Read The River Online

Authors: Gary Paulsen

Tags: #Adventure, #Children, #Young Adult, #Classic

The River (11 page)

BOOK: The River

He was all right.


The word slammed into him. Somehow, he had forgotten…

He stood—his legs were a bit wobbly, but they held—and looked down the river.

It stretched away for half a mile, becoming more calm and peaceful as it dropped, nestled in trees and thick brush, a blue line in a green background. Birds flew across the water, ducks swam…

There was no raft.

Brian turned, stood dripping, looking upriver into the rapids.

From below they did not look as bad. The pressure waves appeared smaller—even the boulder didn’t seem as large. There was still the sound of the water—although that, too, was muted.

But there was no raft.

No Derek.


He yelled, knowing it was futile.

He looked downriver again. There was no way the raft would have stopped in the rapids. It had to have come down, floated on downstream.

What had he seen? He frowned, trying to remember what had happened.

Oh, yes—the wave. The big submerged rock and the wave, the great wave had taken the raft and he had seen that—the raft moving off downriver. He did not think it had tipped; he seemed to remember that it was upright.

But Derek—was he still on the raft? He couldn’t remember for certain, but it seemed that he was—everything was so confused. Tumbling in the rapids seemed to have shaken his brain loose.

He fought panic.

Things were—were what they were. If the raft rolled or if Derek fell off the raft, then . . . well then, that was it.

If not, Derek might still be all right.

“I have to figure he’s still alive.”

And if Derek was still on the raft, still alive, he was downriver.

Brian had to catch him, catch the raft.

He started to move along the bank, and did well for fifty or so yards. The bottom was gravel—spilled out by the rapids—but then it ended.

The river moved rapidly back into flatter country, swamps, lakes, and the first thing that happened was the bottom turned to mud.

Brian tried to move to the bank and run, but the brush was so thick and wild that it was like a jungle—grass, willows, and thick vines grabbed at him, holding him.

He moved back into the river—where the mud stopped him. If he tried to walk, when his weight came down, his feet sunk and just kept on going—two, three feet. The mud was so thick it pulled his right tennis shoe off, and when he groped to find it the mud held his arm, seemed to pull at him, tried to take him down.

He lost the shoe, clawed back to the bank and knew there was only one way to chase the raft.

“I’ll have to swim.”

But how far?

It didn’t matter, he thought—Derek was down there somewhere. Brian had to catch him.

He shook his head, took off his remaining shoe, and left it on the bank.

He kept his pants on—they were not so heavy—and entered the river, pushed away from the bank until he was far enough out to start floating a bit.

He kicked off the mud and began to swim. Within three strokes he knew how tired he was—his whole body felt weak and sore from the beating he’d taken in the rapids.

But he could not stop. He worked along the edge, half swimming, half pushing along with his feet in the mud.


He had to catch the raft.


e became something other than himself that afternoon.

When he began to swim—after he’d overcome the agony of starting and his muscles had loosened somewhat—he tried to think.

The raft would move with the current, if it did not get hung up.

Brian would also move with the current, plus he had the added speed of swimming, and he should gain rapidly.

But when he rounded that first bend and did not see the raft, and cleared the next bend two hundred yards further on and did not see the raft, worry took him.

He stopped at the side and stood as much as he could in the mud.

It was nearly a quarter of a mile to the next bend and there was no raft.

Every muscle in his body was on fire. He slipped back into the water and began swimming again, taking long, even strokes, kicking and pushing along the mud; pulling himself forward.

Another bend, and another, always reaching, and always Brian’s eyes sought the still form, the thatched top of the raft.


The river seemed to have swallowed Derek. Altogether he rounded six shallow bends and still there was no raft, the stupid raft that had hung up on every bend when he was trying to steer it and now perversely held the center of the river somehow. There was nothing but the green wall along either side, the trees that grew higher and higher now that the rock hills were passed, until they nearly closed over the top of the river; the green wall that closed in and covered him as he slid along the water, wanting to scream, but pulling instead, always pulling, a stroke, then another stroke, until there was not a difference between him and the water, until his skin was the water and the water was him, until he
the river and he came to the raft.

He nearly swam past it.

Brian moved near some willows, his face down in the water, reaching with his left arm and when he raised his head he was looking at the raft.

It had somehow come through all the bends and curves, and here must have caught a slight crosscurrent. The raft had moved to the outside of a shallow curve and had glided back beneath some overhanging willows and low trees.

All that showed was the rear end of the raft—and the bottom of Derek’s shoes.


Brian’s hand had almost brushed the raft, but had he not looked up at the exact point that he had, he would have missed it.

He grabbed the raft, pulled himself up alongside.

Derek lay still, though his body had moved, twisted sideways on the raft.

“Derek,” he said again, softer.

Derek’s head was still to the side, the eyes half open, but if he had been pushed underwater in the rapids, even for a moment, it might be too late.


He looked done, gone, dead.

Brian tried his wrist, but could feel no pulse. He watched Derek’s chest but it didn’t seem to move. He leaned down put his ear against Derek’s mouth, held his breath.


Softly on his ear, a touch of breath—once, then again, small puffs of air.

“Derek.” He was alive, still alive.

It was as if everything came loose in Brian at the same time. His body, his mind, his soul were all exhausted and he fell across Derek, asleep or unconscious, fell with his legs still in the water.



uddenly he was paddling.

