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Chapter One:  Living Downstream

Doc Smith didn't get the message until late afternoon, after he had finished his chores and made his way across the snowy pasture toward home, his heifers watching his progress from behind a gnarled wood fence. It had been a good day for working outside; only 35 degrees but sunny, and the air at two miles above sea level warmed to a degree that surprised visiting flatlanders. Doc crossed the wide dirt driveway and climbed the wooden steps to his house one at a time, leading with his right leg, his left leg followed stiffly behind. At the top, he stomped the snow from his boots and entered the cluttered hominess of the combined dining room and kitchen, the center of activity at the Smith Ranch.

 

The message Doc found waiting for him was from Dr. Dennis Linemeyer, the young man who had replaced him at the veterinary clinic. Doc was only 52-years-old, but times were tough and the town could no longer support two vets. Besides, Doc had a ranch to tend. He picked up the phone and sat down at the dining table beside the antique woodstove that warmed the room.  

 

Dr. Linemeyer told Doc he had received a call earlier in the day. The man wouldn't leave his name, but he had a warning: "Tell Doc Smith his river is going to run red." That was all the anonymous caller would say, but it was enough. Doc knew what that meant because something similar had been happening to the river for years, though usually on a Friday night before a long holiday weekend and this was Wednesday. Doc had never been alerted before, and he wondered what that could mean. He went back outside and trudged three hundred yards down the driveway to have a look.

 

The Arkansas River, one of the longest in the United States, begins modestly on the side of a craggy mountain high up in Colorado's Rocky Mountains just ten miles north of Doc's ranch. It quickly makes its way to the valley floor and snakes southward, losing altitude but gaining momentum as it travels one hundred and twenty miles through the wide Arkansas River Valley before turning southeast across the Kansas Plains to Arkansas and entering the Mississippi River. When Doc stepped onto his old railroad tie bridge that afternoon and peered over the side, he could see the river's rocky bottom through the clean, icy cold water.

 

Doc straightened up and looked east toward town and the hills rising behind it and wondered what was coming. Then he turned west and headed back home--a compound consisting of his log and wood-panel house; a vacant 1870s farmhouse; several large barns, deep brown from a century of harsh winters; and a number of sagging old structures long since abandoned. Colorado's two highest peaks, Mount Massive and Mount Elbert, towered over his rustic homestead and the snowy surroundings.

 

Throughout the evening, Doc worried about the anonymous warning and continued to check the river, but found nothing unusual. After the 10 o'clock news, he grabbed a flashlight and his coat and tramped through the snow to the river's edge for one last look before bed. Shining the light into the water, Doc couldn't see that the river was already changing, and in a strange way, he was disappointed. He had expected something to happen and began to think the caller had been wrong.

 

Doc went back to his house, climbed the stairs to the bedroom, and packed a few clothes for a meeting in Gunnison the next day before getting into bed. Lying in the darkened room next to his wife, he remembered all of the other times he had worried about the river and wondered what he would find in the morning.