by Jim Bates
Ice Cold Spring Water
My doctor was at least half my age and very formal and direct, which I liked. He sat next to me in his office and said, "I'm sorry, Steve. The tumor is close to your hypothalamus. It's too dangerous for surgery."
I got the message. "How long?"
"Less than a year."
He talked some more, but I wasn't listening. A year to live. Two things immediately came to mind: First off, I was going to keep the news to myself for as long as I could. Second, I was going to go back to where I'd grown up. Back to Montana.
The doctor's voice droned on but my mind was already in the mountains, deep in the Stillwater River valley and my earliest memory, back to one summer day when I was five and Mom and Ellen had taken those two men on a trail ride. I remembered the four of them talking:
"We could bottle it," one of them had said.
"Yeah, we'd make a mint," the other added. Both men had taken a quick drink out of the clear mountain stream. "We could call it Abahoochie Spring Water. That's what the little lady called this place, didn't she?" They looked at each other, grinning. "Has a nice ring to it."
Then they turned and looked at the 'Little lady' and their smiles withered.
My mom's friend Ellen was a leather tough third generation Montana rancher. She stared back at them and said, quietly, with a hint of a threat in her voice, "I don't think so."
What Mom and Ellen had thought was a simple sight-seeing trip had turned into much more. The two soft looking men were not interested in taking a leisurely horseback ride into the mountains. No. Instead, they were businessmen from Minnesota on the hunt for new ways to make a quick buck. Like bottling spring water.
"This is my family's land," Ellen added. "I'm taking you both back down the mountain right now. We don't want you coming back again. Ever."
Next to her, Mom nodded her head in agreement. They were both deadly serious. The businessmen took one look at them and knew arguing would get them nowhere. They were right. Mom and Ellen lead them away and the spring stayed hidden to all but a few locals.
I remembered the scene like it was yesterday. Now I had the itch to return. Bad.
A few days after I'd left the doctor's office, I called my son to invite him along. He said, "Sorry Dad. I've got a ton of work at the office. Tell you what, I'll ask Benjamin."
My ten year old grandson and I were as close as you could be. Benji didn't bat an eye. I heard him in the background yell, "Tell Grandpa, yes!"
So later that summer he and I drove west from Minnesota for two days to southern Montana and the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, stopping at night at small motels along the way. On the afternoon of the third day we parked at the trail head of Boulder Canyon, shouldered our day packs and hiked the trail that lead us into the Stillwater River valley. I wanted to show him Abahoochie Spring but my brain tumor had muddled my memory. After an hour of searching, I couldn't find it and I was getting frustrated. I'd been with Mom that day so many years ago but I'd only been five or six at the time. A few years later we'd moved to Omaha so she could take a teaching job and I'd never been back. Until now.
I stopped, took off my baseball cap, wiped my sweaty brow and looked around. In a few moments, my agitation immediately vanished. "Man, I'd forgotten how beautiful it is up here," I said to Benji, smiling, taking a moment to breathe in the clean, sage scented mountain air.
"It sure is." He stood next to me, in awe like me. This was the first time he'd ever been in the mountains.
Overhead, a golden eagle soared. Nearby, the Stillwater River was tumbling over boulders the size of compact cars, the rapids filling the air with a roar that just about drowned out our voices. A windblown river mist settled over us, cooling our skin. The valley was dotted with green pines and golden leaved aspen. It had been carved out millions of years earlier by glaciers and was surrounded by mountain peaks, the highest of which was Granite Peak, at over ten-thousand feet the highest mountain in Montana. Even though it was late August, there was still snow covering the top. Far up the side of the valley, Woodbine Falls cascaded hundreds of feet in silent splendor. The entire scene was breathtaking beyond belief, right down to the female moose and her calf we'd come upon half an hour earlier during our climb to the spot where we now stood.
Benji took my hand. "Let's go, Grandpa."
He was right. It was mid-afternoon and the sun set fast in the mountains. We had to get a move on.
We hiked for another hour or so, moving up away from the river and along the foot of the mountain. "I'm pretty sure the spring was here somewhere," I said stopping and gazing at the rocks, gravel and pine needles that covered the floor of the forest we had begun walking through. Frankly, I was starting to curse my lack of memory. I didn't see any indication of anything even remotely resembling a spring. Nothing.
Benji had a quicker eye than me. It took him less than a minute to find the percolating stream about fifty feet further up ahead. "Here it is, Grandpa," he called out, bending down and looking behind a some fallen logs stacked up against a granite boulder. "Look."
I hurried to him and there it was, bubbling out from the ground, framed by a few small boulders, a crystal clear rivulet trickling along a narrow winding path on its way to Woodbine Creek and then to the river.
Excited, he asked "Can I taste it?"
The pristine water came right out of the ground and had no way of becoming contaminated. "Sure," I said. "I'll join you."
I crouched next to him and we cupped our hands and drank. As we did, it all came back to me, how wonderful the spring water tasted, as cold and sweet and pure as the mountain glaciers that produced it.
I turned to my grandson. "This will be our secret," I told him. "Just the two of us, okay?"
He smiled a smile as wide as the deep blue Montana sky above us. "You can trust me, Grandpa."
I hugged him. "I know I can."
On the hike back, the shadows of aspens and pines lengthened as the sun set behind the mountains. Benji put his hand on my arm to stop me and asked, "Grandpa, can we come back here someday? I'd really like that."
I didn't have the heart to tell him the truth. Instead, I smiled. "Sure," I said. "Absolutely." Who knew? Maybe I'd still be alive next year and would be able to fulfill his wish. After a day like today, I was willing to believe in anything, even that I could live for a long, long time, no matter what the doctor said.
"Next time we'll explore further up the river. How's that sound?"
"Sounds good to me," he said.
We hiked on, the aroma of sagebrush and pine needles filling our senses. We were quiet, soaking up the scenery and letting the cool, fragrant mountain air drift over us, working it's magic. Soon the peaceful trickling of Abahoochie Spring faded into the background, lost to the wind whistling down the granite walls of the canyon. Lost but never forgotten. By either of us.
About the author
Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories have appeared online in CafeLit, The Writers' Cafe Magazine, Cabinet of Heed, Paragraph Planet, Nailpolish Stories, Ariel Chart, Potato Soup Journal, Literary Yard, Spillwords and The Drabble, and in print publications: A Million Ways, Mused Literary Journal and Gleam Flash Fiction Anthology #2. You can also check out his blog to see more: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.