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© 2010-13 M.M. Justus
© 2010-13 M.M. Justus
One moment in 1959 Chuck McManis is strolling the geyser boardwalks in Yellowstone National Park, and the next an earthquake plunges him back more than eighty years into the wilderness and his family’s past – to become the great-grandfather he’d idolized since he was a boy. Nobody’d ever told Chuck, a college dropout and self-described failure, that the stories about his hero were fabrications from start to finish. That he’d need instructions for sheer survival. Or lessons in escaping from Indians. He does know he can’t abandon Eliza Byrne, the woman who saved his life. By the time they struggle back to civilization, 1870s style, Chuck has discovered courage and competence he never knew he possessed, not to mention happiness he didn’t believe existed. Then comes the risk, and the opportunity, to fulfill the legacy he’d left for himself the last time around, and he must face decisions he never wanted to make, that could cause him to lose not only his own life, and Eliza's, but to kill those he loved in his future before they ever had a chance to live.
August 15, 1959
My summer school grades arrived the day after Granddad’s funeral. I didn't bother opening them. I knew what was inside. Granddad would have appreciated the irony. I knew Dad wouldn’t, and I was glad I’d got to the mail first. Dad was broken up enough over Granddad’s death as it was. Although with him it wasn’t easy to tell.
"It’s time to go." He looked, as usual, like the accountant he is. Bland and smooth in his gray suit, white buttondown shirt, and navy blue tie.
"Sure." I wasn’t wearing a suit, just jeans and a plaid shirt and my motorcycle boots. I didn’t pat the pocket I’d stuffed the envelope in. Didn’t want to draw attention to it. I pushed my glasses up and ran a hand over my dishwater blond buzz cut instead. Then tugged the sleeves of my leather jacket back down over my wrists. The curse of being a beanpole.
He looked me up and down and frowned but didn’t say anything else as he locked the door behind us and led the way to his car. At least not until I went to my bike instead.
"You’re not riding that thing to the lawyer’s office."
I swung my leg over the Harley. "Sure I am."
"No, you’re -" The rest of the rant, which I knew by heart, was lost in the rumble of the bike’s engine. Music to my ears.
* * *
"And that’s the last of it," Mr. Pritchard said, handing me Granddad’s pocketwatch. So there had been something in the will for me, after all, as familiar as if I’d known it all my life. Which I had. I closed my hand around the smooth metal case, then stuffed it deep into the bottom of my jeans pocket. That was one thing I never wanted to lose. The lawyer straightened the sheaf of paper he was holding, and looked at Dad. I leaned back in my chair and stared out the window overlooking the street, wishing for a hamburger. Lunch had been a long time ago.
"I don’t understand why he was so adamant about getting in here to see you two weeks ago," Dad said. "Nothing appears to have changed from the version he gave me last year."
Mr. Pritchard looked apologetic. "I should have said almost the last of it. The codicil he had me add at our last meeting doesn’t have anything to do with the disposition of his property, but of his and your mother’s remains."
That was creepy. Cremation was even worse than getting buried.
"I’ve bought a niche for both of them out at Cherry Hills," Dad said in that tone he has. This is the way it is, period.
Cherry Hills was the last place my grandparents would have wanted to end up, not that they were going to be able to tell the difference now. It’s the ritziest cemetery in Denver, all carefully mowed lawns and fancy statuary. Besides, neither one of them liked Denver to begin with. Granddad had only given up and moved here to be closer to Dad and me after Grandmother died and his health went downhill.
And when Dad had insisted. Granddad hadn’t put up nearly as much of a fight about it as I’d thought he would, though.
"He was very specific about what he wanted done," Mr. Pritchard said, with almost exactly the same tone.
"Well, what does-" Dad broke off. I could almost see the blood draining from his face. Why? It couldn’t be that bad. There’s only so much you can do with a pile of ashes, after all. "No. Absolutely not."
Mr. Pritchard looked kind of surprised. "But I haven’t even told you what he wanted done yet." Then he turned to me.
I could have sworn they’d completely forgotten I was there. God knows I was wishing I wasn’t. What I wanted was to get on my bike and ride far away from this office, from Denver, from my grades burning a hole in my pocket, from the fact that Granddad was dead...
"Your grandfather wished for you to take their ashes back to Yellowstone and scatter them there. He wanted them left where he and your grandmother spent so much of their lives and were so happy together. I’ve arranged permission from the park service, and made reservations for you at the Old Faithful Inn for three nights starting tomorrow."
All I could think was oh, my God. Really? Yes! Thank you thank you thank you, Granddad. He couldn’t have given me anything better if he’d tried. I sobered. Except to stay alive.
