All we wanted was a little peace and quiet when we stopped in a small town just off the highway, rented an inflatable raft, and paddled out onto the slow-moving river that wound its way through the farmland. That’s when the trouble began.
The day was warming up, the sky was free of clouds, and the breeze wasn’t interested in bothering us. In the distance, upriver, was one of those lone mountains that occasionally pop up where the landscape is otherwise flat, just to liven up the scenery.
“Do you think we’ll make Colorado by tomorrow?” you asked, lying back with your eyes closed.
“I suppose, if we don’t make too many stops like this one.” I didn’t care — we had no schedule, it was good to be out of the car for a while, and I was enjoying the carefree feeling of floating on the river.
I put my hand in the water and let it hang there. Something slithered by and I jerked my arm back. I leaned over the side but saw only a few long ripples of water snaking past. The raft wobbled a bit and we were surrounded by a sloshing sound. A swell lifted the boat a few inches and we picked up speed heading downriver.
“What’s happening?” You sat up and blinked in the sunlight. “What’s all the commotion?”
“The river’s getting livelier. I felt some water running by my hand a second ago.” That’s what it must have been. “And it’s getting a lot higher all of a sudden.”
“Yes… A lot higher.”
We looked at each other. “Back to shore!”
We both grabbed paddles and tried to control the raft, but the river carried us along, faster now, churning and rushing all around us. The water had a look of panic about it, like it was running from something. Wavelets curled above the surface and took a glance behind before ducking back down and swooshing away.
The river got careless in its haste. We nearly capsized when it swooped too quickly around a corner, slammed into the muddy slope, then dashed off in fright. It swung wildly from one bank to the other, sweeping away chunks of grass and tearing at the roots of young trees.
“The river needs to watch where it’s going,” you said, as we struggled to keep the raft afloat.
“It’s overflowing,” I said. “The town’s going to get flooded!”
“Where’s this coming from? It hasn’t rained for weeks, and there aren’t any dams around here.”
We bumped along and paddled fiercely, until we made our way to the bank. The water had risen so high that we had to duck under tree branches that hung over the water. We could have escaped the river by grabbing onto a tree, but I wanted to save the raft so we’d get our rental deposit back. We steered toward a grove of beeches that was underwater and found a calm spot where the water was only up to our ankles. We hopped out and waded to dry land, pulling the raft behind us, then tied it up and jogged back to town along the road.
“Look,” you said.
Ahead of us a crowd of locals had gathered, already aware of the situation. They had homes and families and farms to protect, so they had arrived in force with shovels and tractors to fend off the rising water. We helped throw some bags of sand onto the crumbling levee, but felt we needed to do something else.
“We have to find out what’s causing this,” you said to me under your breath. We both looked at the mountain, the prime suspect in a case like this.
The local News at Nine helicopter had landed nearby to interview people about their plight. The raging water made a dramatic background as the newscaster reported on the approaching disaster, microphone in hand. After she finished the segment and the cameraman gave her a thumbs up, we approached them about taking us upriver in the helicopter.
“This will make a better story,” you said. “Townspeople at odds with nature — go behind the scenes. Tonight at nine.” You announced it like a news teaser that’s played right before a commercial. It was a good imitation, though it could have used a touch more urgency in the voice.
“There may be sinister forces at work here,” I added. “Maybe corruption at the highest level. We need to get to the root of the problem.” News people always like that angle, so they agreed to fly us up to the mountain, if we promised to give them an exclusive. Sure, we said. Not like anyone else wanted the story — CNN wasn’t exactly waving a check in our faces.
Along with the helicopter pilot, the team consisted only of the cameraman and the newscaster, who kept checking her makeup. We sat in the back with her — Jill something, recently from Kansas City — with me squeezed in the middle, since you wanted a window and so did she. You gave her a sharp look when she started asking me personal questions — age, height, marital status — while she twirled a lock of blond hair around her finger. Interviewing, she called it.
“Look!” you shouted, to distract her. “The river! What’s that?”
“Where?” Jill turned away from me and pressed her nose to the window. I was sure it was nothing, but the cameraman — Carl something, from Omaha — hoisted his video camera into a ready position at his shoulder.
“Thank you,” I said in your ear. Flirtatious women get on my nerves. I wish it happened more often, though, just to keep my nerves in shape.
I leaned forward and looked out the front window. The main tributary flowed into the river from between two spurs of the mountain. I tapped the pilot on the shoulder and pointed, indicating that we should head that way. He banked to the left and Jill was thrown practically into my lap, which seemed to amuse her and annoy you.
We landed on one of the foothills, a field of dry grass with barely any scrub brush. We started walking to where the mountain steepened into a slope covered in scraggly pine trees, and noticed the ground was muddier than normal for that time of year.
“Where’s all this water coming from?” you asked. “There isn’t a spring anywhere nearby.”
“And there’s been no rain… no snow melt…” I shrugged.
“Um, guys.” It was Jill, struggling to follow as she slogged through the mud. “It’s a bit, uh… Do we have to go this way?”
