Wes Boyd's
Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online



Dawnwalker

Book 1 of the Dawnwalker Cycle


a novel by
Wes Boyd
2002, 2008




Chapter 21

"Oh, Father in Heaven, we ask thy forgiveness as we risk these rushing waters today . . ."

Pete's father had said more than once that one of the things he was happiest to have left behind in Czechoslovakia was the Catholic Church, and since Karin hadn't been particularly religious when she met Pete, that suited her just fine. But, that didn't mean they didn't respect the beliefs of others. As the preacher began to pray, the Chladek family stood quietly and politely with their heads bowed at the side of the Baptist Church group at the boat launch at the TVA dam on the Ocoee River.

Right from the first mention of the idea, there was no way that Karin wasn't going to run the Ocoee with Crystal, but she was a little surprised that she'd been able to talk -- well, shame -- the rest of the family into it.

Nanci had been the most negative, until she'd seen some of the guys running around the Ocoee Adventures headquarters in Ducktown, and that attitude had taken a sharp reversal. She'd emerged from the changing room wearing a bikini even briefer than Crystal's, which was really rather conservative. Nanci obviously had flirting in mind, to her father's obvious displeasure. Karin, however, was amused at the fact that Nanci hadn't bothered to consider two things: first, that she was going to be wearing a helmet and a high-flotation life jacket, which would hide most of the lure of the brief swimsuit, and secondly, that they were going to be running the Ocoee with a bunch of Baptists.

When Karin had announced to Crystal that they were thinking about running the Ocoee with her, the trip schedule was full, but Crystal, drawing on her status as one of the senior guides, managed to get the family tacked onto the party from a Baptist Church. They wouldn't actually run the river together -- there was another trip leader for the church group -- but they'd share the shuttle bus to the put in and from the take out. It was going to be a moderately slow trip, taking a couple of hours, but Crystal had promised a "more fun ride" than the Baptists were likely to get. And, Karin's big, bronzed daughter had managed to put it together so quickly that Pete and Jon couldn't squirm out easily and leave the women to do the trip while they stayed behind.

Before they'd ridden the bus down to the river, towing a trailer load of rafts, they'd gone through the safety lecture with the church group. The lecture had been given by the other senior guide on the trip, a tall, lean, bearded young man who seemed a bit on the religious side himself. Crystal had whispered that he usually drew the church trips because he really was a "God boxer," but a good trip leader, anyway. He had given the group a lecture on what was expected of them, how to use their paddles, how to listen and react to their guide so they could get down the river safely. Considering the crowd, Crystal had pulled on a T-shirt and a pair of shorts at the lecture, but had already gotten down to her swimsuit -- now covered by a life vest -- at the launch. "Gonna be hot today," she'd explained. "We're gonna like gettin' wet." Pete had visibly cringed at that statement, but had said nothing.

The preacher droned on -- would he ever stop? -- and Karin cast a glance down the long ramp that led to the river. Their raft was at the end of the line of a dozen or more, and out of the corner of her eye, she could see a group from another rafting company beginning to unload. In her mind's eye, she remembered another launch ramp, another river, more than two decades before. While a few things were the same -- the river was wet and the rafts were made out of rubber -- it wasn't much like Lee's Ferry. It was a lot more busy, for one thing. Out on the river, in a huge eddy below the dam, there were a couple dozen brightly colored kayaks spinning and rolling, getting warmed up for their run down the river. These rafts were smaller than the ones she remembered, and she was going to have to actually paddle. Back on the Colorado, Al had rowed the boat with oars through all the rapids, although he'd let Karin handle them on the flat stretches a couple of times, just for fun. The hills here stuck up some, but they were really just hills, unlike the brown rock Canyon that Karin remembered from so long ago. The sun beat down in the same way it had on the Colorado, but there the air was thin and dry. Here it was humid and sticky, like you'd expect from the Deep South on a hot summer day.

Both Jon and Pete were very uncomfortable in the heat. They considered air conditioners one of the benefits of civilization. Karin wondered just how well Jon was going to get along in the Georgia heat, but realized that he probably wouldn't have to face the brunt of it. This might be the only time he'd have to be on campus in July, and school orientation had been a long, uncomfortable, hectic, and frankly boring four days. Other years, he'd probably be sitting in a florescent lit, air-conditioned office at Hadley-Monroe, just like he had until last week and would be doing again next week. It's his loss, she thought.

