“Ma’m,” Osley approached one of the mothers. “Is one of those boys your son?” Movement in the Trading Post froze for verification. “Help us!” “Yea. What of it?” Martha rushed to the center of the store, diligently searching for George. Osley ran toward the screams, stopping short at the exit onto the swinging bridge. “Ma’m, I’d appreciate if you would ask him to get his friends to take it easy. I wouldn’t want any of them getting hurt.” “Lighten up, mister. I promise we’ll buy something before we leave. Dontcha worry your little moccasins.” She walked off to smoke a cigarette on the front porch. Osley let the issue drop like he always did with reluctant mothers. He’d let Martha handle it if he had to. Within minutes, Chief Sololoneet’s Trading Post was buzzing, each independent voice melding into a hum. It was the audible signal that the day had begun and everyone fell into rhythm. Days like this, Osley often felt he opened the doors at nine and by the time he could put the keys away it was evening quitting time. The day settled into its predictable tracks, harmonious working rhythm for five minutes. Ten. Almost a full half-hour before the skid. 82 Martha heard it first. A scream so distinguishable, so filled with shock and fear, she knew it immediately as worthy of even Father Time ceasing his routine. More screams and finally the word Martha shuttered to recognize… “Help!” “Pete! Call the rescue squad!” Osley shouted as he ran out the front door and down the riverbank. Pete, the fry cook, dialed the number and pulled the cord as close as it would allow him to see out the window. When the operator answered, Pete choked on her own astonishment and was almost disconnected as a prank caller. Martha rushed toward her, desperate to hear what he was telling the operator. “It’s the bridge at Sololoneet’s. It’s fallen… half fallen. There were… are people on it. Please hurry.” “Where’s Osley?” Martha grasped Pete’s wrist. Still speaking with the operator, Pete pointed toward the door. Martha knew instantly that he would be in the river. She pulled the onlookers, many desperate parents calling to their sons, away from the bridge entryway and instructed the fry cook and troop leader to hold them back until help arrived. In no time, Osley could feel the debris pushing against the back of his knees, coaxing his footing loose. The whole bridge had been consumed by the Oconaluftee. Osley was left holding broken rebar and one splintered board in his blood-soaked hands. He looked to the riverbanks, struggling to take some sort of impossible headcount. How many were there? Are they all there? Cars (shiny new Studebakers, Mercury coupes, and Ford Fairlane station wagons, teaming with curious rubber-neckers) slowed. Muffled powwow-style drumbeats blared from the Trading Post speakers, bouncing off the ridgelines. Water hugged his waist, spitting at his shoulders like an agitated cobra. Three shoes floated by as if on a pleasant journey, while a large wooden board chased after them with vengeance. Osley’s khakis grew heavy and his white cotton, button-down shirt clung to his body. His fingers bled with splinters from the bridge planks now hoisted high above his head. He could see them crawling over his head, newly freed from the unpinning of the bridge, grasping for the bank. Just children. “Help! Oh, God. Please. Please, help me!” Osley clenched his eyes and doubled his effort . His left shoulder dropped briefly, dislocating. “Go! I’ve got you!” But even he didn’t believe these words. Pain darted throughout Osley’s body and settled deep in his back. He refused to look. He didn’t want to hear. This is my fault. I‘ve caused this. How could I have not predicted that this might happen?