By Dawn Natelle
Well, this is the end of the twice a week episodes. I'm only halfway through Chapter 5, and then it has to go to Eric for editing. So we won't see it until Monday next week, at earliest. I hope to keep up a weekly schedule until late March, when I go into cataract surgery, and I have no idea if that will wipe me out for writing, or give me spare time to get more done. (Maybe someone who has gone through it can tell me what to expect, in the comments).
I want to say that I am amazed at the support this story has gotten, and both the number of readers, as well as kudos and comments, has kept me encouraged to devote all my spare time to writing more episodes. Thank you.
So far: River is now a girl, and a revered leader of the people, after a special rite at the river. But her parents are in peril, with her father apparently in jail, and her mother seemingly on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
River rushed to her mother, who was close to losing it. "He went home last night, and got in after midnight," Alison sobbed. "He went into the office early, and found it was full of police and accountants. Somebody has stolen several million dollars from the company accounts, and Dale was accused of being involved."
"We have to get you down there," River declared. "I'll look after the boys. But Dad took the van. How do we get you there?" She looked at Wayne.
"I've got a couple cousins who aren't working," he said. Wayne has dozens of cousins. "If you guys pay the gas, then they'll drive Alison down in their truck. It isn't much to look at, but it'll make the trip to Toronto and back."
"To Toronto will be enough," Alison said, starting to calm down as River poured energy into her from the river. "I'm not coming back without Dale. He didn't do it. He is the most honest man I've ever met."
"I know, Mom. You get down there and do whatever it takes, even if it is just holding his hand while he works this out. I know he will. The three of us will be fine up here."
"No, you are too young," Alison said. Then she stopped and looked at her new daughter, who had changed physically, but had also matured so much. "No, maybe you can. Can you call every night to let us know how you are doing?"
"The office is open until ten each evening," Wayne said. "She will be able to make a call from the landline there at what? Eight-thirty?"
"That should work," River said. "The boys will be able to stay up until 10 ... if they are good for me." She was looking at Mark as she said that, and he nodded. "We'll make our call, and then we can do a fire and smores." Both boys smiled.
Alison looked at her daughter. The girl was clever. The boys had been going to bed at 9, and complaining about it. She felt more and more assured that River could look after the boys and herself while she was in Toronto.
Wayne drove off and went to find his cousins. River remembered meeting them at the rite on Sunday, and if she was not mistaken, they were both cousins, but from different branches of the family. They were actually second cousins to each other, although both were first cousins to Wayne. They were also dating. Rod was a roller-coaster fanatic, and Ria also liked amusement parks, so no doubt the two will spend some time at Canada's Wonderland, the park located a few miles from the Waters house north of Toronto. River was glad that one of the two was a female, which would make her mother more comfortable on the long trip.
While waiting for Wayne to return, she told Alison about her travelling companions as they packed a small travel bag for her. It calmed her mother down a bit to know that River knew them. Rod was a bit of a drifter, working in the fall as a hunting guide, and driving a snow plow under contract to keep the TransCanada Highway through the town and reserve clear in winter. He didn't own the plow, but worked second shift for the driver who did. Ria, on the other hand, was the stable one in the relationship. She was a waitress for the travel stop on the highway, and like many of the other women of the people, was quite a bit overweight. She was not lazy though, something that couldn't be said of Rod, and often put in long shifts at the cafe. That would ensure that she would be able to beg a few days off to make the trip to Toronto.
A few minutes later two pickups drove onto the site: Wayne was in the newer JR truck, with his new wolf next to him in the passenger seat. The other two people were in a 1988 Ford pickup that looked like a clown car, with almost every part of the body a different color, or covered in Bondo. Alison just grabbed her bag and slid in next to Ria. They pulled out a few seconds later, with Alison not even looking back at River and the boys as they waved her off.
"Your Dad will be okay," Wayne said, wrapping his arm over River's shoulders.
"It isn't Dad I'm worried about," River said. "Are you sure that truck will last all the way to Toronto? It looks like something that came out of Dr. Frankenstein's auto body shop."
Wayne laughed. "Rod is not too worried about what it looks like, but he has the thing running perfectly. I don't know if you noticed, but the tires are good, and there was no smoke coming out of the tailpipe. He keeps the engine in top shape. It's clean inside too, although that is due more to Ria than Rod."
River barely heard what he was saying. She was just enjoying his arm around her, and nestled her head into his muscular chest.
