“Hey, there,” Avi said. “Are you ok?”
He knelt next to the stranger, covered in a thick layer of dust and mud. Avi’s breath came delicately. The person was not a man. She was not even an adult. The dirt-covered stranger was a teenaged girl. She was lying in a precarious position with her eyes closed. He could see that she was faintly breathing.
“Hello,” he whispered. Slowly, she opened. She looked up at him from where she lay. Her eyes gleamed a deep iridescent umber. Widening on seeing him kneeling so close, she tried to sit up. She gasped.
“No, it’s ok,” he said. “Don’t move.”
She relaxed her posture, but her eyes trained on him. She moved her lips. A faint whisper passed her pearl white teeth. He leaned close to hear.
“Water?” she said.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, reaching quickly into the side satchel that Carina had slung over his shoulder. As he looked down, he remembered he was shirtless. He felt a hot wave of red pour into his cheeks. He shoved the embarrassing image out of his head. She opened, and he poured water into her open mouth. She gulped hardily at the life-giving flow. With the splash, the dust around her mouth turned to mud. Avi wiped it away delicately with the back of his hand. She watched his face as he did it.
“Wow, she’s pretty,” Carina said, looking over Avi’s shoulder. He glanced up, not realizing that she had climbed down the tree. In the distance, Rachit was blundering down branch by branch.
“Uh—yeah—Ok,” Avi said. The girl’s eyes shot to Carina.
“Oh, you’re awake,” Carina said. “Did you notice she was awake, brother?”
“Of course,” he whispered.
“She looks thirsty,” Carina said.
“I already gave her some water.”
“Don’t you think she might want some more?” Carina reached for the water bottle in Avi’s hands. Avi fumbled with it before, trying to keep it at first but then let her have it. Rachit approached.
“Don’t drown her, Carina. I already gave her some.”
“Oh, look, she’s awake.” Rachit put his hands on his hips.
“We already know that,” Carina said.
“She looks dried out,” Rachit said. “Might be thirsty.”
Carina gave her another drink. She gulped it quietly. Her eyes bounced from each of them in rapid succession.
“I’m Avi. This is my sister Carina, and this is my uncle Rachit.” The dust-covered stranger’s lips moved once more. Avi leaned down to listen.
“Endale,” she said.
“No,” Avi said.
“What’d she say?” Carina asked.
“Endale,” Avi repeated.
“Then why d’you say, ‘no’?” Rachit said.
“Because she’s asking if we’re from Endale,” Avi said.
“No, she’s saying that she’s from Endale,” Carina said.
“No, she thinks we’re in Endale,” Rachit dropped his hands and turned toward Carina. They debated over Avi’s head. Avi looked up.
“Please,” he said. “Stop doing that.” They got silent at his words. He turned back to the girl lying across the mossy ground. “Do you think you can walk?” She tried once again to rise but winced. She shook her head side to side after the attempt. He was about to say something else to her when a drop of water hit his head.
“Your dripping water on me, Carina,” Avi said. He glanced up, expecting to see Carina holding the water bottle. He was mistaken. Rachit had it, and her hands were empty.
“It's rain,” she said. Almost as soon as she had spoken the words, the skies were released. As if a great gushing caldron dumped, drops the size of grapes fell through the hole in the canyon.
Avi stood and tried to cover the grounded stranger from the rain. In the distance, Bhoora grumbled as the drench penetrated his fur.
“Uh—guys,” Rachit said. “We may have a problem.” He pointed to the cliff wall. The others glanced quickly, expecting to see something explicable.
“What?” Avi asked.
“It’s a flood line,” Rachit explained.
“No, that couldn’t be,” Carina said.
“What? I don’t get it,” Avi said, as his sister walked toward the canyon wall and examined it. She pivoted.
“He’s right,” she said.
“What are you talking about,” Avi shouted over the thundering rain.
“See there,” Rachit pointed. “That line on the rocks.”
“Yeah,” Avi said. “What about it?” About ten body lengths up the wall, there was a change in the rock's color. “And look there on the trunk of the tree.” He spun around and pointed where the line discolored everything at a certain height.
“This canyon floods?” Avi stared at the stained line on the rocks for a moment, then looked down at the helpless girl.
“Bhoora!” Avi screamed. “Bhoora, I need you!” He was talking to the girl now. “I’m sorry, this is going to hurt, but we have to get you out of here.” In another moment, Bhoora was by his side, soaking wet and sulking.
