A River Trickles Through It

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Gold
Shannon Schuren


river low
Photo Credit: Zen Sutherland

The two women followed the path that led over the walking bridge and back to the main property. “How soon will you be moving in?” the realtor asked, tucking the contract into her briefcase as they reached the driveway of the old mill.

“As soon as possible. I’ve been staying at a hotel in town, and I can’t wait to get out,” Mel answered.

“A hotel?” Rowan squinted. “You must mean Douggie’s place. Roach motel is more like it. But it’s the best Little Hope has to offer. So, what are you going to do with all this land all by your lonesome?”

Mel had to smile. Now that things were official, Rowan was more gossipy neighbor than real estate professional. “I’m going to turn it into a one-stop wedding venue. I’ve already got the church, and the top floor of the mill can serve as dressing rooms. If I take the basement apartment, that leaves the entire main floor and the yard for receptions.”

Rowan turned back to the river. “It could work, but I daresay you’ve got your work cut out for you.”

“What kind of work are we talking about?” The deep voice seemed to come from the trees, and Mel started as two men approached from a path at the bottom of the hill and rounded the bend of the river.

Rowan’s smile cooled. “Wyatt. Finn. Come to welcome Melora to town? How neighborly of you.”

The first man shoved his hands into the pocket of his jeans and grinned, a lock of chocolate hair falling into his eye. “Ain’t it just.” He extended his hand to Mel. “Wyatt Donovan. I live just up the hill.”

Mel took his hand, which was warm and rough, his grip firm. “Melora Jasper. I just bought this place.” Which, she realized, was probably the most obvious thing she’d ever said. Her cheeks turned pink. “I mean, we just signed the papers. It’s official.”

His eyes narrowed for the briefest of seconds, so quickly that Mel may have imagined it.

The other man stepped in, a tall lanky blond with skin that looked like it spent more time outdoors than in. “Finn Lachey. Welcome to Little Hope.”

“So you’re some sort of wedding planner,” Wyatt interrupted.

“Actually, I’m an ordained minister.”

She probably couldn’t have surprised him more if she’d slapped him across the face. Finn dropped her hand as if it were on fire and Wyatt shifted his feet. This was usually the response she got from men when she told them, and though sometimes it was disheartening, she’d learned to use it to her advantage. She wasn’t sure why she’d chosen now to break the news to them, other than the fact that Wyatt seemed a little to sure of himself and Rowan didn’t seem too fond of either of them.

It didn’t help that she found them both attractive.

“A minister, you say.”

Rowan showed off a toothy grin.

“You plan on marrying all those couples yourself?”

“I do,” Mel agreed. “It makes things easier.”

“What church are you affiliated with?” Wyatt asked.

“This one,” she snapped, clenching her fists before forcing herself to relax. He couldn’t know how much that question rankled.

“So,” Finn said, clearing his throat after a moment of awkward silence, “I was wondering if you’d be willing to let me put up a sign. Seeing as how it affects you now that you’re a landowner.”

“Finn is our local activist,” Rowan explained, as Mel examined the sign.

“Stop Proposition 23,” she read.

“They want to build a hydroelectric plant up the road,” Rowan said.

“First they want to dam the river,” Finn said, his face reddening, “which will kill it.”

“You seem to feel pretty strongly about it,” Mel said.

“It’s my life,” he said simply. “My brother Tucker and I run a rafting company. If the river dies off, so will we.” He stared off into the distance for a moment, then seemed to collect himself. “If you’d be willing to put that up, I’d be very grateful. Rowan.” He nodded at them and turned and walked back into the woods. Wyatt said goodbye and followed.

“One last thing. You said your daughter had her pictures done here? Do you think there’s any chance I could use some of them? I mean, for brochures and such, once I get the place cleaned up.”

“Absolutely,” Rowan said. “They’re on Wedbook. The Burnett-Gustman Wedding. Take a look and let me know what you think.”

Two weeks later, Mel was all moved in. She tucked the last empty box into the storage closet under the stairs and dusted off the seat of her jeans. Then she grabbed her coffee mug off the counter, blowing on it as she ascended the stairs from the basement to emerge in the large main floor. It was one big and airy room, with a high, beamed ceiling and wood plank floors. The focal point was the picture window, which took up nearly a full wall and looked out over the river as it snaked through the back end of the property, around her little island, and came back past the mill. It was a view she knew she’d never tire of, and neither would her clients.

