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THE BROKEN BRIDGE

Updated: 5 days ago

"The bridge is out?" Jiro echoed. Had he heard the mayor right?

Grandpa must have heard the same thing. He grabbed Jiro and two rebreathers before bounding out the door more swiftly than Jiro had ever seen. As Jiro put his rebreather on, he looked around. It seemed like half the village was running toward Chillstone Gorge. A few carried harpoon cannons, old ones, SK-3s and SK-4s. Grandpa had left his SK-4 at home, the one he let Jiro use for target practice until he got his own set of harpoons like Big Brother. Big Brother had looked so proud that morning, setting off with Papa and the family's SK-6 to hunt skytuna…

...across the bridge.

Oh no.

Grandpa and Jiro reached the back of the crowd gathered at the gorge’s edge. Jiro climbed up onto Grandpa’s shoulders for a better look.

"Where'd the bridge go, Grandpa?"

"It's hanging down from the far side." Grandpa pointed across the gorge.

"I see…" Jiro looked up from the bridge to the hunting pairs on the other side. "Oh, there's Papa, and Big Brother! Wow, that's a big fish they caught."

"Hush, Jiro. Watch your brother."

Big Brother pointed the SK-6 as if to shoot a skytuna floating over the gorge. He fired his harpoons one by one. They went up but seemed to waver in the air before plunging straight down the middle.

"They're trying to get a rope across," Grandpa said. "They could use it to pull the bridge back into place. But this wind is so fierce, nothing's getting over."

Jiro shivered and looked west. Far across the plain, he saw dark clouds with a white curtain of snow beneath them. A blizzard. They had to put the bridge back, or Papa, Big Brother, and the rest would get caught in it. But the wind…

Wait. Jiro tapped Grandpa on top of his head. "Grandpa! Kites love wind!"

"This isn't playtime, Jiro." Grandpa started to say something else, but hesitated. "You know that, though. What were you saying about kites?"

"Maybe we could fly one to Papa, and use the string…"

"...to pull back a harpoon rope," Grandpa finished for Jiro. "It's worth a try. You remember where I keep mine?"

"In the storage shed, with the gardening stuff."

"That's right. Get the package and hurry back. I'll help you put it together."

Jiro ran home and opened the storage shed. On a low shelf next to Mama's favorite spade, taken apart and wrapped neatly in red cloth, was Grandpa's prized paper kite. Jiro grabbed the bundle and raced back to the gorge.

Off to the right, Jiro saw Grandpa by a chillstone, snapping off chunks of dry ice and tucking them in a bag. He ran up to him. "Grandpa!"

"Good speed, Jiro." Grandpa passed the bag to a nearby Polabi, who dumped the dry ice into her SK-3's fuel chamber and went back to the gorge. "Now, let's put it together. You remember how?"

"Yes, Grandpa."

"I'll let you thread the sail. These old paws are a little shaky…"

While Jiro poked sinew up and down through little eye-holes in the paper sail, Grandpa did the big work of assembling the fishbone rods. Jiro helped Grandpa make the last knots and pull everything taut. At last Grandpa turned the kite over. A Polabi cub's face smiled at them. Jiro felt a lump in his throat. Grandma had painted that face not long before she and Mama got sick...

"Follow me, Jiro." Grandpa went to the edge of the gorge, away from the harpooners, and held out the spool. "You're better at this than I am anymore."

Jiro blinked. "You want me to fly it, Grandpa?"

"You have the younger paws." Grandpa smiled at him. "I believe in you. Take the string."

With a meek "Yes, Grandpa," Jiro took the spool. Grandpa launched the kite. The fierce wind yanked at it, but Jiro steered it well. The kite's cub face flew over the gorge a quarter of the way, halfway. On the far side, Papa spotted the kite. What he said was lost to the wind, but the firing stopped. The hunters began spreading out along the gorge, ready to catch it...

The wind changed swiftly, and the kite plunged into the gorge. Jiro braced himself too late and started to fall forward. Grandpa grabbed Jiro with one paw and slashed the kite string with the claws of the other. Jiro gasped, nose twitching, as the kite fell out of view. Grandpa's kite was gone, and he'd lost it.

The mayor pointed at Jiro. Oh no. She saw it too?

"That kite went farther than any of our shots!" She pointed into the crowd. "One from each household, if you have kites, bring them here! And any harpoon cannons left in the village!"

Grandpa turned Jiro to face him. Jiro stared at the ground.

"You tried, Jiro."

"I'm sorry I lost your kite."

"I'm glad I saved you." As Grandpa bent down and lifted Jiro's chin, Jiro felt the tremor in Grandpa’s paw. "It's just a kite. I'll make another."

Jiro sniffled. It was not just a kite. Grandma had painted it for Grandpa. He felt tears well in his eyes.

