Brad watched the fast moving water as the riverbanks narrowed. The thin prow of their boat bounced gently in the long waves, but the roaring froth they were coming up on would soon change that. He pointed to the long flow that ended in a point of foam as the long waves broke over each other.
"Just to the left, thereís the slot!"
Rob called from the back. "Letís hit ?em!"
Brad dug in with his paddle and pulled for all he was worth. A white crest formed at the bow as all three of them grunted to speed their boat into the oncoming rapids.
"I?m not going to fall out, right?" Mindy asked.
"Just hold onto the sides when Brad says," Rob replied.
The breeze of their motion cooled the sweat on Bradís face as they dove into the rapids. His skin tingled with excitement as he eyed the boiling water ahead. The water ramped down and became strangely calm, almost as if building up the energy for the joyful storm they were about to enter. As the first three foot tall waves raced at them, Brad yelled, "Now!"
Sticking his paddle between his knees, Brad grabbed the sides and held on tight. Behind him, he heard Mindy drop the oars in the bottom of the boat. A heartbeat later, their ride started.
The covered tip of the bow disappeared into the first wave. Solid water hit Brad in the chest. The bow shot high, the wet wood glistening in the sun as it flew clear of the water. He let out a happy yell as he hovered in the air for a moment. The bow came back down with a hard splash to meet another wave, soaking and sending him into the air once more.
There was nothing better in life.
After the third wave, Brad noted a hump of water that told him a large rock was just under the surface. "Go right!" he yelled, pointing the way with his paddle. Once again, they stroked and huffed as waves splashed on and around them. Their boat turned to the right, then just before they got to the boulder, Rob steered hard to the left. The rock shot past them, close enough to touch.
Navigating them through the white water, Brad kept paddling and looking for the best wave to catch next. He caught two more whoopers, and another which sent a decent spray flying over them. The cold water felt great on his suntanned skin. This was what summer was all about.
The turmoil receded too soon into smaller wavelets as the river curved. Rob hauled the boat into a turn that made it roll heavily to one side.
"We gotta dump it out," Rob stated.
Looking behind him, Brad saw Mindyís wet shirt stuck to her back. The light white cloth had turned transparent, showing the green color of her skin underneath. Every movement of her muscles was visible as she pulled at the oars. Her bare feet were submerged in sloshing water. They had taken on quite a bit for such a small set of rapids.
"I think we made the boat too long," Brad noted.
In the back seat, Robís round face was open in joy. "It was a great ride though, huh? I thought I was gonna get shot out of my seat!"
"Me, too," Brad agreed. "Hey, Mindy, how?d you like it?"
Mindy paused rowing and turned her head, which sent her black hair flying in wet ropes. Her emerald green face was drawn up into a smile that didn?t make it to her luminous gray eyes. "It was fun."
"I told you she?d like it," Rob bragged.
Yeah, because you tell her to,Brad thought. Even though he knew the truth, it was nice to see any kind of smile on Mindyís face. Turning back, he eyed the muddy beach they were headed for. He pointed out a log that sat on the edge of the water. "Thereís a good spot."
The boat leaned again as Rob lined up with the log. Brad reached into the covered bow and pulled out the rope with the grappling hook. Swinging the hook slowly, he eyed the log until they were close. A gentle toss snagged a stubby limb. He gave the rope a yank to be sure it would hold, then pulled them in and tied the rope off on the iron ring sticking up on the very point of their boat.
Brad got out to pull the boat in parallel to the log. Mindy held an oar out to him with her shirt wide open. Her breasts had filled out to womanhood. Brad wondered how Rob could steer with those things staring him in the face. As he pulled on the oar, he stepped off the log and one foot sank into the mud. In recovering, only his grip on the oar saved him from falling on his butt. He stumbled again from staring at the delightful way Mindyís chest wiggled as she helped him regain his footing.
Mindy sported a smirk as Rob chuckled at him. "Hey, itís not like you haven?t seen her before!"