"Now, what about the JRs?" Wayne continued. "I can release you for a couple days ... you just won't get your $20 on Friday. Or I can assign you and the girls to the river for the week. I can't believe how much crap you pulled out on Sunday alone. I'll bet there is another week of work in cleaning up for the three of you, and two junior JRs."
"The river please," River said quickly, not wanting to move out of the comfortable position she was in.
"Boys ... if you work hard for River this week, then you will earn $20 each," Wayne said, turning to them. Both boys' eyes opened wide. There weren't many chances for 10-year-olds to make that kind of money in the summer.
"And what about you girls?" Wayne asked Gail and Gina, who had been waiting around through all the drama. "Do you want to work with River and the boys?"
"Sure," Gina said, and Gail nodded. "Mostly I want to see how much closer the two of you can get to each other before you merge into one being." Gail giggled.
Wayne realized how he had been holding River, and broke away with a red face. "Oh ... sorry. I just ... Well, I mean ... Look, I have to get to the camp and see the other JRs. I'll leave River to look after you guys."
With that, he got into his truck and drove off, his spinning tires hinting at his embarrassment.
"Thanks a lot, Gina," River said with a smirk. "I was kinda enjoying that."
"Oh I know," Gina laughed. "We could see it on your face. So what's up boss?"
"I don't know, but I'll try to find something really icky for you," River laughed. "To the river."
"To the river," the girls giggled.
"To the river," the boys repeated as they fell in behind the girls.
At the river they walked past the area that River had cleared on Sunday, and continued down river. There were fewer large garbage items thrown into the water, but still many broken and intact glass containers. Wayne dropped by with the truck shortly and delivered a stack of recycle bins, which worked out well, since they didn't find any more fruit baskets until late in the day. Night, Wayne's wolf, had ridden beside him in the cab, but quickly jumped out, allowing the boys to romp and play with him a bit before Wayne called him back to the truck and headed out.
River spent the morning neck deep in the mid river, which led her directly to hidden glass and metal objects, sometimes buried deep in the mud so firmly that she had to spend several minutes underwater working the item loose, sometimes having to draw strength from the river to enable her to free it. Once, the first time Mark noticed her dive down like this, he thought she had drowned when she didn't come up for three or more minutes. He panicked and was sure she had died, when she finally burst forth with a long car bumper from a 1930s car.
River had to go to the distraught boy and hug him, and convince him that his new sister was okay. Once he was calmed, she went back to where she had dropped the bumper, and hauled it to the shore. Wayne could load it on the truck when it next came, the girls decided.
The other two girls were wading in the water, not even up to their knees, and the boys stayed on the bank, taking items the other three found and placing them in bins, running back to get new bins when the others were filled, and generally helping out.
The five filled four recycle bins through the morning, and the boys began to get hungry. River looked at the sun, and pronounced it not yet 11 a.m. About that time Wayne came by and picked up bins and the odd item like the bumper, and placed them in the bed of the truck.
"Lunch is just an hour away," he told them when the truck was loaded. "You've done a lot today. Do you want to break early?"
The boys nodded, and both girls begged River to agree, but she said no, they would work another hour before eating. Surprisingly, her crew agreed and continued working without complaint after Wayne and Night left.
Eventually River declared that it was noon, and told the others that they should join her in mid river. There was a sand spit here, where the water was only a few feet deep and all five sat down on the sandy bottom and rested. The river kept the water warm near them, and River started her song, drawing a family of otter to the bank near them. They spent almost a half hour watching the cute animals cavorting and playing on the bank, where they had made a slide and took turns sliding in the water.
"That looks like fun," Gina said. "It ... hey, are you staring at my breasts?" She asked Mark.
The boy reddened. "Well, they are pretty ... and I can't stare at my sister's boobies, can I."
River nearly choked even though they weren't eating. "You little pervert," she accused her brother, laughing.
"She's not my sister," Paul blurted out, and River realized that the other boy had been staring at her.
"You too? Both perverts. You are only 10. You shouldn't like staring at girls yet," Gina said.
"Well, we do," Mark said. "What is it like, having them?"
"I dunno," Gina said. "Mine started about the time I was your age, and they grew so slowly that I never really noticed anything. When they just started they were itchy, sore, and stuff, but later I only noticed them getting bigger as they grew and I needed a new bra size."
"For me it was much quicker," River said. "But I think the river was helping me get used to them. I did notice them jiggling a bit from time to time, especially today now that they are bigger. And I notice them when I go down into the water. The water sort of flows around them differently. Why, do you guys want a pair? I can ask the river to oblige you."
"Boobies on me? No way," Mark blurted out.
