Read The River Online

Authors: Gary Paulsen

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

The River (7 page)

BOOK: The River

Derek was in a coma.


omewhere, Brian thought, somewhere he’d heard something about comas. He must have. Something more than he could remember. But it had to be in his mind, in his thinking, and if it was there he must be able to get it out.

He spent the morning trying to remember what he knew, but nothing came.

It was like being asleep, except that you didn’t wake up, he thought. Everything kept working, but you couldn’t eat or drink.

He had been moving from the lake to the shelter with a birch-bark cone full of water when it hit him.

They could wait all week, wait nine or ten days for the plane to come—or he could. He knew that people had gone that long without food. Derek would lose some weight, but he wouldn’t starve to death in that time.

But Brian was sure Derek could not go that long without water. Two, three days, maybe four, then he would be in trouble. Somewhere he’d heard or read or seen that the human body couldn’t go that long without water.

And it had already been one day, going on two days.

He could try getting Derek to drink. If he could get water in him he would last. His breathing had steadied still more and his heart rate was close to normal. Brian had finally settled enough to measure it and calculate that it was running about sixty-five beats per minute. He remembered something about the rate supposing to be seventy-two, so Derek was low, but it was still working all right.

Brian made a small spoonlike holder out of birch bark. With this he dipped water from the cone, which he had propped next to Derek’s head, and he put a small bit of water into the unconscious man’s mouth.

The effect was immediate and explosive.


Derek choked instantly, and reflex action took over and he coughed, spraying water and spit in Brian’s face. The choking continued and Brian frantically pulled Derek’s head over to the side, held his face down and pounded on his back—all he knew to do.

It seemed to last forever and Brian was terrified that he had killed Derek. One mistake, one thing wrong, and he was choking to death.

But finally the water cleared from Derek’s throat and the coughing stopped, though his breathing was still ragged.

“So, you can’t drink.” Brian settled Derek’s head back onto the rolled-up jacket. “That doesn’t make all this any easier.”

At first he felt strange, talking to Derek when there was no indication that he could be heard. Then he remembered his mother reading a story in a paper and telling him about a girl that had been in a coma for months—please, he thought, dear God, don’t let Derek be under that long—and when she recovered she said that while she was in the coma she could hear people talking. She could hear and understand, but could not answer, and he thought Derek might be the same.

“Derek?” He leaned close to Derek’s face. “Can you hear me?”

There was no sign.

“Can you move your eyelids? If you hear me, move your eyelids.”

Nothing. The eyes were half open, filled with tears that came constantly. Apparently the body was trying to keep them from drying out, because Derek could not blink.

He sat up, then stood and looked at the sky.
I can’t do this
, he thought.
I can’t do this alone. I just can’t

He looked down at Derek again, shook his head. “I don’t know what to do.”

And he realized then that he was wrong—it wasn’t like last time. He wasn’t alone.

There was Derek. Maybe if he talked to him, spoke aloud to him—maybe it might help.

“Here it is,” Brian said, squatting again, moving a stick in the dirt. “There’s no way anybody will come for at least a week, and maybe longer. Maybe ten days. I don’t think you can . . . I don’t think it would be good to go that long without water. I can’t get you to drink because I think you’ll choke. So.”

“So.” He repeated, shrugging, drawing a big zero in the dirt. “I don’t know what to do.”

He threw the stick down in exasperation. It hit the ground harder than he meant, then bounced and skipped into Derek’s briefcase.

Brian saw it as if for the first time. He’d forgotten about it in the crisis and went to it. “What have you got in here?”

It was not locked and he opened it with the two sliding thumb releases on either end of the handle edge.

Inside, there were spiral notebooks. They weren’t anything special—the kind with ruled lines and the twisted wire holding the edge—and each of them was numbered.

He opened number one.

“Arrived,” he read aloud. “Brian demanded that we leave all the gear in the plane or it would ruin the whole experiment.”

Oh, yes,
Brian thought
—I did that. Oh, God, I did that, didn’t I? I stuck my little foot down and dug in and got stubborn and set all this up. What was there? Food and shelter and a gun and all the things I didn’t think we’d need that would make this easier.

“I admire his ethics.” He finished reading the first day. He put the notebook down. “You do, eh? Admire me—the guy who made us lose all that gear?”

He felt like he was prying and decided not to read any more of the notebooks. He started to close the briefcase and saw that there was a folding accordion-style section that collapsed back into the lid.

There was something in the section and he pulled out a folded paper. When he opened it he saw that it was the map.

The same map they had looked at with Brian’s mother. He saw the lake, saw where they had circled it with her, showing where they would be, how . . . how
it looked. How easy to see and find and locate.

Derek had had two copies of the map and he’d left one with Brian’s mother. “So you can always tell right where we are.”

Brian remembered sitting there, his mother smiling. All her questions answered, all her doubts gone.

And now look at them.

Derek had brought the other map and kept it when Brian dug his heels in and told him to send everything but the radio back and in some relief Brian had spread the map gratefully on the back of the briefcase—thinking it would help—but now he shook his head and started to fold it. What difference did it make if he knew where they were? It wouldn’t help them.

Then he looked at the lake again, saw how it lay in the wide, flat greenness—how there were many lakes around it.

And he saw the river.


e had noticed it before, of course—when they went over the map in his house and when they had first landed. But in the largeness of the country shown on the map, the massive forest the map showed, the river was a small thing, and he had negated it.

It wound out the bottom of the lake, the southern end, and headed southeast down into the lakes below and was lost, and he had not followed it except to note the name.

The Necktie River.

“Isn’t that a funny name,” his mother had said, and Derek had laughed.