Mr. Pritchard paused, watching, smiling slightly at me. I could see Dad out of the corner of my eye, all the blood back in his face turning it red with – why was he so mad? Yeah, he didn’t get it, wouldn’t get it, but it wasn’t that big a deal. Just four lousy days. In Yellowstone. Where I’d spent the best times with Grandmother and Granddad, growing up. A chance to get the hell out of here. "You should have plenty of time. If I understand correctly, you won't be going back to college this fall."
My jaw dropped, but before I could say anything, Dad took a deep breath. "And why not?" His fists were clenched on the arm of the chair, and he was past just red. He looked like he was going to explode. "What did you do this time, and why the hell didn’t you tell me before it went this far?"
"I, uh." My tongue stuck in my throat. Well, at least he knows now. "I, uh, flunked Business Law. And Economic Analysis."
"Again?" He looked like he wanted to strangle me. I guess the only reason he didn’t was where we were.
Mr. Pritchard was looking apologetic again. "I’m sorry. I thought you knew. I spoke out of turn."
I turned on him. Anything so I didn’t have to look at Dad. "How the-How did you know about my grades? I just got them today."
His smile this time was almost a smirk. "Perhaps the two of you need to go home and talk this over."
Over my dead body. Which is what it was likely to be by the time Dad got done with me.
Dad apparently had the same idea, because he stood and grabbed me by the arm. I’m taller than he is, but he’s got a helluva grip for a 62-year-old man. "Come on, son."
I glanced back at Mr. Pritchard as Dad dragged me out of the room. Thanks a lot, Mister.
* * *
I’m twenty years old. It’s not like my father can stick me in my room and expect me to stay there. I packed up my duffel bag and snuck out that night while Dad was on the phone, talking to God knows who about God knows what. Well, not God knows what, although what Dad thought he could do to get Colorado State University to take me back again was sort of beyond me.
I spent what was left of the night at a diner, dozing with my coffee going cold on the table in front of me, and arrived at Pritchard’s office at the crack of dawn the next morning. He got there pretty darned early himself, and he didn’t seem to be surprised to see me. He handed me an envelope full of cash, gave me the paperwork for permission to pick up the ashes and the directions to the crematorium, which was one seriously strange place, and wished me good luck.
I was on the road to Yellowstone, duffel bag on the back of my bike, before rush hour even got started.
* * *
It was full dark and my legs were aching like a son of a gun by the time I came over the last rise to Old Faithful. I was so tired I was about to fall off the bike. But I’d made it.
Lights illuminated the valley below. The Inn, a huge pile of logs with windows, was surrounded by smaller buildings that made it look like the thing had had puppies, the river flowing between plumes of steam.
The road curved around past the low slung lodge and its cabins, past the visitor center, to the porte cochere, which had once protected fancy guests a long time ago, and now stood guard over people in jeans and pedal pushers towing their own suitcases.
I found a place to park the bike, and unhooked my duffle with one hand while swiping the road dust off my face with the other.
"Ooh," voices rose around me. "It’s erupting."
I turned to watch with everyone else. I’ve seen Old Faithful go off dozens of times, but it had been a long time since Grandmother died, Granddad retired and I went off to college. I let my duffle drop to the ground and grinned. I could hear the roar over the people around me, through the memories in my head.
Dammit, I’d missed this place.
The geyser spent itself in a few minutes, and I watched, tickled, as people applauded. They always did, like the geyser was alive. Then, the show over, I picked up my bag and headed inside to claim my room.
* * *
I didn’t bother with the Inn’s dining room. Too pricey and too fancy. The store a few hundred yards away had a soda fountain. One of Granddad’s and my favorite treats when Grandmother had gone to Jackson or West to go shopping for the day had been greasy hamburgers and fries at that fountain.
It was at the back of the store, a row of little round red stools and a metal counter, with a bunch of shiny chrome restaurant equipment and a pass-through behind it. As I approached it looked deserted. I hoped it wasn’t closed. The rest of the store was busy with tourists buying souvenirs, but it was after the normal time most people ate supper.
Then, as I sat down on one of the stools, I saw this cute little rear end, round and sweet in a red and white striped skirt, bent over behind the counter.
"Hi," I said, and she shot up, straws spraying out of the box in her hand as she squeezed it.
"Oh! You startled me." She seemed to realize what she was doing to the box, and dropped it on the counter. Straws slithered everywhere, and she and I both made grabs for them.
Her front view was as good as the back. Nicely stacked, pretty face, brown curly hair escaping from a net.
She caught my eye, then fumbled for an order pad. "What can I get for you?"
I smiled at her. She smiled back. Good. "A hamburger, please. Fries. A Coke."
She scribbled it down. "It’ll be just a minute." She turned to stick the order on the spindle in the pass-through window, and called out, "Joe! Order!"