"I dunno," Paul said thoughtfully. "It would be kinda neat, able to touch them whenever you want."
"Yuck," Mark said. "I know what. You get boobies and then let me touch them."
"It doesn't work that way, Tiger," River said. "If Paul got boobies, he'd be Paula, and she wouldn't want some boy touching them."
"No way," Paul said. "I would like boobies, but only for a day or two. I wouldn't want to be a girl though. Yuck."
The girls all laughed at the naive antics of the boys. River then got an idea. She waded over to the bank, and slid down on the mud, laughing with glee. "I'm an otter," she called.
"I want to be an otter too," Mark said, and he, then the other three got in line and took turns sliding down the bank, laughing hysterically. The otters didn't leave the area though, and took their own turns, chittering noisily if one of the kids tried to cut in line. When Mark cut in, the otter next in line jumped on his chest and rode him into the river like a surfboard. After that the otters would only ride the kids down, and all of them had great fun for a while.
"Time to get back to work," River said when she found it was 1 p.m. "Come on into the water and rinse off."
"But we didn't eat," Mark protested.
"Are you hungry?" River asked.
"No, but ..."
"And you had a lot of fun instead of eating," River said. "The river nourishes us, and it has been very pleased with how much work we have done to clean it up. It fed us as we played."
"Neat," Mark said.
"Oh, these jeans will never clean off," Gail noted as she waded into the river. "We must have ground the mud into them super bad."
Nonetheless, when they came out of the water to resume working, they discovered that their jeans and other clothes were bone dry, and cleaner than they had been at the start of the day. "This river of yours is a great dry cleaner," Gina quipped to River.
"It is not my river, but our river," River said as she got the group back into working mode.
When Wayne and Night came by at the end of the day, he found the five having a water fight in the middle of the river. "What is this? My crew goofing off all day?" he teased.
"Goofing off?" River said with mock indignation. "I'll have you know we worked until five o'clock. It isn't our fault that our ride was late."
"Sorry, sorry. Anyway, I know you have been working. We are more than five miles from the main road, and I've had to dump out recycle bins into our large bin to have enough for tomorrow. I called our recycle guy to empty the big bin early tomorrow. But it looks like you guys have finished."
"Well," River said. "We have cleared this side of the river. It is getting longer and longer between things to dig out. I don't think many campers have come this far, and not many of the people come here either, at least ones that will be careless and throw things into the water. But we aren't done. We still have to do the other side of the river tomorrow, and Wednesday and Thursday we will do the two sides on the other direction from the road. I don't know what we will do Friday."
"You probably could take Friday off," Wayne said proudly. "You are the hardest working team I have. But something tells me that River will come up with another task that lets her get into the water."
River got into the cab, much to Night's dismay. Then the wolf relented and allowed her to sit there. But the wolf refused to allow any others to join them, so Gail and Gina and the boys got into the truck bed, amongst the recycle bins, for the ride back to camp. Wolf promptly put his head down on River's lap and purred like a cat.
Wayne dropped River and the boys at their campsite and then took the girls back to the JR camp. River fixed hotdogs and beans for the boys, who ate enough to make up for a missed lunch. They had only had a few minutes in the water after five, so hadn't been nourished again by the river.
"I guess we need to walk down to the office," River said when it got to be eightish. "We need to call Mom."
"Aw, I'm tired," Mark whined.
"Don't you want to talk to Mom?"
"Yeah, but ... okay."
"Can I stay here?" Paul asked.
"I dunno. Do you want to stay here all by yourself? We could be more than an hour before we get back," River said.
Paul thought a few seconds, and then discovered that his fear of being alone in the camp outweighed his tiredness. "No, I will go with you guys," he said hesitantly.
However they only walked to the end of the lane when they saw Wayne approach in the truck. There were now two wolves on the front seat. "I thought you hard workers would like a ride," he said as he shooed the wolves into the bed. You boys ride back here with our new friends. You know Night, and this other fellow is Jerome, Rod's wolf. I'm looking after him while he is in Toronto with your Mom." Jerome was one of the half-grown wolves, and not as scary looking as Night, who the boys had played with during the day whenever Wayne had come to their worksite. They eagerly crawled into the truck bed, and Night landed on Mark's lap, and Jerome nestled atop Paul, who started stroking his new friend.
In the cab with River, Wayne explained: "I'm going to leave the wolves at your camp tonight to protect you and the boys. Not that I don't think you can't look after yourself, but I know you like to go to the river pretty early. This way you will be able to go, and the wolves will look after the sleeping boys."
