9:31 p.m. on the shore of the Kiddamoosuc.
The waters, the fields, the evening were quiet; only the occasional car trundling over the Route 4 bridge a quarter-mile downstream broke the illusion that the rest of the world had frozen in sleep. A three-quarter moon was just poking its face over the ridge above them, at the edge of Hadley Heights; the nearest house was a good quarter-mile over the top of the ridge, through scrub brush grown thick in the summer. Slogging their way through it carrying the gear had rewarded the pair with enough scratches to require a fabricated story for later, for their parents.
Bill, standing just at water’s edge about fifty yards south of the mammoth tree, was about to give it another try. He leaned back, angling his torso just so, and pointed the Excalibur skyward. “Nice and steady,” he commanded. “And stay clear of that line!”
Greg kept the flashlight beam trained on the middle of the giant solitary branch, wishing vaguely that he was drunk but grateful he wasn’t. Regardless of what it led to, he thought this particular idea was pure genius, but Bill assured him he’d learned of the trick from Malmo and hadn’t thought it up himself. The crossbow, he’d explained on the way down, was a remarkably easy tool for a novice to use. He had gone over all of the packed equipment as they’d sat in a weed patch near the far reaches of the Heights, waiting for dark, his lesson as polished as that of a lifelong tree-climbing expert. Greg had listened and tried to assemble how, or if, it was all going to work.
Bill, not much more than a silhouette even at a distance of ten feet, fired the Excalibur. Click-zzzzzzzzzzz…riding piggyback on a savage dart, the throwing bag – nothing more elaborate than a child’s bean bag and attached to a polypropylene line, a close cousin of fishing twine – shot into the heavens and out of sight. There could be no knowing for several seconds whether the shot had been fruitful.
Greg played the beam back and forth along the branch, groping at it with light. There had been no telltale plop like last time, when the bag had either bounced off the branch or missed it altogether and wound up in the river. Its attachment to the polypropylene line had made reeling it in easy enough, but neither man wanted a reprise. “Lower,” Bill suggested. Excitement tinged his voice. “I think it’s over,” he said. He had laid the Excalibur on the sand and was tugging at the length of twine, several dozen feet of which were still piled in a heap a few feet away. “I can feel the twine hung up on something, it’s got to be the branch – ”
Greg let out a little whoop. The flashlight’s high-powered beam was trained on the throwing bag, which dangled unassumingly about thirty feet over the water, perhaps twenty feet from river’s edge, commensurate with the distance the branch angled out over the river. Bill’s blast, soaring true, had carried the little bag over the bigass branch and back within range of retrieval. The arrow itself, expected to remain attached to the throwing bag, was nowhere to be seen and had presumably fallen into the Kiddamoosuc.
Bill grasped the twine with both hands and made flinging gestures, hoping to play the bag into dropping. Greg, feeling impotent, kept the flashlight trained alternately on the branch and the bag. Nothing happened until Bill ventured about forty feet up the bank, where his control over the tension of the twine on the branch was greater. He was able to shake the bag to within a foot or two of the water’s silvery surface.
“I’m on it,” Greg declared. He stripped to his tattered skivvies and waded into the warm, gentle current up to his armpits – the river bottom was steeply pitched here – then glided toward the bag with a series of little scissor kicks. Greg was as at home in the water as one without gill slits could be.
He handed the bag to Bill a few minutes later, dripping and flapping his limbs in an effort to dry off. He felt surprisingly chilled after his brief dip. Bill, in the meantime, had readied the centerpiece of their equipment cache for introduction into the scheme: a four-hundred-foot length of arborist’s rope, only ½” thick but extraordinarily tough and coated with a blend of polyester and dacron, imparting it with extra resistance to friction-induced damage as compared to nylon. The rope was built in a braided rather than a twist construction, which, Bill explained as he untied the throwing bag from the line, would prevent anyone dangling from it in the air from spinning around. He further explained that the rope’s modest diameter and bark-like coloring would help prevent its being spotted from Route 4 over the next couple of days. Greg absorbed it all soberly, thinking that Bill was proceeding toward insanity in a most orderly and prepared fashion, with Greg himself riding sidecar.
But the whole process was fascinating. Greg shined the flashlight on Bill’s hands, which were busy tying the polypropylene line securely to a knot he’d tied in one end of the arborist’s rope. Once he’d done this, Bill used the other end of the line – much of it still bunched in a heap – to slowly hoist the rope into the air, using the branch as a de facto pulley. For this Bill had donned plain cotton gardening gloves, and no wonder: As relatively lightweight as the arborist’s rope was, it grew heavier as more if it was pulled skyward, and had Bill let the polypropylene line shoot through his sweaty palms under the rope’s pull, it surely would have cut into them like an electric saw.
When the end of the rope was about a hundred feet above the point where sandy bluff met water’s edge, Bill was noticeably straining to keep the rope moving. “Greg,” he puffed simply. Greg had donned an extra set of gloves (Bill was exquisitely prepared, as usual) and quickly joined in this oddball tug-of-war against gravity. With both of them working, digging their heels in the wet sand, silent except for the erratic pattern of grunts and breathy sighs of effort that escaped them here and there, they managed to get the rope over the branch (blindly; Greg couldn’t very well pull and point the flashlight at the same time) and start it on its much more forgiving return journey. Working alone again with Greg lighting the way, Bill had the end of the rope in hand again a few minutes later. Both of them were surprised at how exhausted their shoulders and arms were from the effort, though Bill was careful to remind Greg that four hundred feet of rope, even a lightweight variety, weighed “about one-point-four shitloads, maybe more.”