At least, that’s what she was counting on. That and the quaintness of the tiny church were the two main selling points for this venture which she’d staked her entire life’s savings on, and then some.

She sipped her coffee as she stepped closer to admire the view. In a place like this, it was easy to believe in the presence of God. If Mel wasn’t careful, she’d be praying left and right. But organized religion left a bad taste in her mouth. She wanted to connect with the Big Guy on her own terms. Like her father always said, God didn’t go in for all that ostentation. He liked his churches tiny, that way he didn’t have to raise his voice.

Just like her church.

She pulled on the barn jacket she’d hung on a nail by the door and headed out for a tour of her new property. The water was so clear and crisp. She kicked off her shoes and socks and slid into the water. The red and gray pebbles were smooth on her feet; it was less of a chore and more of a treat to move forward with the current, which occasionally gave her a nudge but mostly swirled gently against her calves.

The riverbank was clean, if a little overgrown. She moved around the bend, toward the path that led up the hill to her neighbor’s house. The thought of having Wyatt Donovan as a neighbor unsettled her a bit, and she stumbled. As she reached out a hand to steady herself, she saw something narrow and black tucked between the rocks.

“Snake!” she shrieked, backpedaling. She landed on her butt with a splash that she hoped didn’t attract the filthy animal.

But it wasn’t any snake hidden in the rocks. It was a pipe. And it led straight into the river.

*

Mel paced in front of the mill as she waited for the Department of Natural Resources agent to arrive. The dispatcher had promised to send someone out as soon as possible.

A car pulled up beside her, and Wyatt Donovan stepped out.

“Ms. Jasper,” he said.

“I don’t have time right—” she broke off as she realized he was wearing a uniform. “You’re the DNR agent?”

His grin widened. “Did I forget to mention that?”

“Yeah, you did.”

He tapped his clipboard. “So, the dispatcher mentioned something about a possible source of contamination?”

She nodded, her thoughts back on the hose. “Follow me. It’s near the path you were on the other day, actually. You could have stepped right over it and never even known.”

She stopped at the foot of the path and waited for him to catch up. He was moving slower, scanning the riverbed from bank to bank, his eyes on the rocks at her feet. “So where is it?”

“Right here.” Mel flipped over a rock. Nothing there. She rocked back on her heels, considering. She’d been in the water at the time, so maybe she’d misjudged. She flipped over the one to the left, then the one to the right.

Nothing.

Wyatt Donovan’s expression was completely blank.

She snorted, causing her bangs to flip up and flutter back down. “It was here.”

He shrugged, a little one-shouldered gesture, but she caught it.

“I’m not a liar, Mr. Donovan.”

“Didn’t say you were.” His tone was neutral, but there was a light in his eye that made her bite her tongue.

“Maybe it was a snake after all,” she heard herself say, her voice loud and false against the clear sound of rushing water.

“Maybe.” This time, the smile didn’t reach his eyes.

*

Mel couldn’t sleep, plagued by nightmares in which watering the garden turned into a life or death wrestling match with a big, black snake. Giving up, she got out of bed and booted up the computer. She’d been meaning to check out Rowan’s daughter’s pictures, and she just hadn’t gotten to it. She logged onto Wedbook and searched for the bride and groom, then clicked on the tab for photos.

She smiled at one titled, “Throw her in!” The photo showed the bride and groom pretending to fight. The groom had his wife around the waist, and looked ready to hoist her into the water behind them. Several of their friends had left comments. Among them were, ‘Do it already,’ ‘Not the dress!’ and ‘That water looks deep. Hope she can swim. LOL.’

Mel studied the screen. Huh, she thought to herself. The water did look deep, much deeper than the river that currently trickled through the property. Could it be a difference in the time of the year? She glanced at the wedding date printed at the top of the page. A few days shy of a year ago.

She clicked off the computer and wandered upstairs to stare out the window. Was she imagining it, or was the water level noticeably lower? Was that what Finn had meant about the river dying? She’d assumed he was referring to the dam, but this was potentially more serious. If the water was just gone, there was no way to get it back.

