seemed to be alone. She looked down at Jason. There was a part of her that was still waiting to wake up from this dream. His eyes opened.
‘Sit and rest, Sarah,’ he said, patting the grass near him. Sarah complied. As she lay in the grass looking up at the big blue sky, Jason within touching distance, she wondered; do I really want to wake up if this is a dream?
Sarah hadn’t remembered falling asleep, but Jason was gently shaking her. ‘Time to get up.’ The blue sky was now dark and stars were beginning to appear. Sarah yawned, stretched and stood. The rest of the troop was ready to move. Jason let Mathew take the lead. As they traveled along the river, its banks became lower, until at last the water nearly lapped at the grass under their feet. They stopped, as Mathew had said, just around the next bend.
‘We wait for moonrise,’ Jason said, ‘the water will be lowest then, but it will still come up to your hips.’ He looked at Sarah. ‘What was that job you used to have that dealt with swimming?’
Sarah turned to him from watching the river. ‘Lifeguard?’ she asked puzzled.
‘Lifeguard, right,’ he nodded in remembrance, ‘I want you to take Jess’s pack and stay next to him.’ Jess eyed his leader. Jason put his hand on Jess’s shoulder. ‘I know how you feel, just concentrate on the other side. Sarah will keep you safe.’ He turned and went back to watching the river.
Sarah eyed Jason herself, wondering if he remembered what she’d told him about being a lifeguard, because it certainly didn’t include training about rescues while loaded down. Then she went to stand next to him. She was startled to see that the water was receding. It was barely perceptible though. She looked up river and then down. Jason’s voice brought her out of her puzzling.
‘Jess’s younger brother drowned when he was five. He has hated water deeper than his calves ever since.’ Jason looked at her. ‘Keep him safe.’ Sarah nodded. Jason’s voice rose in volume, ‘All right men, shoes off, we have a short window before the river rises again.’
Everyone quickly took off their shoes and socks. Sarah rolled up her pants, which only gained odd looks. She took Jess’s pack, which nearly toppled her over until she regained her center of gravity. She laughed to herself, wondering if anyone here would know what that meant. Jason and Matt went first. Jess was supposed to go next, but he remained on the bank, his feet lapped by the water. Then Brad and Allen stepped foot into the water, but still Jess stood unmoving. Jason looked back. He was already halfway across.
‘Jess?’ Sarah whispered as Mike and Kevin headed across. ‘We have to go.’ He looked at her and she could see fear in his eyes. Okay, Sarah swallowed.
‘Phoenix Jess,’ Jason called across the water, ‘Rise from your ashes!’
‘Come on Jess,’ Sarah cajoled, ‘everyone else is across, I’m going to go across; surely you can too?’ He looked blankly at the water. Sarah sighed and switched tactics. ‘Don’t tell me you’re going to let a girl beat you across the river carrying your pack, are you?’ Jess flashed her a look that made her smile.
‘No,’ was his terse reply and he started across. Sarah followed, her going a bit slowed by the weight of the pack.
They were nearly across, when Sarah felt a surge of water under her feet at the same time Jason yelled, ‘Get out NOW!’ Sarah leapt toward the bank, getting her feet out of the strengthening current. She landed and turned back toward Jess, unbalancing herself, as she reached out for him. Jason and Mathew caught hold of her and the pack, just as she caught hold of Jess. They pulled them away from the water. Once free they scrambled up the bank, as the river came rushing through rising rapidly.
‘We set up camp here.’ Jason had moved to a small cluster of trees on the crest of a hill. ‘I’ll give out assignments in the morning.’
‘You okay?’ Sarah asked Jess as she set his pack down.
‘You beat me,’ he whispered, head down.
Sarah suddenly felt guilty, ‘I’m sorry, I just felt the current, then Jay shouted to get out,’ she shrugged not sure what else to say.
He looked up at her, ‘if you hadn’t we would’ve been swept away.’ He looked back down and began fiddling with his pack.
‘You're welcome?’ Sarah whispered very quietly as she turned away to get her bed roll from Jay. She couldn’t tell if Jess was bitter or thankful.