In the Bush

What in God’s name was I hoping to find? My arms and shoulders ran the gamut of exhaustion. I didn’t think I could take another stroke, and then all of a sudden, I forgot I was tired. Tomorrow I’d be in hell, as if I died a terrible person. The conglomerate of my sins over-represented by exercise.

“How soon before we reach the campsite?”

“Hmmm, maybe four or five hours. We should be there in plenty of time to get set up before it gets dark,” Ross said.

“Dark? You’d better be kidding,” I said.

“Depends on the wind really,” Ross said, looking up at the sky.

“What happens in the wind?” I asked, genuinely ignorant.

“Well, canoes are designed for rough water, sort of,” Ross said.

“What do you mean, sort of?”

“They do great in the waves as long as you are going with the wind, or directly against it. It’s when you get sideways in big waves is when you get into trouble. Especially loaded, we’re tippier when we’re loaded.”

“That’s just great,” I said quietly to myself.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“I said, are we in any danger?” Ross knew damn well those were not the words I mumbled.

“You’re always in danger up here. You always have to treat it that way. The minute you take your eyes off the prize, that’s when an accident can happen. One minute your walking down a portage trail and the next, you’re neck deep in the river.”

“Oh. You’re just what I needed,” I said sarcastically.

Ross laughed out loud, “Seriously though, let’s say you hit your head or something, could have been a lot worse than just getting wet and cold. Even then though, hypothermia is a real concern.”

“What about drowning?” I asked.

“Of course drowning, you’re surrounded by water. Wearing your life jacket though will pretty much eliminate that worry.”

“What about Gage? What are the odds of Gage drowning?” I asked.

His demeanor took a showbiz turn of epic proportions, only he wasn’t acting. The air got thicker, humid with the sort of discomfort you get when you’re the third eye, and the other two are fighting. Not getting any sort of response I set my paddle down and spun around in my seat to face him. Eye contact might help get me an answer, and besides that, I desperately needed a break.

“How does a man like Gage drown?”

Ross couldn’t look at me. I could see a glaze in his eyes as he stared at the past in the distance.

“No way he drowned,” Ross said so quietly I could barely hear him.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” I asked. Me cupping my ear was like printing his words in thick, block letters and showing them back to him on a protest sign.

“I said, no way Gage drowned. Not an f’ing chance.” This time he stared directly into my eyes and spoke loud and clear. Anger is a squeegee that wipes away tears.

“He was the best out here. Tough? You wouldn’t believe some of the things he’s done. Hell, he solo tripped the whole damn area. Weeks at a time out here. It’d be like you drowning in your living room.”

His living room reference made me think about a huge glass of red wine, the kind of glass you could take a bath in.

“Then what Ross? What happened to him? Or should I say, what do you think happened to him?”

“I don’t know,” he said, quietly again.

I could have let him off the hook right there because even though I knew he had ideas; he was clearly hurting about it. But, if it took your tears to reveal what was hidden on a page, I would make you cry a novel.

“Sorry bud, but I’m calling bullshit,” I told him in no uncertain terms.

Neither one of us were paddling now, a light breeze made small ripples on the water. The canoe spun slowly as we rode along on the sudden breath of cool air. Ross choked back his tears.

“It’s like, like he’s pushing us right now. Telling us to go somewhere, taking us there,” Ross said emotionally.

“Taking us where?” I asked.

“I wish I knew. I wish I knew what to tell you. I wish I knew what happened. I just know what didn’t happen. He didn’t drown. He didn’t just drop off the face of the earth either. So what? They gave me you. You, the girl that’s never been camping in her life. The girl that’s about as outdoorsy as my great Aunt Ethel in the nursing home. You’re apparently going to solve everything,” Ross ranted sarcastically.

I looked out across the water, letting the wind take my hair back, absorbing the sun on my face. I was angry at first, but it quickly faded into confidence and resolve.

“Look, I get it. You’re pissed. And you’re right, I’m most definitely not the outdoorsy type. But, that’s not why Marnie hired me either. Seems all the big, strong outdoorsy men weren’t good for crap when it came to finding out what happened to your friend. Marnie didn’t need a camping expert, she already had you. What she needed was an expert on missing persons, and frankly speaking, on murder.”

It was the first time during the whole epic that anyone had mentioned the “M” word. Call me jaded, but I considered the possibility before Marnie even left my office.

Ross’ forearms tightened as he gripped the paddle.  I was glad he was listening. His nerve was exposed, and I wanted to prick the tip of it with a pin. 

“And yeah, you heard me, I said murder. And I know damn well that you know more than you’re letting on. And, until you do, you, your great Aunt Ethel, and every other swinging dick that ever pitched a tent up here are on my short list. So right now, I just need you to get me there. Get me there and for the sake of your friend, tell me.”

I spun forward in my seat and picked up my paddle. Ross was already pushing water, putting us back on course with purpose. I was almost dry by the time we spoke again.