But gone where? Evaporation? Global warming? And then her gaze strayed back to the bend, back to where she’d seen the pipe. She knew where the water was going. At least, she knew how it was going. She just needed to prove it.

She slipped into her jeans and pulled on a black sweatshirt. She grabbed a flashlight, but it turned out she wouldn’t need to use it. The full moon was high in the sky tonight, glittering off the river like shards of glass.

As she rounded the bend, she heard a twig snap in the trees. She froze, vulnerable and exposed in the moonlight.

“Who’s there?” She shot the flashlight beam into the darkness, and was rewarded with the sound of cursing, followed by a crashing sound.

“Turn that goddamn thing off.”

She lowered the light but kept it ready to use as a weapon for whomever came out of the woods.

Wyatt stumbled out, clutching his eyes.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded.

“Going blind. What about you?”

“I figured out what the pipe is for.” As soon as they were out of her mouth, she knew it was a mistake. The pipe had to be his. Why else would he be out here in the middle of the night? “I mean, not that it’s any of my concern or anything,” she backtracked.

He peered in her direction, then broke into that infuriating grin. “You think it’s me, don’t you?”

“You’re trying to run me off this property.”

He shook his head. “Nope. But I plan on finding the bastard who is.”

“He’s not polluting, you know. He’s stealing the water.”

Wyatt frowned. “Why?”

“Don’t know. But look.” Mel had recovered enough from her shock to begin digging. She pulled aside a rock to reveal the black tube, which went all the way down into the water, fully submerged. She traced along its length, then tucked her fingers around the end. The force of the suction pulled them in like a vacuum.

Wyatt crouched down to watch her, then turned slowly to stare up the hill.

Mel rose to stand beside him. “Let’s follow it and see where it comes out.”

He looked ready to protest, but after one look at her face, he relented. “It cuts right through the heaviest brush. I’ll go first. Stay close, and don’t make a sound unless you get into trouble.”

Mel nodded, hoping fervently they didn’t see any snakes.

Finally, they reached the top and emerged into a clearing, which as Mel’s eyes adjusted to the moonlight once more she realized was someone’s backyard. The pipe trailed alongside the garden and ran through a hole in the side of an old barn.

Wyatt swore softly, a look of regret on his face.

“Who is it?”

Mel was so focused on his answer that she didn’t hear the man behind them until he cocked his rifle.

She froze, and automatically raised her hands. Turning slowly, she saw a man who looked a lot like Finn staring down the barrel of his gun.

“What the hell are you two doing snooping around here?”

Wyatt had his own hand on his hip, and Mel realized he might be armed, too. So much for peaceful country life.

“We know about the water, Tucker,” Wyatt said.

He lowered the gun. “What about the water?”

“You’re siphoning it off into the Coral. That’s why your business is doing so much better than Finn’s.”

Tucker chuckled. “You’re joking, right? Don’t think I haven’t wondered why Finn is having such a hard time. But it ain’t because of me.”

“Well, someone’s diverting that water.” Wyatt took another step closer, only to be stopped by another voice.

“It was me.” Finn stepped out of the shadows.

“You?” Mel studied his face for a clue to the mystery. It was there, in the dark shadows under his eyes, in the clenching of his fists. “Proposition 23,” she said softly.

He nodded. “That dam will destroy this town. The river will run dry, the wildlife will die off.”

“So you sabotaged your own business?” Tucker demanded.

“I had to. It was for the greater good. I figured once those surveyors came out, they’d see how low the river was and have to rethink their plans. After all, a little trickle of water isn’t going to give them the power they need to run that plant.”

“The surveyors were in today,” Wyatt said softly. “I had to drive them around.”

“And?” Finn’s eyes were big in the moonlight, his skin so pale Mel could see the vein throbbing in his temple.

“And it worked. They aren’t going to put the dam on Vermilion River.”

Finn slumped with relief.

Wyatt turned to Tucker. “They want to put it on Coral.”

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Shannon Schuren lives in Sheboygan Falls, WI with her husband and three children. She finds writing both emotionally rewarding and the best way to quiet the voices in her head. Her short fiction has appeared in journals such as Big Pulp, Concisely Magazine, Howls and Pushycats, and Toasted Cheese Literary Journal. Email: schurshan[at]gmail.com

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