Brad shrugged, trying to look at Rob. "Yeah, but she still looks nice."
Rob frowned at him. "Itís only Mindy."
Brad had a lot to say about that statement. Instead, he focused his attention in the boat. "Thatís an awful lot of water. It might be too heavy, or too long."
Rob shrugged. "We had to fit us and all our stuff in. You know what happens to wide boats."
"Yeah, poor bastards." Brad helped Rob out. Straining, they got the bow onto the log, sending the water in the bottom sloshing to the back.
"Okay, bail it out," Rob announced.
Brad watched as Mindy opened the built-in box in the middle of the boat that was also her seat, and dug out a bowl. The back was sunk down to within a handís width of the surface as Mindy tossed bowls of water back into the river. If there was enough room, and he didn?t risk sinking them right there, Brad would have helped her.
"I think the right side would be best when we hit the ruins," Rob mused as he gazed downriver. "Itís a little deeper, and there aren?t as many rocks."
"Yeah, but this boat doesn?t turn very quick," Brad reminded him. There were fewer rocks, but many old walls in the ruins. On a previous trip, they had shot down one submerged street to find a solid wall in front of them. Only the small, light boat they had at the time allowed them to keep from being slammed up against that wall. This boat was twice the length of that one.
"Mindy watches me. She can row with just one oar to help us turn," Rob countered.
Seeing the pool of water on this side of the storage box, Brad figured he could get that and not swamp the boat. Stepping gingerly in, he made sure the back stayed above the waterline, then dug out a bowl to help. Glancing up at Mindy, he said, "I just think we should be careful."
Rob gave a snort. "When did you ever think about careful? You coaxed me to go over the Shelf, remember?"
Brad shook his head. "Not this time." At the end of the ruins was a pushed over wall that fast water poured over. The other side was a ten foot drop into a mini-waterfall. They had shot over it in the small craft and lost a paddle, not to mention, swamping the boat. With that boat, they could just stand in shallow water and pick it up to dump it out. Not so with this monster.
"Of course not, we?d bust this one right-snap in two!"
Turning, Brad squinted at Rob, who was standing with the sun shining behind him. "We should stick to the middle. In the fast parts, anyway."
Rob gave a noncommittal shrug. "Well, the ruins is the worst. Once we?re past that, we?re home free."
Mindy returned another bowl full of water to the river, and rested with her arm hanging over the side as she asked, "How far to the ruins?"
"Tomorrow morning," Brad said as he stared at the wonderful orb shadowed by her wet shirt.
"Late today, if we can get moving," Rob countered, stressing the last part.
Brad was about to tell his friend it was already midday, and they hadn?t even got to the Dragon Teeth yet. Mulling it over, he decided to stay quiet, or else Rob would push Mindy until she was too tired to row when they really needed her.
When they got all but the last half an inch of water out, Brad and Rob dropped the bow back in, and they shoved off. The next couple miles of river were slow and flat. Brad hopped up on the bow, letting his legs dangle over the sides. His own tanned face stared back up at him from the surface, the last bit of his image wrinkling before the bow parted the water.
Water had always fascinated him; it was art in motion. That was the main reason he and Rob were friends. Both of them loved anything to do with the river. The lake was okay, but it was too placid. Here in the river, water flowed and rippled like a living thing. In places, it raged and tried to tip one out, in others, it moved lazily along. Even on calm spots like this, up currents they called mushrooms, would appear on the surface. There were also deadly undercurrents, which looked completely smooth on the surface, but sucked anything going over them down.
Robís voice broke Brad out of his thoughts. "Yeah, go ahead. Lay down and relax."
Brad felt the boat shift from side-to-side as Mindy moved.
"Hey, wanna get a good look?" Rob chided.
