Read Devil's Pass Online

Authors: Sigmund Brouwer

Tags: #General, #Performing Arts, #Family, #Juvenile Fiction, #Mysteries & Detective Stories, #JUV031040, #Music, #JUV013000, #JUV028000

Devil's Pass (11 page)

BOOK: Devil's Pass
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“Don't you feel better, kid?” George asked.

“Much,” Webb said.

“That guitar must weigh some,” Chuck said. “Might give you close to what it's worth.”

“Don't go there,” George told Chuck. “Threaten to take away the kid's guitar and a real strange light appears in his eyes.”

TWENTY-TWO

The night was brief—and cold. It didn't even get dark enough at any point to see stars.

Webb woke up warm, though, loving the down-filled sleeping bag that had taken such a big chunk out of his bank card.

He stepped outside. George was already at a fire, squatting in front of it, warming his hands, a pot of coffee on a grill.

Webb reached into his backpack for his lightweight plastic mug. He picked up a pail and walked with it to the nearby creek, where he filled it, carried it back to the fire and set it beside George.

“Let me guess,” George said. “Water to refill the coffee pot?”

Webb nodded.

“Kid, someone raised you right.”

Dad was there only until I was ten, Webb thought. And then his mom carried on.

“Just want to treat people the way I'd like to be treated,” Webb said.

“You'd think that wouldn't be too much to ask, wouldn't you?” George said.

“You'd think,” Webb agreed. In his mind, he saw a flash of a broken broom handle coming down on the soles of his feet. Nothing he could do about those memories. And certainly there was nothing to tell anyone, ever.

George poured coffee into Webb's plastic mug. “Have some before the others wake up. But don't thank me for it. All I'm doing is what I'd expect others to do for me.” He grinned.

Webb wrapped his hands around the mug. The ground was wet, and the air was cold enough that he could see his breath.

“That stuff about bears that Chuck told us last night. Is it true? Pepper spray won't stop them?”

“Would you want to take that chance?” George said.

“I know how to shoot pepper spray,” Webb said. “But not a rifle.”

George grunted. “Let me show you.”

He lifted his rifle and explained the safety and showed how to put a bullet in the chamber. “If a grizzly is charging,” he said, “shoot as early as you can. They can move as fast as a freight train, and you want as much time as possible to get another bullet in the chamber. Got it?”

“Got it.”

George handed Webb the rifle. “Keep the barrel facing the ground. Never, ever point at anything unless you intend to shoot it.”

“Got it.”

“Safety on?”

“Yes,” Webb said.

“Did you check it?”

“No. I saw—”

“Check it yourself. Always.”

Webb checked. “On.”

“Good. I'm going to set up a target.”

Leaving Webb with the rifle, George moved about thirty steps away to prop up three pieces of wood like a tripod. He returned to Webb.

“Good,” he repeated. “I like that you kept the barrel down.”

“The target's pretty close, isn't it?” Webb asked.

“I don't need to teach you to shoot like a sniper. Just how to shoot and keep the rifle steady and get the confidence to hit a nearby target. We aren't here to hunt grizzlies, but we need to be able to defend ourselves if one gets close. Now hold the butt of the rifle snug against your shoulder. It's going to kick when you fire, and if you leave a gap, it will feel like a mule kicked you.”

Webb lifted the rifle.

“Get the bead at the front between the notches of the sight and line them up with the target. Squeeze the trigger, don't pull.”

Webb took a breath. Squeezed the trigger. Heard nothing but a
click
.

“Too bad,” George said. “The charging grizzly just ripped off your scalp.”

“Safety,” Webb said. “I forgot.”

He snapped the safety off. Aimed again. Squeezed the trigger.

It felt like someone had punched him in the shoulder. The explosion echoed and re-echoed.

“Not worried about waking the others?” Webb asked.

“Wanted to pour cold water on them while they were sleeping,” George said. “I don't take lightly to people who litter the trail. I'm more worried about you actually hitting a piece of wood. Try again.”

It took three shots for Webb to hit one of the pieces of wood. It popped up and landed a couple of steps farther away. The other two pieces fell from the tripod, and with his next two shots, he hit first one, then the other, scattering them.

