Voyage of the River Skippers
Here is the third in a series of short stories about my boys’ adventures. It might be helpful (though not necessary) to go back and read the other two if you haven’t already.
“This is awesome!” Xilau yelled. The ghost Gelert had his front paws up on the railing; his ears streamed behind him in the breeze.
His brother, Luke, was also at the railing, but for an entirely different reason. “This is awful,” he moaned. “That’s the last time I try reading on a ship. This is worse than the motion sickness I get when I read in the Uni cart taxi on the way to town.”
“Eh, you’ll get yer river paws before long, kiddo,” said a yellow Korbat as she flew down and clapped Luke on the back. The baby Gelert lurched forward, his cheeks turning an even greener shade.
From the roof of the cabin in the middle of the boat, Tep and Naleapy, starry and white Gelert, respectively, listened to the proceedings on the deck below.
“Poor Luke,” Naleapy said sympathetically. “If only he’d gotten used to the rocking before he took out his books.”
Tep chuckled. “Maybe it’ll be good for him. Not everything can be learned from books.” He looked up and gasped.
“What? What?” Naleapy said eagerly.
“Oh, Naleapy, it’s beautiful!” Tep said. “I wish you could see it.” The white Gelert was blind. “We just came around a bend in the river, and the trees opened up to a mountain vista. At the base of the mountain, along the river, are corn fields and a little village.”
“And a Babaa farm,” Naleapy said, ears pricked to the wind. He had been a Babaa herder before he’d been adopted into the family, and the bleat of the fluffy little petpets still caught his attention faster than anything else.
“Yup, there’s a little Babaa farm, too,” Tep confirmed.
Naleapy tipped his head back and took a deep whiff of air. “I’m getting a clearer picture now,” he said. “I can smell the farms, and hear children playing in the village. It’s all so peaceful and picturesque.” Naleapy couldn’t see in the conventional sense, but the handicap had just made his other senses that much stronger. Using sounds and smells, the blind Gelert could paint a picture in his mind that was, in some ways, clearer than what other Neopets saw with their eyes.
“Guys, get down here!” Xilau called. “There’s a school of Goldy in the water!”
Tep and Naleapy clambered down the ladder from the roof to the deck and ran to the side to see the little creatures. Naleapy laughed as his brothers told him about the antics of the aquatic petpets. The school had hardly drifted past them in the current when Luke, who was apparently feeling better, shot out a paw at the forested bank opposite the farms. His brothers turned in time to see a mother Raindorf and her fawn bound away in to the trees. This trip was turning out even better than they’d imagined.
The night before, their owner, Quizzer, had told them to pack their toothbrushes and a few changes of clothes. Luke, of course, had added several books to his duffel unbidden. The boys couldn’t wait to find out what this was all about, so Xilau and Luke had snuck into the room Tep and Naleapy shared after Quizzer went to bed, and they speculated late into the night as to the nature of Quizzer’s mysterious request. The next morning, Quizzer found all four of them fast asleep, with Luke sharing Naleapy’s bunk and Xilau sprawled across the foot of Tep’s bed.
“Mom, it’s not even light out yet,” Luke complained when she woke them up. After a subtle suggestion that he stay behind if he wanted to sleep in, the baby Gelert tumbled out of bed with his brothers and they raced downstairs.
“What’s the surprise?” Xilau asked eagerly, looking around. There was nothing out of the ordinary in the kitchen where they were standing.
Someone knocked on the front door. They bounded down the hall to answer it.
“Howdy, kids,” said the yellow Korbat at the door. “Ready to go?” She grinned at Quizzer.
“Where?” Luke asked.
The Korbat winked at him. “Guess you’ll find out.”
They bolted back upstairs for their bags and followed the Korbat down the road in the direction of the river.
“Name’s Rio,” the Korbat said as they went along. “Your mom’s been tellin’ me ‘bout y’all. Says yer quite the sailors in that treehouse o’ yours.”
“I guess you could say that,” Tep replied. “We’ve sailed across oceans, through the stars....”