Although Brad wanted to, he didn?t. He wanted even more to smash Rob over the head for treating Mindy the way he did. Mindy was more than a slave, she was their best friend for as long as he could remember. Right up until he started his apprenticeship with his father, and Rob started learning his fatherís mercantile business, it had always been the three of them. Whether it was skipping stones, playing water tag, or skating on the ice in the winter, he never went anywhere without Rob and Mindy.
Somehow, things had changed. The worst part was that he couldn?t figure out when it happened. All he knew was that Mindy used to smile and laugh all the time. Rob had been eager to join in and not take charge, as he so often did now. The world had been new to them, and they had discovered the wonders of it together. Lately, Mindy very rarely smiled, and he hadn?t heard her laugh in quite a while.
"Brad, are you awake up there? I thought you wanted to get a look at Mindy?"
Looking into the water in front of him, he tried to sound bored. "I?ve seen her before."
"I have changed some since then," Mindy said, coaxing him to turn.
Rob giggled. "Yeah, your hips got fat."
"I?m not fat. My hips are just a little wider," she retorted.
Brad cracked a grin. Her quick reply brought back the way they used to tease each other. "Wide as the boat?" he asked.
"No," Mindy replied in a hurt sounding voice.
"Any wider, and we?d need a bigger boat," Rob said, then laughed.
"Thatís not true!" she snapped. "Brad, do my hips look big to you?"
Brad turned around without thinking about it, and damn near fell overboard. Mindy lay across her seat. She frowned at him with the cutest frown he?d ever seen. Shoulders perched on one side of the boat, she had her arms along her sides, making her breasts look like large, round pillows. Her sides curved in along her flat stomach to widen out into the hips she was showing him. His heart picked up speed as his breath caught in his throat. Her long legs twisted her goddess? body toward him so he could get a better view.
The day suddenly became hotter.
Rob jabbed a finger at Mindy as if the sight didn?t mean anything to him. "Tell her how fat her hips are."
"I?m not fat!" Mindy snapped at Rob, then turned back to Brad. "Am I?"
"You?re not fat," Brad said with a swallow. In gazing at her, he realized he was staring at her too long. There were a bunch of things he wanted to tell her, and none had to do with the width of her hips. He had to think up a quip before Rob began to suspect something. "But with those hips, you don?t need a paddle."
Rob rocked back in mirth. Mindyís frown deepened.
"Them be paddalin? hips!" Rob cackled helplessly.
The boat rocked again as Mindy sat up to glare at Rob. "They are not!"
"Are too?two sets!" Rob laughed.
Brad shifted back to return his gaze to the water in front of them. Silently, he chided himself for giving Rob more fuel to tease Mindy.
"Everyone else likes my hips," she pouted. "So does Brad, don?t you?"
Brad started to turn his head, then caught himself. He gave a nod he hoped Rob didn?t see.
"See, he likes them!" Mindy said in triumph.
"Yeah, in case he loses his paddle, he can use you!"
"I wouldn?t ?use? Mindy?" Brad said, cutting himself off before he added, The way you are. Half-heartedly, he tried to think up a quip to follow his serious statement. Looking out over the river, he gave up on it and kept quiet. Every other time they made this trip, it had been just him and Rob. He should not have let Mindy come along with them.
A tense silence hung over the water for a few moments, then Mindy cheerily asked, "Is it lunchtime yet? I?m getting hungry."
"Me, too," Rob said a little too quickly. "Hey, Brad, see any good places to pull over?"
Brad knew damn well Rob could see everything but what was right in front of them. They also had never stopped for lunch before, but ate as they floated along. Scanning the banks, he saw a rocky delta where a stream joined the river. He pointed at it. "That looks good."
"Yup, maybe we can find some skippers," Rob agreed. In a strong voice, he cried out, "Man the oars!"
"Does that mean I don?t have to?" Mindy asked dryly.
"Can you steer?"
"Then row your big butt over there."
At the moment, the bow was the safest place Brad could be. In fact, he didn?t want to get down from his perch, or look at Rob. "Why don?t we just eat here?"
"Because Miss Fat-Hips is sitting on the food."
