“We cross that, yes?” Dimitri pulled at his grizzled beard. A skeptical eyebrow disappeared beneath his fur cap.
The foreman, Stepan Tarasov, pulled up the reins and grinned mirthlessly at Dimitri, sitting beside him. “We’ve no other way to get to the fort. The Slavianka River shows her temper this time of year, but the Miwok Indians know her moods well, and the Aleuts are skilled with the baidarka. You can either trust their skill, trust God for deliverance to the other side, or both. Either way, the odds are in your favor, I think.”
“And the horses? How do the horses cross? Surely they don’t swim?” Dimitri asked.
“No, not this time of year. A wagon and a sturdy pair of mules are waiting on the other side. Only men are foolish enough to cross the river,” Tarasov answered with a snort.
Dimitri turned to Misha, who had scrambled to perch on the box behind them. “Well, we’ve survived a sea crossing from Unalaska. I suppose one river shouldn’t stop us from reaching our destination, eh, my young friend?”
Misha stared ahead at the flooded torrent gorged with floating debris. Giant logs tumbled in their race to the sea. The boy gulped at the prospect of crossing in the small boats pulled up on the shore. He offered Dimitri a wan smile in a feeble attempt to hide his fear.
After spending the night at Port Rumianstev, Foreman Tarasov had collected Dimitri and Misha for the overland trip to the fort. He’d made it clear from the beginning that he did not approve of the boy’s presence. He had no skills and no contract with the Russian American Company, and therefore no business with the colony. Had his father not died and instead been with him as they’d planned, the boy’s presence would not have been the problem it now posed. But Tarasov lacked the authority to send him back on the ship at least, not yet.
Four men stood on the shore, two Misha recognized to be Aleut, like his mother. The third man stood taller with deep-set eyes that gave him a fierce expression. Tarasov told Dimitri that he was a Miwok Indian from Bodega.
The imposing man smiled and spoke in heavily accented Russian, “You haven’t ridden a bucking horse, have you?”
Misha had seen no horses until today and would not have known a bucking one from a docile one. He shook his head.
“After today, you might say you have.” The man laughed, and his face softened.
A few items were loaded into the middle seat of the baidarka that Tarasov would pilot. Dimitri stepped up to the water’s edge and slowly eased himself into the forward compartment. Into the middle seat of the second baidarka, the two Aleuts loaded Dimitri’s trunk.
The Miwok pulled the smaller boat into the shallow waters and motioned to Misha to come closer. Misha quickly pulled on his parka to free his hands and tried unsuccessfully to lift his leg into the bouncing baidarka, losing his footing on the slippery rocks. The Miwok grabbed his arm and pulled him upright before the cold waters drenched him.
Misha glanced over at Tarasov, whose eyes were narrowed watching his clumsy attempts. Misha knew he was small for his age and appeared weak in the man’s eyes. He mustn’t let the man think he was too small to be of use to him.
“Here!” Before Misha could protest and try again, the Indian lifted Misha like a sack of potatoes and lowered him into the boat’s narrow opening. He then pushed the baidarka forward and slid into the back compartment. Pulling away from the shore with strong strokes, Misha’s boat easily caught up to the other pair. The men strained against the rushing current, aiming for the landing visible on the opposite bank. With each stroke of the paddle, Misha heard their labored breath come in grunts.
Misha gripped the baidarka’s sides, his eyes wide as he watched the oarsmen fight against the pull of the sea. At this crossing, so near the ocean, the tide could also be a factor in the current. More than just a matter of a pulling from one side of the river to the other, this trip required constant maneuvering to avoid one obstacle after another. Everything from tangled twigs to full-size trees that had fallen close to the river’s shore through the winter months careened wildly to the sea.
The boy watched Dimitri’s pilot dodge a mass of limbs that were trapped in their own whirlpool. The Miwok skillfully steered the craft upstream away from the snag. As the mass passed harmlessly to the side, Misha caught sight of movement in the branches of a small floating tree – a tiny, brown bundle of wet fur. A squirrel stared back at Misha with defiant eyes and scolded him as if all this was somehow his fault.
Another log suddenly loomed into view and once more the Miwok maneuvered the craft upstream, steering away from the tree’s path. The Indian grunted with the effort and the little boat tipped sharply. Misha grabbed the edge, and his eyes grew even wider.
The boatman corrected his course and shifted his balance. A sudden lifting of the bow, and then the boat lurched sideways as a log, wider in diameter than three grown men, brushed the side. Again the Indian corrected their course, but not before a second log hit them broadside with such force that Misha’s hands tore free of the side. The small boat tilted wildly. Misha grabbed for something but found only air, and then only water.
He kicked his legs, attempting to push himself back to the surface, but broke above the water just as a piece of debris smacked into his head, plunging him beneath the surface again. He struggled once more, frantic for air, and emerged several feet farther away. In a desperate attempt to stay afloat, he thrashed his arms.
At one point, Misha heard Dimitri shout to him. Because of the number of times he had been spun by the waters, he strained to orient himself, uncertain of the opposite bank. He tried to locate the other boats, but logs and his own hair plastered to his face obstructed a clear view. Once more he heard a distant shout.
His parka hung heavy now and made lifting his arms difficult. His boots pulled like anchors on his legs. He kicked wildly and tugged his arm free of one sleeve, but sank again. The shock of the cold further hindered his movements.
Over and over he struggled, pushing his nose above the water, but his other arm remained trapped in the water-logged jacket. He took in a lungful of air and dived to wrestle with the sleeve that bound him. He tore at it with his unencumbered hand until at last his tangled arm pulled free. His head surfaced again, his lungs burning, but the parka was gone.
With awkward strokes, he began to paddle toward the shore when something grabbed his leg. He kicked frantically, but his foot had caught in the branches of the log snag. He twisted his body, grabbing for another branch, and managed to pull himself partially out of the water onto a larger limb. Clinging to the swiftly moving tree, he remembered the poor, drenched creature he’d seen before, who had done exactly this. Like the hapless squirrel, he was now at the mercy of the raging current.