True Montana Stories



       The Keeper




“What did you see? What's down there?” I demanded and tore off the diver's mask. Dick looked up at me, his eyes bulging, his pupils pin pricks of fear. He grabbed my jacket.  His teeth chattered from the icy water or from pure terror. He looked and acted exactly like Sheryl had when I drug her onto the boat just minutes before. Right now she was heaving lunch over the side.

“No!” Dick lunged at Sheryl, trying to get to her in spite of the flippers on his feet. He connected and pulled her back. “You'll draw them. They'll come after us.” The two clung to each other and Sheryl sobbed.

Dick looked around and saw me standing rooted, confused and doing nothing. “Get us out of here!" He screamed. "Now!” Then he collapsed into Sheryl's arms finally believing they could escape.

Adrenaline pulsed through my veins and I didn’t even know why. Punching the throttle way too hard fully engaged the idling inboard, the steering wheel jerked out of my grasp and spun the boat in a tight circle. I fell against the gunnels as unsecured equipment slid along the deck. Fighting centrifugal force, I regained control of my survey boat and pointed it toward the USACE dock.

The crossing gave me time to calm down. Throttling down, I planned what I'd tell my supervisor. The contour mapping equipment had only shown a mass of mud and debris rising against the current at the intake to Turbine Number 2. The two divers that I'd hired weren't able to tell me what they saw. They were in shock, traumatized. But by what, I didn't know?

I ran the divers down to the Ft. Peck Emergency Clinic. Even now they couldn’t put thought into words. The physician’s assistant checked out their bumps and bruises.  Then injected a sedative.

We sat for about 15 minutes. Sheryl was the first to find her voice. “I'll never dive again.” Then she started crying again. I brought her another cup of tea but her hands trembled too much to hold the cup.

Then Dick stood and began to pace. “I'd tell you, but you won't believe it.”

“Give it some time to gel.” I said. “My supervisor will be here soon.”

Dick ignored me. “We couldn't see. Our halogen diving lights were useless. We were pummeled by trash. Mostly debris but some of it alive and deadly. I couldn't see anything distinctly, but this was caught on my diving knife.”

Dick handed me a sodden, smelly piece of hide. “It looks like cow hide." I said. "Yes, that makes sense. The flash flood on the Musselshell last month swept away cattle and other critters. It would take about this long for the decaying corpses to make it to the dam.”

Dick actually laughed. “Nothing could decay in that frigid water. Whatever it is down there, it's fresh.”

“I'm glad you’re feeling better, Dick. It’s good we decided to tether the two of you to the boat or you might still be down there.” It was the wrong thing to say. He went pale, sat down and rubbed his forehead.

“We wouldn't have gotten out on our own.” Sheryl said. “We would have become part of the devoured." She shivered. “Something hard and powerful sucked on my fingers. My glove began to come off. I pushed it and it scraped its boney spines along my body. The thing had to be six feet long. Oh God, it was bigger than I am.” Tears rolled down her face as she tried to drink her tea.

“I did see something.” Dick said suddenly. “Gars. One as big as five feet but most smaller. They darted in and out of the murk. Inside the bloody mess, they writhed  like eels. They must have been shredding the carcasses.”

Just then Dick and Sheryl locked eyes. They were reliving the greatest horror.

“OK, OK. Don't you two go into shock again.” I stepped between them. “I’ll name it. I see them all the time on my sonar. They are usually loners but they are known to crowd up given a good reason.” Both sets of eyes were on me.

“Sheryl, you were describing a sturgeon up close and personal. They are basically harmless except for their strength and unpredictability. But I sure wouldn't want one sampling my fingers.” I held my hand and shivered.

“Dick, I agree, gars in a feeding frenzy look like writhing eels.  But you didn't see gars.  Maybe carp or catfish.  It’s uncanny how they know just where to strike. They have no interest in neoprene when there's aged beef on offer.”

“What about the loners?” Dick's lower lip quivered.

“The loners were the sweetest tempered matrons in the buffet line. Paddlefish. They were out for blood. Blood and other microscopic things. Just drawn to the soup. They like things stirred up so they push their snouts back and forth. Sometimes six feet tip to tail but 140 pounds of muscle and cartilage. Relatives of sharks. You can't help but be freaked when you are with them in their element.”

Dick and Sheryl laughed nervously but finally began to relax under the influence of the sedatives. Nothing like naming the thing you fear most to bring things into perspective.

Just then my supervisor came in the door. "Well Doreen. We got an answer to our intake mystery."

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