"Cool, I thought I was going to miss my early morning charge up," River said. "Thanks."
At the office, River made the phone call to her Mom. She learned that her Dad had been released in early morning, and by late afternoon there were signs that the case against him was falling apart. He was actually there, on speaker phone. Apparently the owners of the company had absconded with the money, and left evidence that pointed at Dale. But Dale was able to pick apart some of the evidence, while other bits were just foolish. He told River that he felt that the police investigators were now just being stubborn. He hoped that by tomorrow, or the next day at the latest, he would be allowed to come back to the camp.
Then Mark took his turn, regaling his parents with what he had done during the day. When Alison got back on the phone with River, she was laughing so hard it was hard to talk. "Well, I certainly made the right decision leaving him with you. It sounds like he has had more fun today than he has had all vacation so far. Paul is well?"
"Yeah, but both of them are so tired that they look like they will fall asleep standing up. I really worked them today. See you tomorrow?" River asked hopefully.
"Probably not, honey," Alison said. "But give us a call at this time, and we can let you know if we have any more word."
"Bye Mom, Dad," River said, hanging up the phone.
"How much do we owe for the call," River asked the clerk.
"Let's see," the First Nation's lady at the counter said. "It comes to zero dollars and zero cents, when we apply the leader discount. I was at your ceremony Sunday, and learned to speak the language of my forefathers. My eldest son is completely changed by that experience. He is proud to be one of the people now, and speaks Ojibwe whenever he can. I worried about him before, but now he, and all his friends have such a positive outlook. And you want to pay us?"
"It was the river that did all that," River explained. "I don't deserve any credit."
The woman snorted. "Sure. But you are the rivertalker, and you will get all kinds of credit from me and the rest of your people. Now go. Your boyfriend has put the sleepy boys in the truck."
"He's not my boyfriend," River said quietly, as she headed out the door.
Wayne had put the boys in the truck, and they had immediately fallen asleep. Mark was using Night as a pillow, and Rob was nestled next to the smaller Jerome. River smiled when she saw the sleeping boys, and the wolves both looked at her. 'We will protect them,' Night said wordlessly to her. River shook her head. Had he spoken to her, or was it just a feeling in her head making up the words?
Wayne drove them back to the campsite, and then carried the boys one at a time into their tent, without either of them wakening at all. The wolves followed, and as River watched from the tent flaps, each wolf turned around three times next to its boy, and then curled up next to the boy. Both animals were facing the tent entrance. "Thank you," River said to them.
Wayne and River were alone in the campsite. In the summer sun it was not dark yet. Wayne looked as though he wanted to say something, and hesitated. Acting on impulse, River reached up and pulled the tall youth down and kissed his cheek. That really flustered Wayne, and he backed off, getting into his truck quickly. But before he closed the door he touched his cheek and said "Thank you."
As River watched the truck drive away, she wondered about what she had just done. It was too soon. It was something she never should have done. But it felt so good, so right. She crawled into her tent and soon was asleep.
It was another cloudy and dark night when River awoke. About 2 a.m. She realized that she could also tell the time by the stars and moon, even when they were obscured by clouds. She peeked into the boys' tent, and saw the fiery eyes of both wolves snap open. She smiled at them, and softly said: "Keep them safe." She swore that both wolves nodded as they lay next to their young charges.
River walked in the pitch dark to the river, and entered its peaceful embrace.
Back at the campsite Paul woke first, and hugged Jerome when he realized the wolf was there. Night opened his eyes, but did not move as Mark was still asleep. Paul got up quietly, and then made an urgent trot to the washrooms, with Jerome walking alongside.
After they got back, Paul made enough noise coming in to wake Mark, who lay in his sleeping bag, nuzzling Night. Then he suddenly realized that he too had an urgent need to visit to the washroom. He headed off, with Night trotting alongside.
Back at the river, River realized that the boys were up, and headed back to make them a breakfast. Just as she was getting out of the river, she got a message from it: "Danger. Urgent. Hurry." River started running, as fast as she could, back to the campsite.
Mark sighed with relief as he finished his business. Suddenly, he felt someone was watching him. Looking toward the door, he saw a tall, skinny man of about 30 staring at him. Staring at his penis. Mark quickly turned away from the man and zipped up.
"Are you all alone," the man said in a whiney voice.
"N ... no," Mark said. "My Dad ... no, my Mom is just coming."
The man seemed to catch the lie. "Well your Mom can't come in here ... even if she was close." He walked up to Mark and put a clammy hand on his shoulder. "Want to have some fun?"
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