His eyes were open and he was kneeling in back of Derek and he was leaning forward with the paddle and he did not have the slightest idea of how he’d come to be there.

He had a new paddle in his hands, carved roughly from a forked branch with a piece of Derek’s pantleg pulled across the fork to form the face of the paddle. Brian was moving the raft and the sun was shining down on him and it was all, everything, completely new to him.

A different world.

“I must have slept, then moved in my sleep…”

The briefcase was gone—torn off in the rapids—and with it the map. Not that it mattered.

The banks were just all green and the river went ahead to the next bend. The trees hung over the top and there was nothing to see but a slot of sky and the water ahead and the endless, endless green.

Nothing to match with a map.

He could no longer think anyway. He had no idea how far they had come, how many hours or days they had been traveling or how far it still was to the trading post. He could only pull now, only pull with the paddle.

He knew absolutely nothing, except the raft and the paddle and his hands, which had gone beyond bleeding now and were sores that stuck to the shaft of the crude paddle; knew nothing but the need, the numbing, crushing need to get Derek somewhere, somewhere, somewhere down the river…

Food, hunger, home, distance, sleep, the agony of his body—none of it mattered anymore.

Only the reach.

The bend forward at the waist, the pull back with the arms, two on the left, two on the right.

Two left.

Two right.



Into that long day and that long night he moved the raft, so beyond thought now that even the hallucinations didn’t come; nothing was there but the front of the raft, Derek, and the river.

The river.

Sometime in the morning of the next day, any day, a thousand days or eight days—he could not tell—somewhere in that morning the river widened and made a sweeping curve to the left, widened to half a mile or more, and he saw or thought he could see a building roof, a straight line in the trees that did not look natural and then he heard it, the sound of a dog barking—not a wolf or coyote, but a dog.

There was a small dock.

People had dogs that barked, and they had docks. He kept pulling, still not able to think or do anything but stroke, pulled to the edge of the river until the raft nudged against the dock, bounced, and then the paddle dropped.

He was done.

Above him on the bank he saw a small brown and white dog barking at him, its tail jerking with each bark, the hair of his back raised. As Brian watched, the round face of a young boy appeared next to the dog.

“Help. Help me,” Brian thought he said, but heard no sound. The face of the boy disappeared and in moments two more people came, a man and woman, and they ran down to the dock and looked down at Brian and he was crying up at them, his torn hands hanging at his sides down in the water, down in the river.

The river.


Hands took him then, hands pulled him onto the dock; and the man jumped in the water and untied Derek and took him as well.


Strong hands to help.

It was over.


rian, Derek, and the raft traveled one hundred and nineteen miles down a river with an average current speed of two miles an hour, in just under sixty-three hours.

When Brian started, the raft weighed approximately two hundred pounds, but soaking up water all the way, it nearly doubled its weight by the time they reached the trading post—which was actually nothing more than a small cabin on the river where trappers could bring their furs. The post was owned and manned by a husband, wife, and one small boy, but they had a good radio and could call for help.

Derek’s coma was low grade, and in truth he probably would have been all right even if Brian had not made the run—although he would have suffered significantly from dehydration. He began to come out of the coma in another week and had fully recovered within six months.

During the run Brian lost twelve pounds, mostly in fluids, though he drank river water constantly to make up for it, and his hands became infected from bacteria in the water. He healed rapidly—his hands became amazingly tough—and strangely suffered no real long-range difficulties from the run down the river, probably because his earlier time—the Time—had taught him so well.

His mother and father vowed never to let him go in the woods again, but relented after some little time when Brian pointed out that of all people who
qualified to be in the wilderness, he was certainly one of them.

About seven months after the incident, Brian was sitting alone at home wondering what to cook for dinner when the doorbell rang, and he opened the door to find a large truck parked in the street in front of the house.

“Brian Robeson?” the driver asked.

Brian nodded.

“Got some freight for you.”

The driver went to the rear of the truck, opened it, and pulled out a sixteen-foot Kevlar canoe, with paddles taped to the thwarts. It was a beautiful canoe, light and graceful, with gently curving lines that made it look wonderfully easy to paddle.

Written in gold letters on each side of the bow were the words:


“It’s from a man named Derek Holtzer,” the driver said, setting the canoe on the lawn. “There’s a note taped inside.”

He climbed back in the truck and drove away and Brian found the note.

“Next time,” he read aloud, “it won’t be so hard to paddle. Thanks.”

About The Author

Gary Paulsen is the distinguished author of many critically acclaimed books for young people, including three Newbery Honor books,
The Winter Room, Hatchet
, and
. He and his wife divide their time between New Mexico and northern Minnesota.

Gary Paulsen explains his reasons for writing
The River

“The River
came into being for two primary reasons. First, and foremost, it was demanded—I received literally thousands of letters (sometimes fifty or sixty a day) from readers interested in Brian, who did not want him to end with
. This became so strong that Brian seemed to take on a life of his own—not as a fictional character but the true life of a real person. And perhaps this was not as farfetched as it sounded. Other people felt the same about him and the feeling was widespread enough that the National Geographic Society contacted me by phone and asked if I would tell them where Brian lived because they wished to do a story on him for their magazine.

“On top of this feeling was my personal belief that Brian was not . . . done . . . in some way. He learned so much in
, became so much of a different person that I wanted to see him be more, see him use what he had become, see him as the new Brian under new circumstances, and these two drives kept pushing at me until I decided to write a second book about him.”

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