"Jiro?" Grandpa patted Jiro's shoulders. "We're no good standing around crying. Run home and fetch my SK-4. I’ll scavenge more dry ice until you return."

Jiro wiped his nose. "Yes, Grandpa."

Jiro scampered to his room, got the SK-4 from its storage box, and headed back. Near the village's main gate he turned right and went to a chillstone outcrop at the end of the fence. The villagers had grabbed all the big chunks of dry ice already, but Jiro found a few small ones and added them to the SK-4's pressure tank. Soon he felt the SK-4 rumble in his paws. He looked around. Best to line up the sights here, where the wind wasn’t as bad. He made his safety checks (Grandpa would've roared if he'd forgotten) and aimed at a tree trunk about six ken away.

Jiro braced himself and fired. A practice weight flew out of the cannon, trailing its rope, and hit the trunk with a satisfying smack. Jiro took three more shots. Three more hits. He took his paw off the trigger and lowered the cannon. The aim was good. Time to check the power. He packed a mound of snow, pointed the launch end of his SK-4 at it, and cranked the throttle. The SK-4 roared. Jiro hugged the barrel, checked his aim one more time, and held down the trigger. The SK-4 launched itself through the air, Jiro riding on top, ropes arcing behind. He overshot his target but landed luckily in a snowdrift beside a fencepost. Jiro rolled to his feet and looked back. Wow. He'd never gone so far on a jump ride before.

Wait. How wide was the gorge?

Jiro reeled in the weights, put on the safety, and found Grandpa by another chillstone.

"Grandpa, how far is it to the other side?"

"Twenty-five ken, maybe thirty. Why?"

Jiro pointed to a distant tree. "I just did a jump ride about that far."

"No," Grandpa snarled. "Give me that."

Jiro gulped and handed over the SK-4.

"There's brave, and then there's foolish." Grandpa slung the SK-4 onto his back. "Everything in life is a risk, Jiro. You must know which are worth taking. Losing my kite? I took it gladly. But losing you…"

Jiro blinked. Was Grandpa crying? He hadn't done that since after Grandma's and Mama's funeral.

"I'd be all alone." Grandpa sniffed. "Don't leave me alone."

"I won't, Grandpa. I promise." Jiro looked across the gorge. "But how will we save Papa and Big Brother? The harpoons aren't working. The kite didn't work. What do we do now?"

"Well, we're not going to jump… ride." Something changed in Grandpa's sad eyes. "You just gave me an idea. Do you still have the forty-ken ropes in the SK-4?"

"Yes, Grandpa, with the practice weights..."

Grandpa wasn't listening anymore. He bent down, unreeled a rope, and tied it around his waist. With a sudden swipe he picked up Jiro and did the same.

"Grandpa, what are you doing?"

“Eliminating the risk.” Grandpa improvised a harness for Jiro on the middle of his chest. He cut the rope and held the SK-4 sideways. "We'll send the cannon jumping across without you."

Jiro's small legs dangled in the air. "But Grandpa, you have to hold the trigger down. If you let go, it just stops and falls."

"There's a trick I never told you." Grandpa brought the cannon closer to Jiro. "You'll have to be my paws."

Jiro took a deep breath. "Yes, Grandpa."

"Remember that side hatch I told you never to open? Open it."

Jiro opened the hatch and lifted the hinge.

"You should see three small switches in the off position."

"That's right, Grandpa."

"Flip the switches on the ends. Leave the one in the middle."

Jiro flipped the left and right switches. Something clicked inside the SK-4.

"That's the sound. Close it up." As Jiro did, Grandpa went on, "Those were the lock switches. They're like the opposite of a safety. When exactly those two switches are flipped, the next time someone pulls that trigger, it'll stay pulled."

"Oh…"

"Now let's go."

Grandpa took Jiro and the SK-4 to the edge of the gorge. He took a spot next to a bridge pillar.and piled snow into a launch mound.

The mayor came over. "What are you two doing?"

Grandpa seemed not to hear as he unreeled a rope. Jiro spoke up: "Eliminating risk, Your Honor."

"Eliminating..." The mayor looked at the launch mound. She lowered her voice. "Where are your harpoons?"

Grandpa explained the plan as he readied the other ropes.

"You'll only get one shot." The mayor shook her head. "Your cannon will get smashed wherever it lands. It's a terrible risk."

Jiro summoned all his boldness and looked the mayor in her eyes. "One cannon. Twelve hunters. It's worth taking, Your Honor."

A snowflake fell on the mayor's nose. She brushed it away, looked across the gorge, back to Jiro. She gave him a smile.

"Then take your shot, pink-paw."

The mayor left them. Grandpa patted Jiro on the head and bent low over the SK-4, so close Jiro could hug the launcher. "I'll need your steady paws again, Jiro. Aim it."

