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Authors: David Riley Bertsch

Death Canyon

BOOK: Death Canyon
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This book is dedicated to my lovely and supportive wife, Katie, and to my family. Without you, I would never have had the courage to try.

JACKSON HOLE, WYOMING

One early summer evening, the valley was filled with a hushed rumbling. At first only the wildlife and household pets took notice. It was something almost magnetic, an ethereal reverberation that didn't easily fit into any one sensory category. The elk and bison perceived it at the base of their skulls where their spinal cords met their brains. Their ears perked up in unspoken unison as they looked at the other animals in their herds.
A threat, but what kind of threat?
Their oversized binocular eyes scanned the tree lines and hillsides for predators.
Nothing
.

When the earth moved beneath them again, the shiver was no longer a delicate static. It morphed toward the realm of the physical, corporeal. Pebbles jumped about on the earth like dry corn dumped into a scorching-hot pan.

Its intensity increased rapidly. Almost exponentially. The mammals
stamped their feet, their eyes still wandering to find the source of the tumult. The tremors amplified so that humans could detect them, too, and people in town stopped what they were doing, alarmed. They braced themselves for a full-blown quake, eyeing doorjambs and safe spots.

Then, it stopped. The valley was still again. The herds resumed their evening grazing. The townspeople resumed their shopping, headed out to dinner, or went back to work.

But the phenomenon repeated itself the next morning and again a few days later, over and over until the frequency of small tremors called the regional newspapers to attention. The headline in the
Daily
read, “Quakes Felt from Bend, Oregon, to Cedar Breaks, Utah.”

Taproom and restaurant conversation convulsed with speculation.
Could this really be it?
Quakes weren't unheard of here, but not like this. Everyone, even regional scientists and universities, began taking notice. Twenty-three occurrences in nine days.

Are we due for the big one?

SNAKE RIVER CANYON, JACKSON HOLE. ONE MONTH LATER.

“What the hell was that?” the first man asked.

His companion shook his head. “ 'Nother quake maybe.”

Once the men were sure their friend was dead, they rigged a ratty climbing rope loose around his ankles so they could pull it off him when they were done. They had no choice but to burn the rope—if someone found it near the body, their plan would fail.

Straining in the dark, they lowered the corpse from the cliff top down to the rapids below. It wasn't easy detecting when the
lifeless body hit; they couldn't see more than a few feet ahead, and the force of the current pulled at the rope just as gravity had when they lowered him headfirst down the cliff.

With just a few feet of rope left, they hesitated. Peering over the edge, they stared into an empty, black chasm. One of the men shrugged in the direction of his partner. They shook the rope and no longer felt the weight of the corpse. The man called Ryder turned back toward the car, trembling from the strain. The other man, cloaked in black, pulled up the remainder of the rope.

They made their way back to the car without a word. The man called the Shaman took the driver's seat and stashed the rope under it.

In the passenger seat, a feeling of dense blackness consumed Ryder as the gravity of what he had just done set in. Their task hadn't been easy. Killing a person, no matter the circumstances or the extent of the justification, was a horribly disturbing undertaking.

As the Shaman eased the car onto the dirt road, Ryder started to formulate a thought. The Shaman had doubted Ryder's commitment to the cause not because he didn't trust him but because the Shaman himself appreciated the gravity of the act.

So much was lost in yourself when you took another man's life. Ryder understood that now. A sense of calm washed over him. He looked at the Shaman, whose expression exposed nothing. The man in black had surely done this before.

They drove another mile and pulled over into a clearing to burn the rope. As he watched the embers ascend into the night, Ryder said a prayer to himself. He didn't dare say it aloud.

When they arrived back at their camp, men and women—some fully nude—were already dancing around the fire. With tears in their eyes, they looked up toward the moon with a look of mourning.
Their attempt at a chant was cacophonous and incoherent. Very few of them properly spoke the Lakota Sioux language. The chant was called “Mitakuye Oyasin,” which means “all my relations.”

Its words gave thanks to the animals, plants, earth, and winds one by one. Swaying in the moonlight, the assembled sang:

You are all my relations,

my relatives without whom I would not live.

We are in the circle of life together,

coexisting, codependent, cocreating our destiny.

One not more important than the other.

1
WEST BANK, SNAKE RIVER. TWO DAYS LATER.

The day that would begin the darkest epoch in Jackson Hole's history saw Jake Trent having a personal crisis of his own. He woke up that June morning without any of the rejuvenating energy that should result from a good night's sleep. The previous day's troubles hadn't gone away. Coffee didn't help. It only made him more anxious.