“There are lakes named Eunice, or Bootsock—there are so many lakes and rivers, the original mapmakers just made up names as they went. The person drawing the map was probably wearing a tie and thought it would make a good name. Many of them aren’t named at all—just numbered.”

The Necktie River, Brian saw, led south and down and drew his eyes away from the lake.

The map was laid out in square five-thousand-meter grids—five-kilometer squares—and he saw that in some places the river wound back almost on itself inside the same five thousand square meters. But in other places it ran straight for a considerable distance and he followed it, through smaller lakes and what he thought must be swamps, through the darker green portions that meant heavier forest.

It kept going south to the edge of the map, where it was folded, and he unfolded the next section and spread it in the sun. He did not know why the river drew him, pulled at him.

Then, halfway through the second page, he saw it. The river had grown all along, gotten wider so that it made a respectable blue cut across the map and where it made a large bend, cutting back nearly straight east, there was a small circle drawn and the words:

Brannock Trading Post.

Leading away from Brannock’s Post there was a double line heading down and to the southwest. When he found the symbol for the double line on the map’s legend he saw that it stood for an improved gravel road.

There would be people there.

Right there, on the map, at Brannock’s Trading Post there would be people. They wouldn’t have a road or name the place or make it a dot on the map unless there were people there. A trading post would have people.

Which, Brian thought, doesn’t mean a thing.

He wasn’t at Brannock’s Trading Post. He was here.

Yet he couldn’t take his eyes off the spot on the map. It was there, on the same map—just there. And he refolded the map so it would show the lake where they were and the trading post at the same time. He used his fingers to make a divider and measured it straight down, but it didn’t mean anything.

Then he remembered that the grids stood for five kilometers each, and when he counted the numbers of grids between the lake and Brannock’s he came up with about sixteen squares.

“So how far is that?” he said to Derek. “Five times sixteen—maybe eighty, eighty-five kilometers.”

But that was straight—in a straight line southeast.

The river was nowhere near straight, looping back and forth and actually flowing slightly north back along itself at one point.

He started counting, measuring the river as it turned through each five-kilometer square, marking each ten kilometers in the dirt with a line through it, then the next set of ten. It was involved and took him some time, but finally he was done.

He counted them.

“One hundred and fifty kilometers,” he said. “One point six kilometers to a mile. Just under a hundred miles.”

He looked at Derek, who did not move, who made no sign.

“There are people just under a hundred miles from here.”

But what good did that do?

“Here it is—I could leave you and try to follow the river out and bring help back.”

Which, he thought, sounded insane. There were animals. They would come, and if they thought Derek was dead…He was defenseless. They might attack him. Even eat him. Even small things—ants, bugs.

“I can’t leave you.”

Brian looked at the map again. It was there, the answer was there. Brannock’s Trading Post was the answer and the river was the answer, but he didn’t see how.

He couldn’t leave Derek.

He couldn’t leave Derek…

What if he took Derek with him?

He said it aloud. “What if we went out together?”

On the face of it, it sounded like madness. Haul a man in a coma nearly a hundred miles out of the wilderness on a river.

You could say that, Brian thought, but there was a lot of difference between saying it and doing it.

How could he?

The river. If he had a boat . . . or a raft.

If he made a raft and put Derek on the raft, there might be a way he could make the run and take Derek out, get him to the trading post and to help.

And even as he said it he knew it was crazy. A hundred miles on a wilderness river with a raft, hauling a grown man who would be nothing but dead weight, was impossible.

He would have dropped it, except that he looked up from the map and saw the truth then; looked up and saw Derek with his eyes half open and not seeing, awake but not truly living, the minutes of his life moving past and Brian knew that he really didn’t have any choice.

If he stayed Derek would die of thirst in two, perhaps three days. Well before the week or ten days that would pass before the pilot came looking to see what happened.

If he stayed, Derek would die.

If he made the run, took Derek down the river, at least there was a chance.

He had no choice.


ime was everything now—once the decision was made, time was vital. But Brian took a minute to scan the map once more and do some mental calculating, and it didn’t come up too terrible.

Say it was a hundred miles by river.

When they’d landed they’d come down next to where the river left the lake, and Brian had watched the current as it flowed away. It seemed to move about as fast as a person walked—maybe three miles an hour. Of course, that didn’t mean that it would continue to flow at that speed, but it would probably be about the same.

If he could get into the current and move with it and stay with it, a hundred miles would take thirty-five or forty hours.

He studied it closer on the map and noted that it grew wider as it flowed and that in some places it moved through hilly country—there were contour lines on the map close together, which meant steeper hills. Here the current might even be a little faster.

A day and a half, he thought. Then he said it aloud for Derek. “A day and a half. A long day and a half, but if we keep moving, stay in the river and don’t stop, we should make the trading post in a day and a half. Maybe two days.” And that, he thought without saying, is a lot better than seven or eight.

A lot better than dying.

There were two places where the river ran into lakes and out the other end, and many smaller ponds and what might be swamps where the river moved through a center of a small body of water. They would slow him down.

He could not judge how much, but none of them were large, and if he stayed on the edge and used a pole he should be able to keep moving well enough not to lose too much time.


He was sitting, reading, looking at the map, and there wasn’t time for it.

He needed to build a raft.

He checked Derek one more time, made certain his breathing was regular and that his heart was beating steadily and then moved off down the side of the lake, looking for wood.

The problem was not wood so much as the lack of a tool. When he’d made the raft before to go out to the plane he’d had his hatchet, and he missed it terribly now. After he’d been rescued and gone home, his mother had put the hatchet in a glass case in the living room, where she kept the china handed down by her grandmother. He’d looked at it as he’d left the house, but they had decided that having a hatchet might not be realistic.

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