The disbeliever

A short story by Bob Collins (Stumpy)

The rain was sleating down in the cold grey dawn. With the cloud cover right down, it was obvious the rain had no intention of easing up. The mustard river rushing out of the gorge at the road end, was high and still rising. Disgruntled and sour, preparing to leave the shelter of his vehicle with his mate, Stumpy figured this weather was just about par for the course, when someone was lost in the wilderness.

This time it was a couple of sixteen year old boys who had been reported missing two days previously. The boys were not equipped nor had they the experience to survive long in the open in this cold, wet weather, so the search had quickly escalated into something quite big. Police, search and rescue people and bushmen had been called in, mostly volunteers. A group of Forest Ranger Trainees attending their first training course at Rotorua, had been called in too. They were just boys themselves.

Because of his local knowledge of the area, Stumpy had been asked to lead a field party to search the river he knew so well. With the river running in flood, the job would he risky for the unwary, so Stumpy handpicked only one man to accompany him, to help carry the radio they took.

This trip would be no joke. Searching the banks for signs of life, the pools and backwashes for bodies, would be slow, exhausting and very vary wet. Eight hour’s hike up the river, a hut had been built. Stumpy and his mate figured they would make it by nightfall, so Percy the search controller, promised to drop some food in by helicopter. They would be able to travel light on their search.

The two men plunged into the soggy forest in the sleeting rain, moving up the river in grim determination, often wading up to their waists, crawling past bluffs above the water, under fallen trees, over boulders, stopping only to meet the hourly radio schedule and once to eat their cut lunch.

It was cold miserable travel made worse by the knowledge they could have missed signs along the banks which could spell life or death to the missing boys. They a slogged on and on throughout the day, doing the best speed they could. Finally nightfall came, darkness fell suddenly, the rain continued to sleet down. Stumpy knew exactly where they were, ten minutes from the hut, but a bluff on the way. Too dangerous to attempt in darkness, they too could drown.

In the last few moments of light, they found a hollow dead tree, huge pieces of tinder dry wood, so they lit a fire, cut fern for bedding and settled down to see the night out. They were both wearing swandri jackets which though totally saturated, still preserved some body heat, but not enough. The wet night was frigid. They huddled as close as they could get to the huge fire, restlessly rolling over every ten minutes or so, for as they steamed and scorched on one side of the body, they quickly froze on the other. It was a long miserable night, with the river roaring in the darkness beside them and the rain coming down.

They took off for the hut at first light and the warmth, rest and food. A policeman standing alone outside the hut saw them approach and at first mistook them for the missing boys, but soon saw his mistake. He was astounded. Where had they come from? Where had they stayed the night? And man, they traveled light. Stumpy and his mate dived into the hut, blew the fire into life and swung a billy, looking around for the promised food. Percy’s chopper had left food alright, fifteen huge army six pound tins of spaghetti, nothing else at all. Stumpy hated spaghetti!

The activity within the hut was watched by the policeman who had followed them in, and five young Ranger Trainees, all of whom were still in their sleeping bags in the double tier bunks. Six shoulder packs were scattered around the floor. Stumpy and his mate started ratting through them. They found a goldmine! Chocolate, tinned fruit, tea, milk, cabinbread. Ignoring the growing crescendo of howling protest from the bunks, they and the policeman settled down to a very hearty breakfast.

The noise of protest had finally subsided, when a cheeky young fellow leaning from a top bunk demanded, “Who the hell are you blokes anyhow?”. Stumpy stated, ”I am the District Ranger of……” He was rudely interrupted by the young fellow who in utter disbelief said, ” and I am the Director General of Forests”. Lamely Stumpy tried again, “Well I am the District Ranger”. He was drowned out by gawfs of disbelieving laughter from the bunks. He gave up.

Taking stock of himself, sodden felt hat, soggy torn sawandri jacket, dirty stubble on the chin, the inside seam of one trouser leg split from crotch to ankle, the cloth flapping, his leg bare. No wonder they didn’t believe him. After the morning radio schedule, the group split into two, each to clamber on a different ridge out of the gorge for pickup at a road end. Stumpy and his mate took two of the Trainees with them, one of the boys, the cheeky one. High on the ridge, after two hours climbing, they were having a blow, when Stumpy had another go. “I am a District Ranger you know”, “and I am the Director General of Forests you know” came the reply. Stumpy gave up. The two lost youths were found that evening, twenty miles from where Stumpy had searched and in another watershed. They were not quite dead and survived the ordeal.

Three weeks after the search, Stumpy greeted thirty young Ranger Trainees into his office. They were on a training field trip and he was their host, guide and tutor for the day. Neatly dressed, clean and shaven, he was completely comfortable on his home ground. As he greeted the group, he had eyes only for the cheeky one, with the fast reddening face. “Good morning, I am the District Ranger”.