“Well, how would you like t’be real sailors for a few days?” Rio asked. The river was just ahead now. Rio pulled back a branch that blocked their view. Tep, Xilau, and Luke gasped. Bobbing jauntily in the water at the bank was a real, live (okay, not live) riverboat. Tep recovered fastest and quickly described it to Naleapy. It was like a big barge with railings all around the edge and a simple cabin in the middle. Flags and clothes waved cheerily from various poles and drying lines around the ship.
“You’re a river gypsy!” exclaimed Luke, over-awed.
Rio winked. “Sure am. And you’re gonna be river gypsies for a couple days, too.”
The astonished Gelerts filed reverently onto the deck of the Skipper, as she was called. They were soon ready to cast off. Luke turned mama’s-boy last minute and wouldn’t let go of Quizzer, but after Naleapy talked to him he came aboard and bravely waved goodbye to his owner. Rio began calling out orders for Tep and Xilau to untie the mooring lines, and soon the Skipper was under way.
And now here they were, several hours later, well on their way down the river and enjoying every second of it. New surprises awaited them around every bend; a flock of wild Weewoos, fellow rivergoers calling out greetings, young Neopets waving to them from the bank.
After a lunch of fresh fish and water lettuce, which they all helped prepare, a sleepy aura settled on the gypsy boat, and Xilau and Luke fell asleep in a sun-bathed pile in the middle of the deck. Naleapy smiled as he listened to his brothers’ soft breathing. Tep, beside him, was half-asleep as well. The two were sitting in the scant shade the cabin provided, talking to Rio.
“How do you know Quizzer?” Tep murmured.
The river gypsy shifted around to look at the brothers from where she hung, upside-down, from the eve of the cabin.
“She found me in the pound when I was just a little tike,” the Korbat said. “And took me to that adoption agency of hers.”
Naleapy nodded. Sometimes Quizzer would take them to the agency she ran in the village near their home. The town was really a suburb of Brightvale, and that’s where they usually told people they lived. At the agency, they would join the foster pets at their play and read stories to the little ones. It was a lot of fun. “Didn’t you get adopted?” Naleapy asked.
“I used to fly away and hide when people came to visit,” Rio answered, smiling at the memory. “I was always the daring one of the bunch when it was just us kids, but I hated the adoptive parents to see me. I lived in terror of one thing; being tied to a single person for the rest of my life. Having someone fall in love with me and take me home and dress me up and care for me. I wanted to be free, figure things out for myself. I didn’t want to have the comfort of knowing what would happen every day. I wanted excitement and mystery, and I knew I couldn’t get it if I was adopted. So I finally talked to Quizzer about it. She agreed that I’d never be happy in a normal family, and allowed me to make my own way in Neopia. Well,” Rio said quickly. “That seems kinda careless and cold. We actually had a lot of arguments about it, and Quizzer was really worried at first, but it boiled down to me being allowed to travel Neopia, doing odd jobs to get by, and finally discovering my true calling: this old Skipper.” She patted the side of the cabin affectionately. “I got my baby here after being taken in by a group of gypsies one winter. I fell in love with the lifestyle, and they got me started on the river.
“It’s a good life, riding the water wherever I please, taking on cargo and passengers for extra Neopoints. It’s everything I ever hoped for.”
Naleapy studied the inflections in her voice. “Do you ever get lonely?” he asked perceptively.
The Korbat hesitated before she spoke. “Sometimes,” she answered at last. “But I’ve got friends on the river, and passengers come aboard every couple o’ weeks. And I’ve got the river and my Skipper to keep me company. I’m a familiar sight to the riverfolk—you saw the kids waving from the shore—and that’s a good feeling. I’m Rio the River Gypsy, expert shanty singer, master river rider, always ready to lend a helping wing,” she ended cheerfully.
Naleapy looked at her keenly, as if his blind eyes could see straight through her. “You’ve always got a warm bed at Quizzer’s place, if you ever need it,” he said.
Rio smiled. “Thanks, kiddo. That means a lot to a wanderer like me.”
“Who’s wandering?” said a sleepy voice. Luke had meandered over to them, rubbing a paw across his eyes.
“We are,” Tep replied, grabbing his little brother and giving him a noogy. “Wherever the river takes us.”