Carl the cameraman was also hesitant, and took long leaping steps to avoid the puddles. The pilot just leaned against the helicopter with folded arms, enjoying the scene. He was chummy with the news team, but in a way that didn’t preclude laughing at their expense.
You turned to Jill. “Why don’t you two wait in the chopper? Work on the story. Fix your hair or something. We won’t be long.”
“You can follow us in the helicopter later. Wait till we give you a sign.” I didn’t know what that would be, smoke signals maybe, but we wanted to keep them around to take us back to town.
Jill took a couple of halting steps toward me, watching where she put her feet, then giving her shoes a close inspection that warranted a frown. “Call me when you want us to come. I’ll give you my number.”
“Well…” I didn’t know if that was practical. Or desirable.
“I have a better idea,” you said, and strode back to the helicopter. You briefly spoke to the pilot, who opened the door and reached in to grab something. You took it and walked back. “We’ll use this.” You held up a flare gun.
“Right,” I said. “Watch for the flare. That means we’ve found something newsworthy.”
Jill seemed both disappointed and relieved. She gave me a sad look, then perked up as she and Carl went back to join the pilot.
Once rid of our companions, we made good time up the slope. We followed the muddiest trail, since the key to the problem was water: Where was it coming from? We soon found out when a squirt of clear water shot from under a rock, saw us and squeaked in alarm, then rushed away down the hillside faster than anything would flow under the influence of gravity alone.
“It seems in a hurry,” I said.
“It’s panicking. Like something’s after it.”
“That’s what the river was doing.”
We looked across the slope and saw hundreds of rivulets streaking out of the mud, like a frightened herd stampeding away from a predator. They fled down a gully and into a stream that eventually fed the main watercourse. If the whole mountain was like this, we could see how the river had been overwhelmed.
“What scares water?” you asked. “Something that makes it go dry. Or…?”
“Or keeps it from being free to do what water does — such as flow wherever it wants, associate with whoever it pleases, attend the school of its choice — that kind of thing.”
“Flow,” you said with a nod. “Something’s threatening to stop that, I bet. There are some springs farther up. I saw them when I was here a few years ago. Maybe one of them will give us a clue.”
We hiked through a stand of pines, then dropped into a hollow populated with oaks. We followed that uphill, along a rocky streambed that looked as if it had recently flowed with water — the ground was still wet, but the moss on top of the rocks was drying out. We thought it odd that there wasn’t even a trickle, given that the stream here was fed nearly year-round by the spring just up ahead.
We pushed aside some brush and came upon a windowless building that straddled the pool where the spring came out. Solar panels covered the roof and the structure had a pre-fab look to it, like it was snapped together in minutes. A mechanical chugging sound came from within. We approached and saw a stack of unlabeled cardboard boxes next to the door.
“This wasn’t here before,” you said.
“Are they pumping water down to the valley?”
“There’s no pipe coming out.”
“And these boxes…” I tore one open and saw that it was a case of bottled water. Another box contained empty plastic bottles. That was our clue, and it didn’t make us happy.
We had heard about these pirate water bottlers who set up temporary operations in the mountains, tapping springs to fill a couple million bottles, then slipping away in the night to sell their ill-gotten loot to unsuspecting consumers.
The trouble is, nothing in the wild likes to be captured, shoved into a bottle, and hauled off by the boxful. So rather than exit the mountain by way of the spring, as is natural and proper, much of the water here had eluded the bootleggers by filtering its way past and sneaking out lower on the hillside, as we had witnessed earlier. We figured the thieves must have recently started things up, perhaps that morning, which is why the water had panicked and run so quickly down to the river, causing it to flood right when we were on it. We’re just lucky that way.
The door was locked, but a swift kick took care of that. We weren’t too concerned about damaging something that didn’t belong here.
The building was about the size of a one-car garage. Along one wall stood a workstation with a machine for filling the bottles and a robot hard at work. It glanced at us when we entered, then turned back to its task of grabbing a bottle, holding it under the spout, letting it fill, screwing the top on, and placing it in a box. The robot was the kind that’s equipped with a wheeled pedestal, two arms, and a display screen for its head, which showed a cartoon face with the bored expression of an employee on the job. It worked quickly, finishing a bottle every few seconds. I was impressed.
The pump chugged away near the back wall, sucking at the spring outside and bringing the captive water into the little factory. All quite efficient and completely automated — the very model of a modern pirate operation.
“All they have to do is bring more empties and collect the boxes from time to time,” you said, “unless they have robots for that too.”
I picked up one of the blue-tinted plastic bottles. The label had a line drawing of a nature scene. On an azure background were printed the words “Mountain Spring Water.”
“At least they’re not lying about that,” I said. Some bottling companies just get water out of a city tap, give it a fancy name, and sell it at a premium price.
“It still amounts to poaching water in the wild.” You were pushing at the robot, trying to get it off balance. It ignored you.
“So what should we do?”