“Good,” George said. “Looks like you got it figured out. If we see a grizzly, you tell me if you think you can handle the warning shots.”

He put the rifle away just as the Germans appeared. George waved them away. “Nothing to panic about. Pack up, we're hitting the trail in twenty minutes.”

Fritz and Wilhelm disappeared again.

Webb and George spent a few minutes in friendly silence, sipping their coffee.

“Storm's coming in,” George said. “You'll be glad you have good rain gear.”

“You telling me that so I'll know you went through my backpack at some point?”

“I went through everybody's backpack. Right after the pilot loaded them on the chopper. I'm responsible for all of us. No drugs or alcohol allowed.”

“And since I'm a skinny kid with long hair and a guitar, you thought you'd find drugs.”

Good thing, Webb thought, that George didn't know why Webb left high school. Good thing it wasn't on his record. He would have been unable to cross the border to go to Phoenix.

“Crossed my mind,” George answered. “Especially since you don't seem like the type who goes looking for outdoor adventures. But if you don't want people thinking that about you, cut your hair and find another T-shirt. People take you as they find you. Until they learn different. Heard Brent Melrose learned different.”

There was nothing to say to that, so Webb just watched the approaching storm.

“Those Germans were mad when they found out I left their expensive Scotch behind in Norman Wells,” George said. “They each had a bottle. I wasn't worried about the excess gear though. I thought they'd at least be able to make it to Godlin Lakes before deciding it wasn't worth carrying. Chuck, he loves all the good deals I bring him with each new group. I told him that you'd been picking up after those two, and he nearly peed himself laughing.”

“The fence thing,” Webb said. “Not an accident.”

“Not an accident. A person's got to treat this land right. I nearly pulled your iPod out back in Norman Wells but figured I'd give you a chance not to listen to it.”

“Nearly did,” Webb said. “But there's something about this land.”

George looked at him. “I'll tell you this. Last night I understood what it is with you and that guitar. What you played sounded like it came straight down from the sky and mountains. It was music touched by the spirits.”

Webb hadn't felt like ramping it up when he'd wandered away in the twilight to be by himself with his guitar. That's what the sky and mountains did to a person.

“Sorry,” Webb said. “Next time I'll go a little farther from camp. I should have figured sound would carry out here.”

“It wasn't like that at all,” George said. “What I heard made me walk out a little farther so I could hear it better. Your grandfather was right. He told me you were an amazing musician.”

“You spoke to my grandfather!” This was a surprise to Webb. He'd expected George at the Norman Wells airport, but only because of the instructions he'd been given by letter. It had never occurred to him that George and his grandpa had ever had a conversation.

“I did,” George said. “He wanted to know more about the Canol Trail and what it might be like for you. He asked a lot of questions. He said he had plans to send you out to find something and that someday I would hear from you. I enjoyed my conversation with him. He sounded like a remarkable man.”

“Yes,” Webb said. “He was.”

“Two things he wanted me to pass along to you when the time was right,” George said. “This feels like it's right.”

Webb waited.

“The first he said you already knew:
That which
does not kill us makes us stronger
.”

“Nietzsche. Frederick Nietzsche. A German philosopher.” Webb had looked him up online.

“Your grandfather said the two things he wanted to pass along came from that man,” George said. “The first thing, yes, very wise. I think about this, the land. The longer you survive it, the stronger you become. But the second thing? I don't know how it matters on the Canol Trail.”

George closed his eyes and Webb could see that he was making sure to tell him word for word what his grandfather wanted to pass along. “
He who fights
with monsters might take care lest he thereby become
a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss,
the abyss gazes also into you.

George opened his eyes and nodded. “Yes, that was it. All of it. That make sense to you?”

Webb shook his head. “Not at all.”

“Me neither,” George said. He shrugged. “Next time you play guitar at night, you join us at the fire, okay?”

TWENTY-THREE

“Hey, guitar boy. Yes. You.”