"Yeah, I might squash your lunch."
Retrieving the paddle behind him, Brad tried not to see Mindyís hourglass figure as she got ready to row. He stayed on the bow as he dug in with his paddle, trying to leave Mindy and Rob behind. It was silly of course, they were all in the same boat.
As they approached the delta, the water became shallow quickly. Ten feet from the shore, Brad jumped into the waist-high water to pull them in. Mindy stood up to open the box. In a flash of mischievousness impulse, he grabbed the side and pushed down hard.
The boat tipped up to show him the bottom. Arms flailing, Mindy screamed as she was pitched out. Rob twisted his body with the motion of the boat, and stayed in his seat.
Splashing to her feet, Mindy glared at Brad. "Why did you do that!"
Brad grinned at her. "You looked hot."
"Yeah? Well so do you!" She then splashed water at him as fast as she could.
They splashed each other until Rob began to cheer them on, then they joined forces and soaked him. He retaliated with his paddle, which was taken away by Brad. Mindy tried to tip the boat as Brad had done, but Rob kept his balance.
"Ha ha! Can?t do that to me!" Rob cried at her.
Brad grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him in as he yelled, "Abandon ship!"
Water flew to laughter and Mindyís joyful shrieks. Their water fight lasted until they realized the boat was leaving without them. Once they retrieved it and grounded it in place, Rob suddenly remembered it was lunchtime.
The fun brightened Bradís mood. They ate, then had a skipping contest. To his and Robís dismay, Mindy won with a smooth stone that made fifteen skips. Try as they might, neither of them could do any better. They shoved off with the Skipper Queen, determined to make their campsite before dark. To honor her new status, Mindy took the front seat, and Brad took the oars.
Rowing along, Brad shifted his weight, testing how far the boat rocked.
"Are you going to tip us again?" Mindy asked.
"No," he mused, "But this seat is a bit high. When we hit the ruins, it would probably be better to sit in the bottom."
"We should have made the box smaller," Rob agreed.
"We take a rock in the side, and whoever is sitting hereís gonna get thrown out," Brad said as he pulled at the oars.
Rob frowned. "Can you row sitting in the bottom?"
Brad tried. The oarlocks were designed for the rower to be seated. From the bottom of the boat, he could row, but it was awkward. "We should have put these blocks a bit farther back."
Mindyís voice took on a worried tone. "Are we going to be okay?"
"Just fine, we?ll figure something out," Rob assured her.
Twisting to look at the side, Brad had an idea. "Mindy, switch places with me."
Changing seats on the water was a tricky business. The boat rocked but he got past Mindy without spilling them in. Once he was in the front seat, he sat facing the back and had her give him the oars. Just behind his seat was where the slightly higher bow dropped a boardís width to continue the gunnels. He had to hold the oars in place, but he did get a decent enough stroke to pull them forward.
"Problem solved," he beamed.
"Yeah, but whoís gonna watch for rocks?" Rob asked.
"Mindy, can you see past me?"
Brad rowed along, getting used to keeping the oars in place as he instructed her on what to look for. "If the water is smooth, we?re okay. Small ripples means shallow water. If you see a wake, then it means something is just under the surface. Besides the rocks that stick up, a smooth hump means a deep rock we can get over. If the hump has white water on it, itís too shallow. Choppy water is trouble, that means thereís all kinds of rocks?."
She pointed ahead of them. "So those ripples up there is shallow water?"
Brad turned around to see they were heading straight for a submerged ridge covering the river in front of them.
"Go left!" Rob ordered as he dug his paddle in and hauled the back of the boat to the right.
Having his hands full, Brad tossed the left oar into the boat and gripped the right one with both hands as he hauled on it. The boat slowly spun to face the far shore.
"We need speed," Rob stated as they drifted toward the ledge.
Brad found out that while he could row from the front, doing so under pressure was very hard. He retrieved the other oar and got a few hard pulls in before Rob barked, "Right!"