Jiro gulped. First Grandpa had trusted him with his kite. Now his SK-4? Maybe this wasn’t a good idea after all...

"Now, Jiro. Please. I still believe in you."

"Yes, Grandpa." Jiro aimed the cannon for the longest jump ride he could imagine, sailing over the gorge and landing right between Big Brother and Papa. Big Brother was waving his arms, and Papa had his paws at his mouth, hollering something. Were they cheering him on?

"Double-check the lock switches."

Jiro reopened the hatch. "End switches on, middle switch off."

"Take off the safety."

Jiro toggled it. "Safety off."

"On the count of san, pull that trigger and get your paw clear." Grandpa wrapped his arms around Jiro. "Ichi… ni..."

On "san" Jiro pulled the trigger with all his strength. The SK-4 yanked him forward as he was letting go, but Grandpa and the rope harness kept him safe. The SK-4 left him behind, soaring up and out, pulling its three ropes behind it. It cut through the wind as no harpoon had, and flew higher than any kite. It reached the top of its arc and went down, down…

...and smashed into the ground just past the far lip of the gorge. As the villagers gasped, Papa lunged into the snow that the SK-4 had kicked up. The ropes drifted down, dipped into the gorge—and bounced up. The snow settled, revealing Papa on his knees, cradling the ruined cannon like a cub.

On both sides of the gorge, Polabi roared.

The stranded hunters pulled up the fallen bridge. With many knots they secured the bridge to one rope. At their signal Grandpa helped haul the bridge back across the gorge. The villagers tied the bridge back in place and made it as steady as they could.

Big Brother, the lightest hunter, went first. He took no catch with him, not even the family's SK-6. Plank by plank, bridge swaying, wind howling...

He made it across. Another round of roars. He got clear of the crowd and found Grandpa.

"Grandpa, how can I help?"

Grandpa untied Jiro. "Hold your brother."

Big Brother took Jiro aside and flopped against a tree trunk. They sat there, hugging, shaking. The other cubs crossed next. Each found Jiro and patted his head. Then came the grown-ups, one by one.

All at once, a great collective roar. The mayor's voice carried above the din: "They're all safe!"

Jiro heard Papa next, but he wasn't celebrating.

"Why'd you let him do that?" Papa snarled. "I wasn't worth the risk."

Grandpa: "The boy is fine."

"You senile… Where's his brother? Where's my cub?"

Papa's stomping and snarling came closer. Jiro took a peek over Big Brother's shoulder. Papa looked so fierce…

“Jiro?”

Their eyes met.

Papa smiled. "Nice shot."

He fell to his knees and hugged his cubs more fiercely than Jiro had ever known.


*******


One morning, Jiro was helping Grandpa with his new kite when someone knocked at the door.

Papa met the visitor. "Your Honor?"

The mayor greeted Papa. "Please join me at the village hall. Bring the whole family."

Grandpa and Jiro put up the kite and went with Papa, Big Brother, and the mayor. In the village hall the mayor led them past pedestals displaying village history—ancient bronze figurines from the digsite, a captured Monabi kabuto, tooth trophies from great catches—until they reached one covered with a blue presentation cloth.

"You're the first to see this," the mayor said. “But you won't be the last.”

Grandpa, Papa, and Big Brother murmured when she whisked the cloth away. Jiro was confused. It just looked like some junk.

The mayor leaned down to Jiro. "Read the plaque, pink-paw."

"Yes, Your Honor." Jiro stared at the wooden plaque. Those first symbols: SK-4? Grandpa's SK-4, this smashed-up thing? The year was right…

"Out loud."

"The rope bridge across Chillstone Gorge broke, stranding twelve hunters. As a blizzard approached, villagers tried firing harpoons across the gap, and flying kites. Then Grandpa (the plaque used his formal name, but Jiro said 'Grandpa') had the idea to send a cannon itself to the other side. He entrusted aiming and launching this SK-4 to his grandcub Jiro…"

Jiro squeaked and stopped. His name. That was his name, right there on a plaque in the village hall. Wow.

"There is more," the mayor said. "When I placed the order for SK-8s to replace the cannons ruined by the blizzard, I told the manufacturer about the rescue. They sent along an extra model with a special inscription."

The mayor pulled an SK-8 from behind the pedestal and held it out to Jiro. "Now read that."

"To the cub with the perfect aim." Jiro went to the next line. "Hashimoto... Jiro..."

The mayor smiled. "It's all yours."

Jiro bowed and thanked the mayor as he accepted the cannon. It gleamed in his paws. There was just one thing missing...

"Grandpa? Papa?" Jiro held up the SK-8. "May I have my harpoons?"

Papa and Grandpa looked at each other. Slowly they shook their heads.

"Not yet, Jiro," Grandpa told him. "Some risks aren't worth taking." But he smiled as he said it.




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