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By Robert L. Wise
Warner FaithCopyright © 2004 Robert L. Wise
All right reserved.
THE FOREST REMAINED QUIET except for the occasional sound of a deer breaking through the underbrush. A fresh scent of damp pine needles filled the air. In a few weeks spring would break out across the Lewis and Clark National Forest, sending new growth through the virgin landscape, but today the dead grass and dried plants still wore the look of winter. The tall pines reached toward the blue sky while their branches extended across the needle-covered sloping terrain. Not many people ventured into the back corners of the area seventy miles from Great Falls, Montana, but the beauty of the untouched land always left its mark on anyone hiking into the pristine wilderness. Because the leaves of the aspens had not yet broken out, the emptiness made it easier to see through the branches.
Two Cheyenne tribesmen had returned to the area where their people had traveled in an earlier century. Life in town had gotten crazy, and they needed a break from the strange events that seemed to pop up every day. Joe White Owl and Archie Big Bear had the eyes of ancient warriors for reading the paths and hidden trails in the backcountry. Having grown up on the edge of the national forest, they had traveled the back paths many times in search of rabbits and other game. As they grew to young adults, their climbing skills became as keen as a mountain goat's, equipping them to scramble along the treacherous edges of the bluffs.
White Owl led the way down the side of a steep cliff that dropped at least sixty feet to the floor of the canyon beneath them. Joe hesitated just as he was reaching for the next handhold. The dusty wall of rock shook slightly and unnerved him.
"What was that?" Joe grunted. "The ground shook!" Archie Big Bear said. "It never did that before."
"In my whole lifetime!" White Owl shouted back. "I don't know what's going on. Be careful!"
The two men slowly worked their way farther down the stone wall. Halfway to the bottom the entire cliff shook once more, sending small rocks flying past the two climbers. Joe grabbed a small pine tree growing between two boulders and hung on for dear life. Although the rumbling lasted only a few seconds, it felt like an eternity.
"I've never been in an earthquake," Joe shouted. "But this feels close enough."
"You bet," Archie called back. "We've stumbled onto something. I want out of here!"
Both men hunkered down into the side of the cliff to catch their breath, hoping that whatever was shaking the earth would quickly pass. Nothing any longer felt predictable. Their hands turned clammy.
"Look!" Big Bear pointed to the normally placid terrain below. "Check that out!"
In the canyon beneath them, a small geyser abruptly spewed steaming hot water from the cracks in the rocks. They could see splotches of residue dotting the terrain, creating a yellowish tint across the top of the huge boulders.
Nearby, the land dipped, and a boiling mud pool bubbled up from the depression in the earth, splashing churning black mud everywhere.
"Wow!" Joe squinted. "Strange sights down there." "Never seen anything like it around here," Archie answered. "Not in this valley."
"Like you said back in town, the whole world's gone crazy. Attacks happen everywhere. Millions of people disappear overnight. Politicians promise answers, but we don't get any. We come out here to escape and only find more craziness."
"We ought to get out of this area. Worse may yet come."
"We're closer to the bottom," Joe reasoned. "I think it would be quicker to go on down and get off this wall."
"My hand's starting to get warm," Archie said. "Feel the sand."
White Owl sniffed the air. "Yeah. Strange smells, too." He inhaled again. "Could be sulfur. Why would there be the smell of sulfur out here in the forest?"
Abruptly the ground shook violently, nearly sending both men flying. They hung on fiercely, fearing the plunge would kill them.
"The dirt is walking!" Archie screamed. "We can't stay here."
"Listen." Joe pressed his ear even harder into the cliff where he rested his head. "Funny noises! The earth is rumbling."
"This place is turning into Mount Saint Helens," Big Bear shouted. "Remember Devils Tower in Wyoming? They say it came from hot ground."
"I think we should get back to town," White Owl insisted. "We need to report what's going on to somebody."
He started to hurry down the steep incline. "Everything else has gone nuts. Who can say what's going on out here."
With a terrible rumble, the ground resumed shaking. Off in the distance they heard a violent explosion, and the dirt slipped out from under both men. Dust filled their eyes and noses. Directly below, trees buckled and tumbled forward. Cracking sounds of branches breaking filled the air while the smell of smoke became more intense.
"My God!" Joe screamed. "There's an eruption over there by that waterspout! Smoke and fire are coming up! Even the trees are shaking. It's coming this way."
"I'm falling!" Archie screamed. "Everything's breaking loose!"
Joe White Owl felt the scrub pine he was holding start to break loose. "I can't hold on!" he cried. "The ground's slipping away." The agile man tumbled backward, bouncing off the wall of the cliff.
A shower of spewing, boiling water shot straight toward them. Joe futilely grabbed for a rock, a branch, anything that would stop his fall. Beneath him the earth split open, the newly formed crevice heaving clouds of black smoke through the trees.
Turbulent boiling mud splattered brown stains over the green pines. The roar became deafening, drowning out Joe White Owl's screams. With one more violent jerk, the earth hurled both men into the fiery pit, which bubbled up in a pyroclastic flow of molten magma. Rocks tumbled in behind them, and then the earth suddenly crunched back together. Steaming hot water and boiling mud calmed. The rumbling noise ceased, and silence fell over the valley. Nothing moved. Death now rested at the bottom.
The smoke and fire had stopped ... for the moment.
Excerpted from Tagged by Robert L. Wise Copyright © 2004 by Robert L. Wise. Excerpted by permission.
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