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Breath & Shadow

Winter 2011 - Vol. 8, Issue 1

"By A Leg"

written by

D.I. Telbat

Jennifer Bertrand thought briefly about slowing down on the icy highway, but the roads had been sanded the night before and the trucker in front of her was driving just as fast. She wasn't behind schedule in reaching Uncle Trav's winter cabin, but she was speeding anyway.


The nineteen-year-old tapped the steering wheel in rhythm to the pop rock blasting from the two-door, cherry-red coupe. The highway snaked along a steep mountainside on her right. A half-frozen river churned through snowy trees at the bottom of the embankment on her left. Jen glanced down at the river and shivered at the prospect of such a tumble. Her parents would never forgive her, even if she died. She laughed aloud at the thought. Her parents loved her more than their new car, so she had been able to talk them into letting her drive it into the mountains alone.


Suddenly, the truck in front of her flashed its brake lights. The trailer started to slip to the left then slowly began to jack-knife into the other lane. Jen's mouth opened in a silent scream as she slowed her vehicle and flipped off her music.


"Stop!," Jen shrieked through her windshield at the trailer.


As if on Jen's command, the trailer skidded to a stop, its rear tires hanging off the embankment. Gravel trickled down the rocks to the river. The entire highway was blocked.


Jen pulled her car to the shoulder, leaving plenty of distance between her vehicle and the trailer, and then palmed her cell phone.


"Mom," she said once her mother answered. "I'm still on the highway, but there's been an accident just past mile marker 68."


Oh, Jen! Are you okay?"


"Yeah, I'm fine, but it happened right in front of me." Jen sighed and shook her free hand to relieve the tension. "Phew! Anyway, could you call the police? I don't think anyone's hurt, but this semi is blocking the whole road."


"I'll call as soon as we hang up. We'll go ahead and eat without you, but I'll put something aside for you."


"Okay, that's fine. Did Uncle Trav bring Bruna?"


"What is it about that ugly mutt that you like so much?" her mother laughed. "Just call her name before you step onto the porch. She'll bite your leg off otherwise. She's practically blind now."


"I'll feed her my right leg then," Jen joked, "instead of my left."


Jen thumped her prosthetic right leg with her knuckles. She had lost her leg below the knee in a farming accident as a child. It bothered others more than it bothered her.


"Jen, don't even joke like that," her mother chastised. "That thing cost too much. You'll just have to feed Bruna your good leg."


They both laughed. "You drive safely, Honey. We'll see you when you get here. And I'll make that call right now."


"Thanks, Mom. Bye."


Jen climbed out of her car and pulled on her winter parka. She walked with a slight limp toward the jack-knifed trailer. She tied her long chestnut hair into a ponytail and rubbed her hands together. It was below freezing, but she prided herself at being a Montana girl so she was confident that she could handle the river gorge chill for a while.


"Hello?" she called as she squeezed between the front truck bumper and the mountainside guardrail. "Everyone okay?"


A bearded man in a red-checkered, wool shirt climbed out of his cab. He looked to be about sixty, but the several wrinkles could have been deceiving.


"Bob Grayson," he greeted anxiously. "You alone?"


He offered his hand, but Jen shied away. She crossed her arms as if shielding her hands from the cold.


"I'm Jen. People are waiting for me. What happened?"


"Somebody went through the guardrail, Young Lady," he stated as if she should have seen it for herself. He turned toward a section of absent railing and looked down at the river. "We better check on 'em. It might be a while before anybody else drives up here. We're probably the first to come across this."


Jen hesitated, but finally moved up to the ledge next to him to look down. A small fourdoor lay upside down on the river fifty feet down a snow and ice slide. The vehicle would have been under water if it hadn't landed on two log-jammed trees.


"I called my mom," Jen informed. "She's calling the highway patrol."


"Hello!" Bob's voice boomed at the wreckage, causing Jen to jump. "Can you hear me?" He shook his head. "Look at those logs. If they slip any, whoever's in that deathtrap is history!"


"Yeah, it doesn't look too stable," Jen agreed.


The trucker eyed Jen. She stepped away. Trucker Bob certainly wasn't anyone her parents would want her to be alone with.


"You got any gloves? Or just that fancy coat?"


"Yeah, I have gloves. Why?"


"Get your gloves," he ordered. "I'll get the winch."