Joe turned out to be Jo, a middle-aged woman wearing an apron shiny with grease who filled out her red-and-white dress a lot more solidly than my waitress did. She scowled at the order slip. "Grill’s supposed to be closing."
"I know, Jo, but-"
"Yeah, you’re a soft touch for a cute guy."
I smiled at her. The scowl melted from her eyes, although she tried to keep it on her mouth, and she slapped a burger on the griddle. I could hear it sizzle.
"Thanks, ma’am," I told her. "I’ve been on the road since six a.m."
"Yeah, yeah." Her gaze shot to the other end of the counter. "Loverboy at two o’clock."
The girl and I both turned to look. Her gaze fell, and she went back to picking up straws.
"Hey, Alice, what’s a guy got to do to get some service around here?"
So much for my idea to ask her if she’d like to go for a beer later.
The guy was almost as tall as I am, and I’m six foot two, but he was a lot broader, and it looked like mostly muscle. He scowled at me. I shrugged and shoved my glasses up my nose. She’d been fair game till he showed up, but I wasn’t going to muscle in on him now.
Reluctantly, as if pulled by strings, Alice made her way to the other end of the counter. As soon as she got within arm’s length, he reached out and snagged her by the elbow, tugging her around the end of the counter so she practically bounced off of him. She sent an apologetic glance back towards Jo, who waved her off.
I sighed, and Jo turned towards me.
"Know anyplace a guy can get a beer around here?" I asked her. She smirked at me.
"Only place in the village licensed to sell liquor is the bar in the Inn, and they don’t sell to underaged."
I ignored the dig since I was used to that kind of thing, swallowed my last french fry, and paid her.
Beer at the Inn would probably cost an arm and a leg, but what the hell. It had been one long day. There was enough money in Pritchard’s envelope, and I’d earned it.
* * *
When I woke up it was pitch black and freezing. I was in my room, sprawled on top of the covers, with my head at the foot of the bed. I still had all my clothes on, which was a good thing or I probably would have frozen to death. I still had my boots on, as I discovered when one of them clunked against the log headboard. The vibration made my head rattle. I couldn’t remember how I’d gotten there, but I must have managed it under my own steam. Nobody here I knew to do it for me. I sat up, and immediately decided the last couple of beers had been a mistake. My head rang, the room spun, and oh, man, I had to piss. Bigtime. Good thing the sink was handy, since the toilet was down the hall.
When I was done, I plunked myself back down on the bed and realized I wasn’t going to get back to sleep anytime soon. The radiator was hissing, which didn’t explain why I was freezing my ass off. Something was ruffling the curtains. I went over to look and discovered the window was open. That explained the temperature, at any rate. I closed it, and stayed to stare out into the night. The moon was full, shining off the river in the distance, illuminating the boardwalks and the trees, the occasional plume of steam. Not a soul to be seen. I pulled out Granddad’s pocketwatch. Past eleven. Why not?
I hoisted my duffel onto the bed. The box was at the very bottom, tucked into one end where it had settled. I pried at the plastic lid with a fingernail. It refused to open. I sat for a minute, staring at it. Knife. I stood and began rooting through my pockets. That turned up nothing besides the watch but my room key and an unwrapped breath mint, growing a nice case of pocket crud. I brushed it off and stuck it in my mouth to get rid of it. Bad move. If I thought my mouth had tasted scuzzy before, it was twice as nasty now.
After I spit the mint into the garbage can, I found my pocketknife in the toe of my spare shoes, strangely enough. Gingerly I slid the blade along the seam of the box. With no warning, the lid snapped open and a poof of dust rose, straight into my face.
I snapped the lid back down, cussing. It wouldn’t stay. "Okay. Okay." I set the box down on the little table next to the bed and backed away from it, swiping at my face, hoping I wasn’t inhaling Grandmother and Granddad. Once the dust settled, I approached it again, and carefully closed the lid, feeling for the catch and pressing hard. This time it stayed. I let my breath out in a long whoosh.
I picked my pocketknife up off the floor, grabbed my leather jacket and the box, and headed out the door.
It was even colder outside, too cold for August even up here. And eerie, with no one around. I could hear sounds coming from the lodge across the road, music, thumps, and somebody’s muffled laughter. They seemed very far away.
My momentum got me as far as the beginning of the boardwalk, where my boots sounded like somebody banging on a door out there in the middle of the night. I tried to straighten out my steps, but I guess I was still more toasted than I’d thought I was. No railings to lean on, either. I could have used one just then.
The bridge over the river echoed, too, but the water rushing underneath drowned some of that out. And it had railings. I stopped and watched the current for a while, leaning on the railing, but not too hard. I didn’t want to topple over into the river, which seemed way too possible right then. Too much beer. Sorry, Granddad.