“Carina, get the rope!” She dug through the bag she had given her brother. “Bhoora, kneel!” The bear obeyed. “Uncle Rachit, help me lift her.”
They took up positions on either side of her. She gasped when they lifted. Avi apologized the entire time. They spun her over and laid her across the back of the wet bear.
“Carina, tie her to Bhoora,” he said. She obeyed. As Rachit held the girl, Carina went to work. Avi came around and got in Bhoora’s face. “Listen, Boy. You have to be careful. She’s relying on you.”
“Let’s speed this up, shall we,” Rachit said. He motioned with his chin at the canyon wall. Avi looked up to see waterfalls around the rim of the gorge beginning to form. A muddy flow poured in.
“Hurry, Carina,” Avi said.
“I’m trying!” The water sloshed toward their ankles. “Ok, I think I’ve got it,” she said.
“Come on, Bhoora. It's time to climb.” They splashed through the shin-high water.
“You guys go up first,” Avi said. “You don’t want to be behind us.” They rushed to the tree and began their ascent. Avi stayed behind for another minute to let them have their head start. The water was rising fast. It was around Avi’s knees. Bhoora swiped at the unfriendly rise.
“Ok, Boy. It’s our turn. Nice and steady,” Avi said. He reached for the first branch and climbed. It was slick with wetness, but he clung on. “Ok, come on up, Bhoora.” The bear stretched into the tree and dug his powerful claws into the trunk.
Steadily, he followed Avi. “That's a good boy,” Avi said. “Nice and steady.” Avi glanced up. Carina and Rachit were at the top already. First, Carina, then their uncle, transferred their weight from the tree branch to the cliff wall. Avi climbed steadily toward salvation. Bhoora followed.
When they were near the top, lightning as bold as the sun split the sky. Thunder cracked. With the shock, Bhoora roared in fright. He moaned and woofed. The girl tied to his back hung limp. Avi slowed, trying to let his pace ease the nerves of the frightened bear. Another thunderclap, and then another resounded in the canyon. With the water sloshing below, and the lightning above, Bhoora's growls came more insistent.
“It's ok, Boy. Slow and steady,” Avi kept saying. He could feel the hair on his neck stand up as a lightning bolt shattered the surrounding air. With the deafening explosion, Bhoora took upward flight. He rushed up the tree with wild abandon. Avi had never seen him so untamed.
“Bhoora, No!” Avi shouted. “No, Boy!” Madly Bhoora scrambled up the tree, ripping wide strips of bark from the wood. In his frantic climb, he charged at Avi's position and mindlessly threatened to knock him out of the tree. Branches cracked, and limbs splintered. Avi scooted quickly to the other side and let Bhoora pass. He escaped the bulk of Bhoora's charge, but the wild bear's claws streaked across the exposed skin on Avi's leg. He shouted with the pain.
The stranger tied to Bhoora's back looked wild-eyed at Avi, begging with her eyes. For the briefest second, they held eye contact, and then she flopped in the other direction.
One loop of rope that encircled Bhoora's midsection caught on a splintered branch. Bhoora's massive weight ripped upward. In his reckless ascent, the wet rope, slick with rain, pulled free. The girl slipped. “No, Bhoora, stop! She's about to—"
Before he could get the words out, the girl slipped from the binding. Her foot caught for a brief second, just long enough for Avi to reach across a branch and grab her, hugging with all his might against the only remaining limb. With as much strength as he could muster, he balanced her.
The tree shook violently with Bhoora's weight, as the scared bear leaped wildly from the branch, landed clumsily on the rim of the cliff, and took off into the woods howling. Avi ignored the bear. He wrestled the girl's weight against the tree and hugged her tight. He looked into her face. Her eyes were closed, and her head hung limp.
“I’ve got you,” he said above the sound of the rain. “I won’t let you go.”
“Avi, are you ok?” Carina shouted.
“We're ok,” Avi shouted. Bhoora had brought her most of the way up the tree. Now they only had to mount the last branch. Rachit and Carina climbed back into the tree and helped Avi get the stranger the rest of the way to safety. In another five minutes, they were safe on the cliff rim.
“There's good and bad news,” Rachit said once they were safe. “Your shirt didn't get sap on it, but it is a little wet.” He held the drenched cloth up. Avi laughed mildly as he laid the girl on the ground. He flopped flat-backed and exhausted in the mud next to her and let the rain pelt his face.
“Ew, you got a nasty scratch on your leg,” Carina said as Avi lay there catching his breath.