Bob climbed laboriously onto the back of his cab and began to unwind a long, thin cable. Jen cringed at the precarious position of the car below, and realized that Bob expected her to help in some way. She marched back to her coupe and climbed into the back seat. Unzipping her brother's duffel bag, she found his cross-country ski gloves. They were too large for her hands, but they were thick and warm.


By the time she returned, Bob was ready for the descent with his own gloves.


"This lever here," Bob explained, "just start cranking it when I say."


He yanked hard on the winch system he had connected to his truck's chassis. "There's no way that little car will pull this rig over the cliff, so don't stop cranking even when it gets real tight. Got it?"


"I've got it." She gripped the lever handle. "I've used winches before on the farm."


"A country girl, huh?" He frowned at her fashionable parka. "Woulda never guessed it."


Bob clung to the cable as he planted his feet a careful step at a time down the steep slope. Jen left the lever and trembled at the edge of the road as she watched. Bob wasn't in very good shape. He was already winded and looking strained. Even with only one good leg, Jen wondered if she should have gone down instead.


"I see two people!" he yelled over the river's roar. "They're hanging from their seatbelts. Unconscious, I think!"


"Hook the cable!" Jen shouted back. She lifted the cable to ensure there was enough slack. "Those logs won't hold that car forever.”


Bob placed a hand on the wrecked vehicle and tried to hook the cable to something sturdy on the undercarriage. He strained to reach the car's chassis, but he kept slipping on the ice. He moved upriver from the wreckage. Licking his lips, he took a daring step onto one of the logs that supported the vehicle. He leaned over the car body and hastily slapped the cable's hook at an axle. The hook bounced free as the wreckage shifted on the logs. Bob lost his balance and slipped off the log's slippery bark. He disappeared under the water.


Jen was skiing down the rocky slope to the river before Bob's wet head popped up above the rapids. He had lost hold of the cable, but somehow found a hold on a log. He hugged it for dear life. The water tugged at his clothes and splashed into his mouth. A swim in such icy water would mean death inside ten minutes.


Jen skidded to a halt on the riverbank and gathered the cable in her gloved hands. She glanced at Bob's sputtering face. His lips were already turning blue.


"Here it comes!" She tossed the cable perfectly over his arms. "Come on, Bob! Grab it!"


Bob released the log with one hand and fumbled for the cable. He wound it around one wrist and nodded at her. He was too exhausted to say anything. Jen began to pull on the cable as Bob managed to kick his legs and squirm over the logs and onto the nearest rocks.


Jen dropped the cable and rushed to him. She rolled him the rest of the way out of the water. His eyes were closed, so she slapped his cheek once, then again, harder.


"Bob! Bob!" He gasped wide-eyed, then coughed. "I'm okay." Struggling to sit up, he gestured toward the car. "Get them . . . before they drown!"


Jen knelt and gazed through cracked glass at two adults in the front seats. They hung limply against the seatbelts. Their hands drifted in the water where the river was beginning to trickle across the car ceiling.


"It's going!" Bob warned. He pointed at the criss-crossed logs.


"They're slipping! Get a stick or something. Wedge 'em in place or we lose the whole thing."


"What do I use?" Jen looked left and right. The logs creaked. "There's nothing here."


"Find something!" Bob roared. Shivering, he rolled to his knees to search the ground, but all he saw was snow and rocks. The nearest trees were too far away. "Hook the cable. Hurry!"


But Jen could see there was no time to hook the cable. The logs were giving way to the car's weight too quickly. Rushing water eight feet deep waited.


Jen limped up to the logs. She stepped shakily onto one and looked down at the scissored wood. It shifted. She kept her balance with one arm as she pulled up her right pant leg to expose her calf.


"What're you doing?" Bob screamed. "Get off there!"


Jen swung her right leg backward, then kicked it forward hard into the gap between the logs. One log moved, then stopped quick against the leg. Jen twisted her body sideways and ripped her stump out of its prosthetic sleeve.


"No!" Bob shrieked. His eyes were wide with horror as the girl's leg was torn off before him. Her pant leg hung loosely over her stump.


Jen didn't take time to explain. The logs were holding sure, so she grabbed the cable and climbed onto the bottom of the car. She wrapped the cable around the rear axle until the cable's slack was taken up. Fastening the hook back onto the cable itself, Jen then hopped on one leg onto the nearest rocks then over to collapse next to Bob.


"Your leg…" Bob breathed with a pale face.


Above them on the highway, they heard an emergency vehicle pulling up to the guardrail.


"My parents are gonna kill me," Jen said with a smile. "That titanium costs a fortune!"

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