Three lazy days passed, filled with water games, occasional picnics on the banks, boating lessons, and long naps in the sun. The Gelerts were getting quite the tour of the countryside along the river between Brightvale and Meridell. Rio pointed out towns and cities as they passed, as well as mountains and other natural landmarks. On the morning of the fourth day they moored at the village of Starberry Hollow, a small river port, to take on fresh supplies and a load of cargo. The boys helped her load the shipping crates onto the Skipper and lash them down across the roof of the cabin.
“That’ll give us more deck space,” Rio said. “A cramped ship is a cranky ship. Just be sure to tie ‘em down good ‘n’ tight, ‘cause we’ve got some rapids to ride down.”
“Really? Cool!” Xilau said.
Luke looked a little worried, so Rio assured him. “I’ve been down these rapids a million times. I know ‘em like the back of my wing. ‘sides, they’re only little ones.”
Not long after, Tep noticed the current was picking up.
“Rapids are just ahead,” Rio told him. “Beyond them is Meridell. That’s where we make our delivery.”
“Okay, boys,” she said, gathering the Gelerts around her. “The Skipper is gonna ride those rapids, and you kids are gonna steer her.”
A moment of stunned silence. “What?” Luke squeaked, his eyes wide.
“You’re in charge,” Rio said, a smiled hovering on her face. “I’m just gonna be part of the crew. You guys can elect your own captain and lookout and pilot and whatnot, but I’m just gonna take orders. The Skipper sinks or floats at your command.” She cackled at the horrified looks on their faces. “Oh, relax. It’s not that hard. D’ya think I’d put my Skipper at the mercy of yer landlubber paws if I thought you’d sink her?” She put her wings chummily around Xilau and Tep, who were closest to her. “And Quizzer told me all about your voyages, ‘member? I know what you’re capable of.”
“But those aren’t real!” Tep protested. “That was just in our treehouse! We didn’t even have water.”
“Maybe not,” Rio answered. “But you had something even better: teamwork. And that’s the most important thing for a riverboat crew to have. You already know how to work together, and I’ve been showing you the ropes of my Skipper. You know each other, and you know this boat. A bit of unknown river isn’t much to tackle.”
The brothers exchanged glances. Maybe Rio was right.
“So... one of us will be captain,” Tep said.
“Yep,” Rio confirmed.
“And we can do it however we want, so long as we get the Skipper through in one piece?”
Rio winked at the starry Gelert. “That’s the general idea.”
“And... does it matter what we call ourselves?”
The Korbat raised an eyebrow. “You can call yerselves flippin’ circus Meercas if it’ll help you pilot through those rapids. Just decide quick; those rapids’ll hit us any minute.”
Tep looked at his brothers. Expressions of determination were setting in on all their faces. A grin spread over Tep’s muzzle. “Right, boys. Let’s ride those rapids!
“Mr. Flame, you’re at the tiller.”
“Right,” said Xilau, or Flame, as he would be called while they were on white water.
“Nale, make sure everything’s lashed down tight, and give everyone a lifeline.” Naleapy, or just Nale now, nodded in acknowledgement of his assignment.
“Trel and Rio, you’re on either side of the bow,” Tep said to Luke and Rio. “Your job is to fend the ship away from rocks that come too close.” Tep straightened up. “I’ll be up on the cabin, keeping a lookout and overseeing this operation. Everyone got it?” Nods from around the circle. “To your stations!”
“Aye aye, Captain Eon!” Flame, Nale, and Trel chorused. They broke from the group and went straight to their posts. Rio grinned at Tep (well, Eon).
“You guys are good,” she said.
“Crewpet Rio,” Eon barked. “What are you still doing here?”
“Whoops, sorry, captain,” the Korbat said, flapping away to join Trel, who was taking long poles out of a storage locker.
Eon climbed the ladder to the cabin roof and surveyed his crew as they went about their tasks. Flame was already at the tiller, holding it steady as the current tugged at it. Rio and the baby Gelert were making their way to the bow, toting their long poles.
“Captain!” Nale called from below. Eon caught the rope the blind Gelert tossed to him. “Lash it around your waist, sir,” he said. “I’ve already secured the other end to the flagpole at the corner of the roof.”