I took a better hold on the box. Time to move on. Granddad’s will hadn’t been all that specific about where to scatter the ashes, as long as it was in the park. I stopped and tried to think about it. Around Old Faithful seemed like kind of a cliché, and, anyway, I couldn’t get close enough to the geyser anymore to scatter them properly. Not like when I was a kid and the only thing keeping a person from striding up and peering down the hole was his own good sense. Or his Granddad the park ranger. Besides, I was already on the other side of the river.
Observation Point seemed like a good idea until I started up the hill, grasping at tree branches and tripping over rocks in the dark. But I was halfway up before that dawned on me, and by then it was a matter of principle. So I kept going, and eventually I stood at the top, overlooking the whole valley in the moonlight.
The quiet was almost too much. No breeze, no sounds of animals – they’re all asleep, you idiot, everything with any sense is sound asleep – no, wait a minute. I could hear splashing, muted by distance, and sank down on a rock to watch Old Faithful go off, as if it had waited for me to take my seat. I stared at it, spellbound, as if it was the first time I’d ever seen it. It certainly was the first time I’d ever had it all to myself, water spraying in the moonlight, steam clouds lifting into the sky.
Too soon, it was finished, and the night sounds took over again. A breeze picked up in the trees, and something chittered, then fell silent again. The scene below me looked like a painting. I felt like one of the early explorers, watching something no one would believe existed. The half-dozen remaining lighted windows of the inn might have been stars, the distant fires in the campground on the other side of the lodge might have belonged to an early expedition, or to old Colter himself. Or to the Indians. I shivered.
Here you are. Get it over with and get back to bed. I fished my pocketknife out and pried at the lid.
The box opened easily this time, and the dust wafted away into nothing in the slight breeze, more quickly than I expected. I shook out the last few bits. "Hope this does it for you, Granddad," I said into the night. "Miss you. Grandmother, too." I did. They were my real parents, the ones who’d taken me in and raised me after my mother died when I was born and Dad couldn't handle the whole situation. They were the ones who’d taught me who I was and who I wanted to be, who’d given me everything. Who’d understood me.
I didn’t cry then. I don’t cry much, at least not on the outside. But my chest was tight and my eyes burned, even though I knew I was doing the right thing. This trip felt like one last present they’d given me. Suddenly I was very glad things had worked out this way. In spite of having to sneak out on Dad. "You’re home," I told them. "So am I. Thanks. I’ll come back some day. I promise."
I tucked the box back under my arm and headed down the hill.
It was a fine night. Yeah, it was freezing, but my leather jacket kept me warm. The stars were shining like high beams against the sky and the beer was finally wearing off and I felt good about what I’d done. Sad, but good. I couldn’t quite bring myself to go back inside. Not yet. To go back inside was to say the whole thing was over. I had three nights, so I didn’t have to go back and face my real life yet – this is real life, dammit. Flunking out of college was what felt like a dream right now. Or a nightmare. So I didn’t go in. I got myself down the trail to the valley, and decided to take a little stroll instead. It wasn’t likely I’d ever have the place to myself like this again, unless I got drunk for the next two nights, which didn’t feel like a bad idea now that the hangover was wearing off.
I’d wandered a ways down the path when the ground began to vibrate under my feet.
I looked up from my thoughts to find myself in front of Grand Geyser. I grinned. The tremors meant I might get to watch another eruption before I went back in. I sat down crosslegged on the planks to wait and watch.
The moon gleamed on the pool under the boardwalk, the ripples growing into small waves as the vibrations magnified. A splash, another splash, this one bigger than the first, a chugging racket that sounded like the propellers on an airplane about to take off...
The earthquake, it had to be an earthquake, hit like a giant pounding a sledgehammer. The boardwalk – bounced. With me on it. It was like riding a bucking bronco. I grabbed the edge of the boards, and hung on. Grand’s pool was churning like a crazy thing now. Water hit me on the back, the heat soaking through my jacket and shirt.
Then it all stopped. "That was a helluva ride," I said into the suddenly still darkness, the moon glimmering off the still sloshing pool. My thumb hurt. I held it up a few inches from my nose. A splinter was lodged under the nail. I grasped it between my teeth and yanked it out. Tugged the tail of my shirt out to stanch the blood. And stared around.
Everything seemed to be holding its breath. Not a bit of movement, except the water draining under my feet. Not a sound, except for the now-fading hiss of the runoff. I took a deep breath and started to get up.
That’s when the big one hit.
A story in the
Time in Yellowstone, vol. 3.
"A GRAND yarn you can't put down."
Time in Yellowstone, vol. 3.
"A GRAND yarn you can't put down."