Faster and faster they hurtled along. Here, huge fallen blocks jagged up out of the water, seething with spume. One scrape could rip the fragile hull of the boat wide open. Nina and Chiz moved forward to the prow, reversed their paddles and held them out like lances. When they were about to smash into a great boulder on the left, Nina deflected them to the right. When they rushed upon a rearing black spire on the right, Chiz fended them away to the left. The ends of their paddles were soon mashed to splinters.
They were completely unprepared for the deluge that fell on them from above. Veering around a fallen, tilted block, they gasped as icy cold water poured down over their heads and shoulders. It was a tributary stream that gushed from a cleft high up in the wall.
Momentarily blinded, they could only let the boat take its own way. But the boat was travelling more slowly now. Half-filled with water from the cascade, it rode so low that waves came splashing in over the sides.
‘Start bailing! Start bailing!’ yelled Nina.
She dropped her paddle and scooped out water with both hands. Chiz followed suit. Tam steered past a sharp-edged buttress and avoided another cascade.
‘Danger ahead!’ he warned.
He couldn’t see it but he could hear it: the constant boom of a waterfall. The walls of the channel opened out to a semi-circle of rock and the river plunged over a lip—into empty space!
Nina and Chiz kept bailing. Tam aimed for the exact centre of the lip. Their only chance was to go over straight as an arrow.
Nearing the lip, the river grew shallow. The current lost force and for a while they were almost drifting.
‘Hang on!’ shouted Tam
But even as the water again picked up speed under the hull, the prow caught on the final ledge of the lip. In spite of all the water scooped out, the boat was still riding low. Nina and Chiz went back to their bailing.
Now, though, the boat was starting to swing sideways. Tam struggled with the oar, but couldn’t resist the momentum. If the boat got stuck sideways against the lip, it would surely capsize.
‘Take this!’ he yelled, and flung the oar towards Nina. Then he jumped out into the water. He felt smooth rock under his feet, only thigh-deep.
He grabbed hold of the stern and pushed. Leaning with his full weight, he drove it around, straightened the boat up.
The prow wobbled, then suddenly rode over the ledge and shot forward.
Nina and Chiz yelled, Tam clung with frantic fingers to the basketwork rim of the stern.
Airborne! The boat launched out into empty space, trailing Tam behind.
Forward, forward … then downward. How far to fall?
It seemed an eternity before they hit water. Tam lost his grip in the jarring impact, then lunged forward and caught hold again. White spray filled the air all around.
When the spray died down, the boat was still floating. Nina and Chiz hurried to the stern and hauled Tam back on board. Nina had managed to hang on to the oar and took over the job of steering.
Tam sat spluttering and shaking off water. ‘Who had this crazy idea?’ he demanded. ‘Who said the Black Gorge wasn’t dangerous?’
‘It’s your own fault,’ said Chiz. ‘You should’ve listened to Garvey, not me. You have to be crazy to listen to me.’