Fritz. Or maybe Wilhelm. Webb couldn't tell since they were walking up behind him. Webb was sitting on a rock overlooking the valley ahead. The distant hill was dotted with caribou.

Webb stood and faced them and spoke. “No speak English.”

“Yes,” Fritz said. “Very funny.”

“Yes, funny, like how you sell our equipment last night,” Wilhelm said. They kept their shoulders close together, gaining strength from each other. “Give us the money.”

Webb couldn't see George anywhere nearby. Not that it mattered, much.

“Sure,” Webb said. He had the ten-dollar bill in his pocket. “It's yours. Every penny I got for all of it.”

They looked disappointed, like they were hoping he would put up more of a fight. That made it worthwhile to Webb—disappointing them.

“Not enough,” Wilhelm said.

“Tell that to the cowboy,” Webb answered. “I did the best I could to get more money from him.”

“Not enough,” Fritz said.

They moved closer, as if Webb's refusal to put up a fight made them bolder. Proving Webb right: they were bullies.

For Webb, it was just like another street situation. Sometimes you ran. Sometimes you fought. You made the choice based on what was best for your survival, not what was best for your pride.

“We'll make you pay,” Wilhelm said.

Webb was okay with running if he had to. But running here would only delay what Fritz and Wilhelm really wanted, which was blood. Sooner or later, they'd force Webb to fight. No sense waiting and wondering and looking over his shoulder during the next week.

As Webb stood, he palmed a rock about the size of a baseball.

The Germans took another collective step, which was enough to convince Webb his guess was correct. They weren't trying to scare him; they wanted to hurt him.

He showed them the rock.

“We're close enough,” Webb said, “that if I throw this, I'm not going to miss. And we're close enough that one of you will be hurt really badly.”

Webb didn't feel anger like this very often. A couple of days earlier, he'd been ready to drive over Brent in his own truck. And once in high school, a bigger kid had tried pushing him around in the hallway, mocking him for the military haircut he had been forced to get when Elliott made him sign up for junior cadets. Without warning, Webb had viciously punched the kid in the stomach, then pulled him to the ground by his hair and knelt with his knee on the kid's throat, promising to crush the kid's windpipe if he messed with him again. Webb had been as surprised by his response as the bigger kid had been.

It had definitely been an overreaction. Thinking about it later, Webb realized that the kid in the hallway had been a convenient scapegoat for his anger at his stepfather.

Whatever the reason—and he didn't spend too much time analyzing it—Webb had learned a couple of things. First, he was a lot tougher than he realized he was; he knew
that which does not kill us makes
us stronger
was true. And second, responding with a tremendous overreaction made people think you were nuts, so they didn't mess with you. It was something he'd learned subconsciously from Elliott.
Choose your guitar over obedience to me, and your
mother will pay the price.

Webb had also learned from Elliott that a soft-voiced psycho was very intimidating.

“Are you prepared to kill me?” Webb asked mildly. “Do you understand? Kill me? Because that means you will go to jail for a long time, understand?”

“Not kill,” Wilhelm said quickly. “Just hurt.”

“No,” Webb said. “If you try anything, you better kill me. Otherwise, when you're asleep, I'll sneak into your tent and slit you open like that ptarmigan yesterday. You see, I don't care if I go to jail. And I'll be happy to kill you anytime. Because in case you haven't figured it out, I'm not normal.”

He braced himself, ready to fire the rock into Fritz's skull, but he held himself in control. Just barely.

“So ask yourself,” he said, looking from one to the other. He could hear Elliott's voice echoing in his own memories as he spoke. “Am I bluffing? Or will I hit one of you so hard they'll have to fly you to a hospital?”

“No bluff,” Wilhelm said, putting up his hands. “You leave us alone. We leave you alone.”

“Good decision,” Webb said. He dropped the rock at his feet and smiled coldly as they backed away.

He hated himself for that cold smile.

TWENTY-FOUR

The storm hit hard halfway through the second day and caught them at Mile 152. Everyone threw on rain gear and kept slogging. What else was there to do? They made it to Mile 147 before George signaled they should stop for the night.

BOOK: Devil's Pass
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