“We’ve got a few small portages coming up, nothing too extreme but watch your footing, one of them has a lot of exposed roots. Try to avoid them, they’re super slippery,” he said.

“Good tip, thanks.”

Land, unload, carry, carry, load, paddle, repeat. It was some form of hell I had not yet read about in any voodoo manual or cheap hotel bible. Maybe the world was waiting for me to write it. Hours toiling in the name of recreation wore my body to the nub.

“Ok, that was our last one for a while,” Ross said while loading the canoe.

“Thank frickin’ God,” I said, exhausted. 

“We have one more large section of water to cover and the breeze has definitely picked up, so…”

“So what?” I asked.

“So, we make sure all the packs are low in the boat, you know, nothing piled-up to keep our center of gravity as low as possible, and make sure all the weight is balanced. Oh yeah, and make sure your life jacket is buckled up tight,” he said.

Looking out over the water it didn’t look too bad. I could hear the wind more than I could feel it.

“At least it doesn’t look too wavy,” I said.

Steadying the boat while I stepped-in, Ross didn’t even look at me or respond. Somehow, I guess he expected I wouldn’t notice the nefarious joy behind his sudden and genuine smile.

Life was suddenly easy, every stroke seemed to move the boat twice as far as normal with the wind at our back. The picturesque bay we were in was giving way to the main body of the lake.

“Gage isn’t the only one to go missing up here in the last couple of years,” Ross said, out of nowhere.

“Yeah?” I suspected it was just a matter of time before he broke.

“People around here don’t really like to talk about it,” Ross said.

“Talk about what?”

“Missing people. It’s like, some guys sort of feed off it. You go into the bar and such and such or so and so comes up missing and people jump all over it with their, ‘See I told you he couldn’t handle it’ BS or something along those lines. They like to make it seem like because they live around here, only they can make it in the bush, like it’s a really big deal,” he explained.

“It is kind of a big deal. I mean, you’re out here in the middle of nowhere,” I said.

“You are, but with some experience It’s not really as much of an outward-bound type situation as some people think it is. They act like it’s theirs, like the whole area belongs to them and somehow if they make it sound tougher, people will stay away.”

“So you think locals are responsible for Gage’s disappearance?” I asked.

“No? I don’t know, it just pisses me off. Gage was more adept to this than any of those idiots hanging around in town. They couldn’t keep up with him if they wanted to, that’s the thing. I don’t even know what any of those morons could even do to him even if they wanted.”

I laughed a little at his assessment. I was only in town one day and I could tell he was on the mark.

“But wait, I thought you said people don’t like to talk about it,” I said.

“Smart people don’t. I didn’t really put too much stock into it until Gage didn’t come back,” he said.

“Stock into what?” I asked.

“Ross, stock into what?” I asked again after waiting too long for a reply.

“It’s just theories, conjecture at best,” Ross said.

“Well, I’ve got nothin’ but time at the moment. Indulge me.”

“There are some who think that there’s something, or maybe somebody out here, you know, taking people,” he said.

“Taking people? You mean killing people?”

“Nobody’s ever come back, so…yeah. I mean, I don’t want to think about him that way, like he was killed by some maniac, but it just doesn’t add up. Plus like I said, Gage was as tough as anyone you ever met. I can’t imagine someone forcing him to do anything against his will.”

“Even if they had a gun?” I asked.

“I guess, sure, I guess it could happen. I just don’t like to think about it.”

“You’d have to wonder why. Obviously, if no one has been found then they, or it, or whoever are going through the trouble of hiding the bodies. You have to wonder to what end,” I pondered.

That question has been rattling around in my head with the same marbles that kept me from sleeping the night before I drove up here. People kill for hate, anger, fear, even love. The old man who offs his dying wife will say he did it because he loved her, because he didn’t want her to suffer, but really, it’s fear. He’s afraid of her pain, what she is going through, I guess that could be love. Animals kill to eat, for territory, and in some cases for thrill.

We were here as a means to a reason. If that meant looking for a killer, then so be it, that would be reason enough. Whether or not the killer wore pants didn’t matter, either way, it was an animal. The cities are full of them.

My paddle caught a wave during a stroke sending a splash of water forward of the boat.

“Oops. Is it just me or is it getting kind of rough out here?” I asked.

“What was that?” Ross asked.

“I said, I think it’s getting kind of rough out here,” I said, louder.

“No shit. And that’s not the worst of it. We have to go that way,” Ross said, pointing with his paddle out over seemingly endless water.

“Once we get around this point, we’re going to be taking a pretty nasty headwind,” Ross said.

“What does that mean? I asked as we turned.

“What?” Ross yelled.

“What does that mean?” I yelled back.

He couldn’t hear me. The wind filled the entirety of my senses, I could even smell the breaking water as if fish and seaweed flew from wave mouths during a mid-meal, family argument. Between strokes the canoe seemed to stop, almost tracking backwards. The good news is, now I knew what he meant. The bad news was the wind was making it too hard to cry.

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