Angel Falls

Excerpt

Chapter One

In northwest Washington state, jagged granite mountains reach for the misty sky, their peaks inaccessible even in this age of helicopters and high-tech adventurers. The trees in this part of the country grow thick as an old man’s beard and block out all but the hardiest rays of the sun. Only in the brightest months of summer can hikers find their way back to the cars they park along the sides of the road.

Deep in the black-and-green darkness of this old-growth forest lies the tiny town of Last Bend. To visitors-there are no strangers here-it is the kind of place they’d thought to encounter only in the winding tracks of their own imaginations. When they first walk down the streets, folks swear they hear a noise that can only be described as laughter. Then come the memories, some real, some manufactured images from old movies and Life magazine. They recall how their grandmother’s lemonade tasted . . . or the creaky sound of a porch swing gliding quietly back and forth, back and forth, on the tail end of a muggy summer’s night.

Last Bend was founded fifty years ago, when a big, broad-shouldered Scotsman named Ian Campbell gave up his crumbling ancestral home in Edinburgh and set off in search of adventure. Somewhere along the way-family legend attributed it to Wyoming-he took up rock climbing, and spent the next ten years wandering from mountain to mountain, looking for two things: the ultimate climb and a place to leave his mark.

He found what he was looking for in Washington’s North Cascade mountain range. In this place where Sasquatches were more than a campfire myth and glaciers flowed year round in ice-blue rivers, he staked his claim. He drove as close to the mighty Mt. Baker as he could and bought a hundred acres of prime pastureland, then he bought a corner lot on a gravel road that would someday mature into the Mount Baker Highway. He built his town along the pebbly, pristine shores of Angel Lake and christened it Last Bend, because he thought the only home worth having was worth searching for, and he’d found his at the last turn in the road.

It took him some time to find a woman willing to live in a moss-chinked log cabin without electricity or running water, but find her he did-a fiery Irish lass with dreams that matched his own. Together they fashioned the town of their combined imagination; she planted Japanese maple saplings along Main Street and started a dozen traditions-Glacier Days, the Sasquatch race, and the Halloween haunted house on the corner of Cascade and Main.

In the same year the Righteous Brothers lost that lovin’ feeling, Ian and Fiona began to build their dream home, a huge, semicircular log house that sat on a small rise in the middle of their property. On some days, when the sky was steel blue, the glaciered mountain peaks seemed close enough to touch. Tower- ing Douglas firs and cedars rimmed the carefully mowed lawn, protected the orchard from winter’s frozen breath. Bordering the west end of their land was Angel Creek, a torrent in the still gloaming of the year, a quiet gurgling creek when the sun shone high and hot in the summer months. In the wintertime, they could step onto their front porch and hear the echo of Angel Falls, only a few miles away.

Now the third generation of Campbells lived in that house. Tucked tightly under the sharply sloped roofline was a young boy’s bedroom. It was not unlike other little boys’ rooms in this media-driven age-Corvette bed, Batman posters tacked to the uneven log walls, Goosebumps books strewn across the shag-carpeted floor, piles of plastic dinosaurs and fake snakes and Star Wars action figures.

Nine-year-old Bret Campbell lay quietly in his bed, watching the digital clock by his bed flick red numbers into the darkness. Five-thirty. Five thirty-one. Five thirty-two.

Halloween morning.

He had wanted to set the alarm for this special Saturday morning, but he didn’t know how, and if he’d asked for help, his surprise would have been ruined. And so he snuggled under the Mr. Freeze comforter, waiting.

At precisely 5:45, he flipped the covers back and climbed out of bed. Careful not to make any noise, he pulled the grocery sack from underneath his bed and unpacked it.

There was no light on, but he didn’t need one. He’d stared at these clothes every night for a week. His Halloween costume. A sparkly pair of hand-me-down cowboy boots that they’d picked up at the Emperor’s New Clothes used-clothing shop, a fake leather vest from the Dollar-Saver thrift shop, a pair of felt chaps his mom had made, a plaid flannel shirt and brand-new Wrangler jeans from Zeke’s Feed and Seed, and best of all, a shiny sheriff’s star and gun belt from the toy store. His daddy had even made him a kid-sized lariat that could be strapped to the gun belt.

He stripped off his pj’s and slipped into the outfit, leaving behind the gun belt, guns, chaps, lariat, and ten-gallon hat. Those he wouldn’t need now.

He felt like a real cowboy. He grabbed the index card with the instructions on it-just in case-and went to his bedroom door, peeking out into the shadowy hallway.

He peered down at the other two bedrooms. Both doors were closed and no light slid out from underneath. Of course his sixteen-year-old sister, Jacey, was asleep. It was Saturday, and on the day after a high-school football game, she always slept until noon. Dad had been at the hospital all night with a patient, so he’d be tired this morning, too. Only Mom would be getting up early-and she’d be in the barn, ready to go, at six o’clock.

He pushed the flash button on his Darth Maul watch. Five forty-nine.

“Yikes.” He flicked up the collar on his flannel shirt and bounded down the last set of stairs. Feeling his way through the darkened kitchen, he hit the “on” button on the coffeepot (another surprise) and headed for the front door, opening it slowly.

On the porch, he was spooked by the black shape of a man beside him, but in the second after he saw the outline, he remembered. It was the pumpkin-headed farmer he and Mom had made last night. The smell of fresh straw was strong-even a day later.

Bret picked his way past the decorations and jumped off the porch, then he ran up the driveway. At the empty guest cottage, he zagged to the right and slithered between the fence’s second and third rail. Breathing hard, he clambered up the slippery grass pasture.

A single floodlight lit up the huge, two-storied barn his granddad had built. Bret had always been in awe of the famous grandfather he’d never met, the man who’d left his name on streets and buildings and mountains, the man who’d somehow known that Last Bend belonged right here.

The stories of granddad’s adventures had been told and retold for as long as Bret could remember, and he wanted to be just like him. That’s why he was up so early on this Halloween morning. He was going to convince his overprotective mother that he was ready to go on the Angel Falls overnight trail ride.

He grabbed the cold iron latch on the barn door and swung it open. He loved the smell of this old barn; it always made him think of his mom. Sometimes, when he was away from home, he’d smell something-hay or leather or neat’s-foot oil-and he’d think of her.

Horses nickered softly and moved around in their stalls, thinking it was feeding time. He flicked on the lights and hurried down the wide cement aisle toward the tack room. He struggled to pull his mom’s jumping saddle off the wooden tree. He dropped it twice before he figured out how to balance it on his arm. With the girth dragging and clanging behind him, he headed to Silver Bullet’s stall.

There he stopped. Jeez, Bullet looked bigger this morning . . .

Granddad would never chicken out.

Bret took a deep breath and opened the stall door.

It took him lots of tries-lots of tries-but he finally got the saddle up on the horse’s high back. He even managed to tighten the girth. Not enough, maybe, but at least he’d buckled the strap.

He led Bullet to the center of the arena. He couldn’t see his boots-they were buried in the soft dirt. The lights overhead cast weird shadows on him and Bullet, but he liked those slithering black lines. They reminded him that it was Halloween.

Bullet dropped her head and snorted, pawing at the ground.