You looked behind the robot and found the switch to disable it. I turned off the bottling machine and the pump. In the silence that followed we heard a gentle gurgling as the spring returned to its normal flow, bubbling into the shallow pool below the structure. Someone would have to get this building torn down, but that wasn’t up to us right now.
“There must be others,” I said. A single operation like this wouldn’t be enough to scare away enough water to make the river rise by several feet.
“There’s a series of springs farther on. Let’s go.”
I stopped to grab a bottle on my way out. The climb earlier had made me thirsty, though I felt guilty drinking it. You practiced twirling the flare gun while you waited for me.
We followed the trail that led around the mountain, and within twenty minutes had found four more illegal bottling operations, each with the same setup and same type of robot slaving away at a workstation. Each time we shut one off, the spring started flowing at its usual rate, which meant less water fleeing down to the river — or so we hoped.
We had just finished with the last one and were closing the door behind us when a group of five men appeared on the trail ahead. They were probably coming back to check the machines and haul off their loot for the day.
You raised the flare gun and fired into the air. That was supposed to be our signal to the news team, but it immediately alerted the men to our presence.
“Why did you do that?” I asked. A dumb question — you must have had a good reason, and I’d figure it out soon enough.
“Hey!” the lead man shouted, “what’re you doing here?” He hustled toward us. “What was that flare for?”
“It’s a free country,” I said, stepping toward him. “And the mountain is open to anyone.” I figured it was better to confront them and stall, knowing you had some plan in mind. You kept quiet and seemed to be listening for something.
“Yeah? Well we have property rights up here.” He was lying — these were public lands.
The others crowded behind him. They weren’t exactly the kind we’d invite over for Sunday tea — unless tea involved some serious street fighting. A few were armed with knives, but I didn’t see any guns. One wore a tool belt. He pulled out a large wrench and began slapping it against his palm like a tough guy, which was supposed to intimidate us, but I knew three moves that would disarm him and leave him with a sore head. You had taught me those.
“Didn’t you see the No Trespassing signs?” Again, more lying.
“No,” I said, innocently. “We must have missed those. Try bigger signs next time.”
A low thrumming sound was coming from behind the mountain, in the direction where we had started our climb. To keep them from noticing that, I decided to get their minds on something else.
“Is this your little operation?” I hooked a thumb back at the building. “You seem to be in violation of the Baxter Act, Section Thirty-Four, regarding the employment and housing of non-sentient humanoids in proximity to aquatic conditions.”
“Exactly. According to Rule Seven: Lack of a proper apparatus for dehumidifying the interior atmospheric environment risks causing harm to—”
“What’s that got to do with us?”
“Hey,” one of the men said, looking inside the door, “I think they shut this one down. The bot’s turned off.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “Maybe it’s just taking a rest. Robots are entitled to a ten-minute break every two hours. They’re programmed that way. Union rules, you know.”
A couple of the men looked to the leader, who was stroking his chin, giving my fabricated claim some serious thought. At least they weren’t attacking us.
The thrumming grew to a loud whumping as the news helicopter came into view. The men looked up, startled. Two of them crouched behind bushes.
“Is that yours?” the leader asked.
“What would we be doing with a helicopter?” I said. “We don’t have that kind of a budget.”
The pilot must have seen us. He banked around and hovered overhead with the news team. You held up a hand to greet them, pointed at the group of men, then made the charades gesture for movie, pretending to crank an old-fashioned film camera.
“What’s he doing?” The leader shaded his eyes and looked up. Carl had his window open, camera at his shoulder, getting footage of the scene.
“He’s filming for the nine o’clock news,” you said. “Do you want to give them a statement?”
“Smile for the camera,” I added.
“Why you—” He started for me. I stepped back and you raised the flare gun at him — empty, but it made him pause and reconsider. He squinted at the helicopter, then looked down and knitted his brows. I’ll say this for him, he could assess a situation and make a wise decision. “Let’s go,” he said, turning on his heel and leading his men back the way they had come.
We directed the pilot to land on a knoll a couple hundred yards away. Jill and Carl hiked up and we gave them a tour of the buildings and showed them how the setup worked.
“That’s why the river flooded,” you explained. “Most of the water was trying to get away from the mountain, to keep from being bottled.”
Jill was skeptical. “I don’t think our viewers will believe that.”
“Just say…” I groped for the wording. “Just say the illegal tapping of the springs released excess water down the mountain. Let the hydrologists figure that one out.”
So the news team got a good story. We let them take all the credit for discovering the pirate bottling operation and saving the town, all due to their investigative reporting. We didn’t need the publicity.
They wanted to stay for another hour or two to get more video — long shots of the buildings from the air, Jill standing next to a robot while delivering her report, closeups of trickling springs. We didn’t want to wait, so we hiked down the mountain and hitched a ride into town, sitting in the back of a farmer’s pickup truck because the passenger seat was reserved for his two dogs. He had his priorities straight.
The river had calmed down. We got our security deposit back for the raft, but had to pay an additional seven hours’ rental.
“Next time,” I said, “let’s just visit a museum.”