Bill untied the polypropylene line from the knot on the rope; its work here was done. Bill now held a length of rope in each hand, with the center of it looped over a branch eighteen stories above; an amazing coup. Working from recent memory, he then formed the rudiments of a knot called a buntline hitch, a very reliable knot favored by boaters for tying shackles, snaps, and rings. With minor modifications, Bill explained, it would serve them well here. After studying the loose arrangement for a few seconds (Greg was having a hard time holding the flashlight steady now that his arms and all ten of his fingers were dead tired), Bill began pulling one strand toward the ground – he had about thirty feet of loose rope on one side and about ten on the other – while he held the other steady; the effect was to slowly tighten the knot as it rose into the air. When the mass of knot was about ten feet off the ground, Bill released the strand of rope he’d been holding in place. This, too, rose into the air. Greg could see what was happening: The knot would ultimately catch against the base of the branch and tighten for good under the tension applied from the ground, and the extra ten feet or so of rope would ensure the knot’s integrity.
Greg once again helped Bill apply weight to the rope, drawing the knot toward the branch; this was much easier than before, since the higher the knot climbed, the more rope spilled over the branch toward them and the less there was to raise. When the knot finally met the underside of the gigantic branch, Bill used the rope to pull himself clear off the sand and instructed Greg to do the same. And so they hung there awkwardly, like a pair of tetanic monkeys, doing their best to make sure the knot was as tight as could be. They would never be able to visually inspect it, of course, a point Greg found troubling.
Bill then used a large Xacto knife to methodically cut away the two hundred feet of rope that was now pure excess. It was slow work; the rope was extremely tough. After the severing, the remaining rope dangling from on high just kissed the beach when Bill let go of it. He had judged it just so.
“How do we know it’s gonna hold?” Greg asked his friend, wiping sweat from his brow with an arm nearly too tired to accomplish the task.
“It’s a damn good knot,” Bill said, coiling the cut rope for burial on the beach and hence concealment. “I tied it myself.” And that was that.
They weren’t done for the night. Now, they would climb.
Greg gathered up the remaining gear – crossbow, line and such – and began trucking it slowly up the embankment alongside Bill, who clambered along holding the rope (which remained quite taut for most of the trip and during portions of it even rose almost too high above the sand for him to hold) in one hand and steadying himself with the other. Greg felt as if he’d run a marathon; the embankment was a cruel, sandy incarnation of the Matterhorn. Bill’s own breaths were also loud, but held a steady vigor suggesting he fed their progress and not the other way around.
Ten minutes later Bill and Greg stood at the top of the bluff, whimsical replicas of Hillary and Norgay, the former holding the end of a very long rope instead of a flag, the latter a pile of gear much different from the famed Sherpa’s. Bill was careful not to lose his grip on the rope, lest it swoop tragically back to water level. In labored breaths, he took the flashlight from Greg and explained the final steps.
“Look,” he said, pointing with the flashlight toward the Heights. A series of modest maple trees rose from soil far richer than at the base of the bluff. “I need to climb that one toward the left, because it has good leaf cover, and I need to bring the rope up with me.” He returned the flashlight to Greg and said, “You give me a boost, then point the way with the light.”
Bill wrapped the rope, which had about fifteen feet of slack now, around his arm several times and allowed Greg to help him gain the first branch. Even with the flashlight, the ambient gloom made the process awkward. Once situated, Bill picked his way up into the heart of the tree. Leaves fluttered down around Greg, twisting lazily in the beam of light. The rope rose accordingly and was soon far out of Greg’s reach, and then twitched and spasmed for two or three minutes. For a perverse moment, Greg thought Bill fully intended to spring from the tree like a misguided monkey and let the rope – presumably still wrapped around his arm – carry him grandly to a demise surely unrivaled in the annals of the Western world.
Instead, Bill’s ghostly voice floated down: “Greg, stand back a little. I’m gonna do a test run. I’ve tied a fluorescent orange ball to the end of the rope, and I took about five feet off the effective length by tying some knots, which can double as handholds. When I say ‘release!’ train the beam toward the water and follow the ball as best you can.”
Greg turned and faced the edge of the bluff, thinking of the tracers used by machine gunners to guide the accuracy of their craft. He’d been fascinated by this whole affair from the start, and tonight consumed by it, but now, for the first time, he had to admit he was plain excited. The almost-pleasant thrumming in his guts told him so.
A few moments later came the hushed call: “Ready…release!”
The rope whickered by, soaring into the night. Greg, perched on the edge of the bluff, kept the beam trained on the bright orange disc that quickly became a speck. In what seemed like an impossibly short time, the speck began to climb, and Greg understood the rope had cleared the trunk and was rising in the second half of its pendulous trip. It hovered for an instant, then fell; and now Greg – no student of the elusive nature of frictionless machines – was suddenly sure the rope’s return arc would carry the ball all the way back to the tree and perhaps clean Bill’s clock. Instead, it rose perhaps two-thirds of the way up the curve of the bluff, then fell again…
Greg was so absorbed in his thoughts and his task that he was startled to find Bill standing beside him. “Don’t worry about the light,” he murmured excitedly. “What I wanted to be sure of is that the bottom of the rope wouldn’t crash into the sand – no need for skimming that shit on the way down, eh? I’d figured out the bluff was more or less a semicircle, and that the trees here are just as far from that branch as the river is. With the added height of this tree, we must have had a good dozen feet of clearance all the way. Perfect!”
Greg just nodded. It made no more sense now than it had earlier. The point was the same: They had just engineered the world’s largest fully operational rope swing