The trip back to the bottom again was easier.
“I doubt anyone can really see this from the road, but it’s best to be safe,” Bill remarked in the still-thickening darkness, trudging in slow circles around the mammoth trunk while holding the rope flush against it. “I’ll be goddamned if anyone undoes ninety percent of the good I’ve accomplished in the past five years. Besides, who knows how many kids wander down this way?” He sounded quite tired now. It was close to one in the morning.
Soon, the rope was wrapped fully around the trunk of the venerable oak. There was nothing to be done about the stretch of it extending from the middle of the branch to the point at which wrapping had begun, a hundred feet above (a height managed only when Bill had climbed partway up the bluff again), but neither of the men imagined the rope could be seen at a casual glance, even from much closer than the bridge downstream.
And they were done. Rather than scale the bluff again (would that it were possible), they meandered along the shore in the direction of the bridge, where climbing would be easier, a luxury unavailable during daylight if you were carrying, say, a crossbow. Greg was enveloped in a strange sense of calm – one he couldn’t place. Maybe it was just the endorphins from all the physical work, but more than that it seemed to him the afterglow of accomplishment – a sensation with which he was rarely in tune. It was odd anyway: What had they really done?
They ambled through town like stragglers on a road march, their passage noted only by the occasional dog or agitated rodent of the night scampering from yard to quiet yard. They parted company at Bill’s, where they stashed the equipment under the porch.
The obvious question hung in the still, middle-of-the-night air. Greg, almost too tired to be afraid, broached it: “What now, Bill? We gonna leave that thing up there till Indiana Jones finds it?”
Bill explained the plan in fantastic detail. He’d conceived the whole thing, worked out every kink, long before they’d first placed their hands on a piece of arborist’s rope and to listen to him tell it, the whole nutty affair was already in the books. He spoke for five minutes; when he was done, there were, finally, no questions left. Only a sunrise and the hope of a whiff of luck, to counterbalance whatever Bill might have neglected.
Nothing doing but to do it, he’d heard some sergeant type say at the Texaco.
It was incredible, he thought, what they were going to do. Incredible and – despite its contrivances and controls – far riskier than any of the other spontaneous low-grade mayhem they had fomented together over the years.
In spite of himself, he smiled. He went home to catch about six hours. He’d need every second.
Bill let himself in quietly. His folks would have been asleep for hours now. Zapped as he was, his mind still whirled with the impending finality of an idea that had been birthed unceremoniously in the passage of beers and diesel trucks on the Route 4 Bridge; one that transcended both limits and good sense; one founded on a simple physical observation and made manifest through a rapid, ridiculously laborious series of machinations by two young men who to date had shown all the industriousness of slime mold.
All these pathos flitted somewhere in Bill’s forebrain, but he was too concerned with the important finishing touches to ponder their wellsprings. He crept into his bedroom and lay down quietly without removing his clothes, the faintest hint of a smile crossing his lips as he eased into a dreamless sleep.
Bill’s eyes snapped open at six-fifteen on a dazzling Saturday morning. Looking at the brightness of the day outside his window, his first thought was that they were damned lucky to have gotten a day like this one; the scheduled event wasn’t exactly amenable to rain delays. He hoped he’d left nothing else open to the fates.
He pondered the checklist on his night table one last time. Virtually everything he and Greg would need was stashed and carefully concealed at the jump site already.
He dressed casually in a pair of faded khaki shorts, a chambray shirt, and docksiders without socks. He picked up the carefully crafted letter he’d written to his parents, who were still in bed, a cellular phone, and a list of phone numbers. He crept out of his bedroom and into the kitchen, breathing deeply of his home, his sweet home. He was a lucky man.
With the faintest trace of regret, Bill lay the note on the kitchen table and stole out into the sunshine to meet Greg at the top of the bluff, their pre-arranged meeting place.
Greg was ready. He’d uncoiled the rope from around the tree and lugged it to the top of the bluff. He had already donned a dry suit. Fortunately, he had more than one; another would be left behind here when Greg eased back down the bluff and into the water as part of the preparatory phase.
At seven-fifteen they were joined by a third man, Fred Gladly, a high-school friend and former baseball star with connections to the local minor-league scouting community. Fred was the only other party privy to what was happening today, and he was only partially in on the deed at that. He bore an eclectic piece of equipment that would help place the event in historical context: A JUGS Supergun II, normally used to record the velocity of a pitcher’s toss. It looked like a black space gun with a big snout. A glass plate in the back of the gun showed the velocity of the baseball (or other object) – accurate, so the manufacturer claimed, to within plus or minus one mile per hour. At seven twenty-five, he was dispatched to the bottom of the bluff and instructed to remain on the north side of the tree trunk, out of view of anyone on the bridge.
At seven-thirty, using the cell phone, Bill placed a rapid series of calls to two local television affiliates, a radio station, three newspapers (reporters from only one of which stood a chance of getting there on time) and a handful of friends and associates who, unwittingly to a one, had each played roles in the table-setting of this drama. He fed them a carefully crafted hook only a blithering moron would have ignored, and told each that any involvement by the authorities would, voluntarily or otherwise, force him to call off the show. He needn’t have worried; the mainstream press was renowned for kowtowing to the police, but spurning their involvement when its own dramatic interests were at stake.
By seven forty-five, the first curious onlookers had perched themselves atop the Route 4 Bridge and were presumably scanning the northern horizon for signs of the promised activity. Bill and Greg, however, were safely out of view. By five of eight, a van from Channel 6 had reached the bridge and was busily setting up shop. The authorities would follow in short order. It was time.
Bill and Greg regarded each other solemnly. Greg clapped his friend, still dressed in street clothes, on the shoulder. “Better get ready,” he intoned. And then, simply: “Good luck.”
It was enough to make both of them laugh.
They were both a little nervous, after all.