Again, he pulled with one oar, helping them turn. The boat tipped up to the left and bounced to the sound of scraping. It settled back down, and the underwater ridge went by.
"That was close," Rob said in a worried breath. "How come we never saw that before?"
Brad shrugged. Scanning the river, he nodded toward the high bank on the outside of the bend. "Maybe because we usually go down over there."
"Letís get there."
Brad gave the oars back to Mindy, and resumed his place as paddler and watcher. There were a few more shallow spots, but he got them back into the main flow without further mishap.
The sun was touching the walls of the canyon the river descended into as they made the straight stretch before the Dragon Teeth. Pulling up near the rocky bank, they stopped at a ledge a few feet above the water. The long, bare rock formation made a perfect dock. Brad even found an outcropping to tie the boat to.
Brad helped Mindy get their gear out. Beside the food and blankets, he?d piled sticks in the box so they could have a fire in places like this. There were trees on the top of the vertical rock walls, but climbing up there was too risky.
Standing on the rock over them, Robís face took on a look of thought. "Brad, I think we should stay near the shallows on the left going through the Teeth. The waterís slower there, and the shore is nearby in case we run into trouble."
Not happy that Rob wasn?t helping, Brad eyed him. "Yeah, but the rocks are thicker there, too. We don?t want to bust up the boat." He handed Rob his bedroll, just to see if he?d take it.
Rob took it, then handed it to Mindy, who quickly took it over to the camp. "Where do you think is best?"
Brad glared at him. "Why?d you do that?"
Waving an arm at Mindy, who was hustling to get the camp set, he asked, "Aren?t you capable of carrying your own bedroll?"
"Thatís what Mindy is for," Rob replied indignantly.
Hearing her name, Mindy looked up from unrolling Robís bedding. She pulled a few strands of hair back from her face. "Brad, I?m doing just fine."
The reply was harsh. He almost asked her if she liked being Robís slave. Instead of saying what he wanted to, he got his own bedroll and a handful of sticks. In stepping out, he caught his foot and stumbled.
"Mindy can do that for you."
He whirled on Rob. "I can do for myself," he growled as he stared down the pudgy merchantís son. He glared at Rob, daring him to say anything. Rob only gaped at him. Seeing that Rob was not going to give him any cause to provoke a fight, he stomped over to throw his bedding down.
To Bradís surprise, Rob brought more firewood. Both Rob and Mindy stayed clear of him as he built a fire. Once the flames were licking up, Mindy edged toward him.
"May I start dinner?" she asked meekly.
"Sure, why not?" Brad said to the fire. He turned away from her and looked for something else to do.
Thankfully, Brad hadn?t opened his bedroll yet. Jerking the strings free, he unrolled it and took a few minutes to smooth out his blankets. Taking a glance at the darkening sky, he didn?t see any clouds. That didn?t mean anything, storms formed quickly during the summer. He unfolded his tent and got it ready, just in case.
"You know, Rob does own me," Mindy said softly from behind him.
"I know," Brad said with a huff. He needed some small chunks of rock to hold down the corners of his tent. Unfortunately, there wasn?t any loose rock about.
"That means I am supposed to do things for him," she added.
Not wanting to talk about it, he grumbled, "Then, go do it."
"I can do things for you, too," she said, trying to sound cheerful.
"Nope." Spying a flat chunk of rock sticking out of the cliff face, he got up to see if he could pry it free. On second thought, that one farther down looked more promising. He cringed as he heard Mindy following.
"I don?t want you to be mad at Rob," she said, trying to get his attention.
"Aren?t you making dinner?"
Quietly, she said, "Rob is watching the pot."
Brad stopped and flashed her a look of mock surprise. "Oh no! You?re letting your master cook for you?"
Mindy froze in shock for a moment, then her face fell. Lip quivering, she spun to walk quickly back to the fire. The hurt in her eyes stayed with him as he watched her go. He almost went after her to apologize, but she was already too close to Rob.