“Much obliged, Mr. Nale,” Eon said, tying the rope around him. “Carry on.”
Eon looked down the river. The water still looked fairly peaceful. Granted, it wasn’t the wide, sluggish pace they’d experienced before—it was much faster now—but it didn’t even seem choppy. Where were those rapids?
The left bank of the river had been steadily rising, and now it culminated in a high bluff; the river turned sharply around it. Whatever was on the other side was a mystery. Wait. Eon leaned forward. He’d seen a flicker of white water right at the bend. The current was pulling the Skipper faster and faster, and Eon was pretty sure he knew what was around that corner.
“Get ready!” he shouted. Several “ayes” echoed from various points on the ship.
They came around the bend. The riverbed suddenly got much steeper, and the water much rougher. Huge boulders protruded through the spray, carving wedges out of the river. Eon began calling out the locations of several of the biggest rocks, and he could tell by the calculating look on Flame’s face that the ghost Gelert was plotting the best route through the maze. At the bow, Trel and Rio were busy pushing the boat away from the smaller rocks that lay at the water’s surface. Everything was going smoothly. As smooth as it could down whitewater rapids, anyway. Then Eon heard a snap and felt the crates he was standing on shift. One of the ropes tying the crates to the roof had come undone. Nale had already heard the rope whip free and the crates start to slide. He jumped up and grabbed the end of the rope in his teeth, tugging it back into place and lashing it down again. Eon nodded gratefully; though Nale wouldn’t see it, he would know the captain had noticed and commended his action.
Then they were free. The river leveled out and the current steadied. The water calmed. The four brothers and their Korbat friend surveyed their surroundings, adrenaline still coursing through their bodies.
“That’s it?” Luke panted.
Rio cackled and punched him on the shoulder. “See, kid? Told ya it wasn’t so bad.”
Xilau bounded from behind the cabin. “That was awesome!” he cheered. The others had to agree.
“And then Xilau pushed as hard as he could on the tiller....”
“...snatched the rope before the crate could fall....”
“I yelled ‘look out for that rock!’ ”
Quizzer laughed as the boys buried her in a jumbled account of their ride through the rapids. It was a few days after the adventure, and they had just arrived safely home, having travelled a different network of rivers to get back. Quizzer decided to let them have their excited rants. She could get a more coherent story from Naleapy or Rio later.
“So,” Quizzer said to Rio, when the babble of excited voices had lulled. “They were good sailors?”
Rio winked at the Gelerts. “They were great sailors. And I’ve got a little somethin’ for ‘em.” She pulled a handful of colorful kerchiefs out of her pocket. “This is just an old tradition us river gypsies have. Each color represents something different.” She pulled out a blue kerchief. “This first one is for Luke.” She beckoned the baby Gelert forward and tied the scarf around his neck. “Blue is for courage, for your willingness to stand at the front and face your fears head-on. Good work, Mr. Trel.”
Luke stared down at his accolade, eyes wide. “Thank you,” he murmured.
“This one’s for Naleapy,” Rio said, tying a red kerchief around Naleapy’s neck. “For quick thinking and even quicker action. You saved our cargo, and probably your brother’s life.” The white Gelert bowed and stepped back.
“This green one is for Xilau,” Rio went on. “Flame, despite your nickname, you have a cool paw at the helm. And this...” She held out the last scarf, a deep purple sash. “...is for Tep. It combines the blue of courage and the red of ingenuity, but it’s also the color of royalty and leadership. Well done, Captain Eon.” She finished tying this last bandana and stepped back. The brothers stood in a solemn line. Rio burst out laughing.
“You kids look so funny, all serious-like,” she cackled. “But yeah, seriously, you’ve earned those. And you’re welcome on my boat any time you like.” She winked at them and cocked her head at Quizzer. “I need to get back to m’Skipper, but I’m guessing you’ll feed me first.”
The girl laughed. “You got it,” she said. “Lunch is in the kitchen!”
As always, fan mail is wicked cool. If you want more “Voyage of...” stories, be sure to let me know! Oh, and the boys want me to remind you they love visitors. Why not drop by for a few?