The cause of Jake's irritation was the same issue that had troubled him for months—the increasingly spineless nature of the Jackson Town Council.
Whatever happened to standing up for what you believe in?

Of course, Jake admitted cooperation and compromise were central to the concepts of democracy, but he ardently felt that such cooperation should take place in a setting free from the temptation of personal gain. Compromise wasn't compromise when there was a reward involved. That was called a bribe.

The issue was land—a very special piece of it. At some point
during the council's recent debate, the political forum had become polluted. Poorly disguised buy offs. Misinformation. Jake needed the council members to hear him out. His recommendations were essential if they were to hold on to any hope for a just result. He wasn't so sure they had any such hope. Ears stuffed shut with money, the voting members weren't listening anymore. They were happy to cash in and shut up. Quietly and without remark, Jake's soapbox had been eroded out from under him.

This was Jake's fourth year on the five-member Environmental Review subcommittee of the Jackson Town Council, and he was beginning to think it might be his last. The role was as a citizen appointee, and the job wasn't exactly thrilling—recycling policy, park usage, land impact review—but he liked it. As an ex-lawyer, Jake wasn't afraid of details and fine print, and the gig made him feel connected to his adopted city. He and his fellow committee members could advise and cajole the council, but when it came down to hard decisions, they had to stand back and watch. For years Jake had awaited the dreadful scenario unfolding in front of his eyes now: the greedy overdevelopment of protected land and everyone grabbing for the biggest piece.

The old ranch was beautiful and expansive. Classic Jackson Hole. An eight-hundred-foot-tall butte with magnificent views of the Tetons. Below the hill, a gentle slope continued toward the river. It drained two gin-clear spring creeks, the perfect habitat for spawning trout. Hummocks of cottonwoods provided shade near the creeks and river bottom. Unfortunately, these were all attributes that developers coveted, including the wildlife, fish, and flora. Two hundred and twenty lots were planned.

Two hundred and twenty.
They called the proposed neighborhood the Old Teton Dairy Ranch, which to anyone with some
knowledge of French meant roughly the Old Breast Milk Ranch. Below that asinine name on the entrance sign, whimsical cursive letters enthusiastically proclaimed: “Taste the Tetons!”

There was no doubt the development would affect the natural environment. Every study showed that. That was what the conservation easement was intended to protect. The easement now in question.

It was a shame. If the protected lands—national parks and forests, riverbanks and mountainsides—were crudely partitioned and sold to the highest bidder, the town would come to regret it.

The United States is still a young nation, Jake thought.
We have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the more mature nations,
he had always told others, a distinct advantage. In Jake's mind, the United States was the fortunate youngest sibling of the developed world's family.
By ignoring the repercussions of our historical actions, we'll only destroy ourselves.

Jake's inability to sway his audience stymied him. He felt, perhaps foolishly, that because of his past accomplishments, his arguments should be afforded some extra consideration. He'd woken up half-seriously asking himself,
Doesn't anybody in this damn town know who I am?

Jake stood up and paced through his house. He was six feet, six one, maybe. Hair dark and short, with ever more gray around his temples. His body was lean but muscular, evidence of years of aerobic exercise: hiking, trail running, and biking. The push-up/sit-up routine he did every morning kept his upper body defined. His skin was dark now, but this wasn't genetics. He had spent nearly a decade in the high-country sun.

Except for the land issue, Jake was rarely incensed about anything. For the most part, since his move west, he had lived a carefree and happy life. He reminded himself of this fact, and rather
than spending all morning wrestling with these questions, he decided to go fishing. He'd had plans to do so anyway—an old acquaintance from back East had asked Jake to take him out while he was in town. But the man had unexpectedly canceled, having been called back home for a pressing work matter. The real world. That was okay. Jake needed some time alone anyway.

The conditions wouldn't be ideal, of course; the water was still high and cold from the melting snow that flushed down the mountainsides each spring. But it was better than spending a sunny Saturday stewing over a righteous cause that was probably doomed anyway.

Jake knew that once he got downstream from the Bald Eagle Creek Bridge, he wasn't likely to encounter any humans for more than twenty-two miles. That suited him just fine. Moose, likely; bald eagles, certainly; bear, possibly—but not humans. Even though the water was moving quickly with spring runoff, which would speed up the boat and shorten the trip, the stretch necessitated an overnight stay. He prepared quickly, packing his hiker/biker two-man tent and a twenty-degree synthetic sleeping bag. A sweatshirt wrapped around an old life vest would serve as a makeshift pillow.

BOOK: Death Canyon
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ads

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