Finally, the Baptist preacher quit praying, and the tour group scattered to their boats. Since they were at the end of the line, Crystal took a moment to talk to them. "This ought to go pretty good," she said. "But since it's a Saturday, it's gonna be a zoo out there. We get into the first drop pretty quick, but since I know none of you have ever paddled before, let's take a minute at the eddy up top to go over the moves once, just to be sure everyone's all on the same track. There may be some times we have to move pretty quickly. Mom, I want you and Jon on the left, Dad and Nanci on the right. That should balance the weight pretty well. We can switch sides farther down. I'm going to run the easier lines at first, till you get used to it."

"You're in charge," Pete grumped. Karin could see he had second thoughts big time, but there wasn't an easy way out. And, he was right -- Crystal was in charge, there was no denying it, and she was acting like it. She did this several times a day, and had for two and a half summers, now. The other senior guide, the religious boy, had told Karin that they had one of the best guides on the river, not knowing that Crystal was her daughter. That made Karin rather proud, which almost overcame Pete's grumping about the whole thing.

The night before, he'd carried on about Crystal living in a tent like a homeless person. He'd known about it for years, of course, but seeing it was something else. There was a bunkhouse for the raft guides, but Crystal had told them that she'd moved out of it in the first week she'd been there, and set her tent up in the woods out by the river. There'd been too much partying and drinking going on there -- Karin was sure there had been more than that, but suspected Crystal had been trying to spare them the details -- and she'd lived up on the hill in the tent ever since, four months each summer. She was proud of Crystal for that, too, taking herself out of a difficult situation but continuing to do her job. She'd told them that morning that the religious boy, the other trip leader, had done the same thing, and had set up his tent around the hill a ways from her. Despite what Pete or Jon would say about the way Crystal lived, she wasn't a partyer, a drinker or a doper, no matter what other people did. That took some courage, Karin knew, just adding to the belief that she'd raised a pretty good daughter.

The line was moving right along. Every couple of minutes, Crystal would pick up one side of the raft, and two or more of the other Chladeks would pick up the other side and carry it closer to the water. Very soon, they were there; they carried the raft right down into the water, and Crystal steadied it while the rest of them climbed in and settled into position. Then, she gave the raft a big shove and clambered over the back, and they were off. It wasn't quite the no-turning-back feeling of Lee's Ferry, heading out for almost three weeks in the wilds of the Grand Canyon, but it felt a little like it, and Karin thought that it was the closest to it that Pete, Jon, and Nanci would ever get.

The river spun round in a wide eddy, and Crystal used the middle of it to give the family a few strokes with the paddles while she called steering commands. "Everybody ready?" she called after a few minutes of practice. Without waiting for an answer, she added, "All right, here we go!" She took a couple strokes with her long paddle from her seat perched high on the back tube of the raft, setting the boat to quarter upstream, then called, "Forward!"

Remembering the days on the Colorado long ago, Karin realized that they were doing what Al had called a "ferry," to try and work their way past a couple of rocks that lay downstream of the eddy. After a few strokes, Crystal gave a sweep stroke and the raft spun around. Karin could see the raft ahead heading for a place where the current seemed to flow over a ledge. In a minute, they were on it, dropping down over it with a splash. Broken water lay ahead, and Crystal paddled to crab the raft so it would move toward the right side of the river. The broken water soon slipped by to the left as the raft plunged down the chute on the right.

"OK, stop," Crystal called, then, in a more conversational voice said, "Told you that it started with a bang. That was Grumpy, Snow White, and the rest of the Seven Dwarfs. We're OK for the next few minutes. Fun, eh?"

"You do this every day?" Pete asked, still obviously unhappy that he'd let himself get bulldozed into this.

"Usually four or five times a day," Crystal grinned. "That was a simple one, eh? It gets better downstream." Karin stole a look back over her shoulder at her daughter, sitting bronzed and confident at the back of the raft. She looked so natural there, so comfortable, that she thought of Al. If there'd been any question left in her mind, that settled it. She hoped Al would have been proud.

They floated on down the river. Ahead of them lay what Karin could tell was another ledge, a back roller behind it. She could see the helmets of several kayakers pulled up to one side of the river, waiting for the rafts to come through. They dropped over the first ledge, through the back roller, and Crystal called to the kayakers, "Last raft for a few minutes. Have fun guys!" getting a wave in return as she aimed the raft for a channel over a second ledge.

"What are they waiting for?" Jon asked as they pulled out into flatter water below.

"They want to surf that wave, play on it," Crystal explained with a grin. "There's better surf spots along the river, but some people work each one of them to death. If we can find a good surf hole that's not full of kayaks, maybe I'll see if I can get this thing to surf for us a bit."

"You don't have to on my account," Jon said grimly.

"Sounds like fun!" Karin told her daughter, just to rub it into Jon. This was fun! No wonder Crystal liked her summer job so much!

Not very much farther downriver, they came to another rapids. "Wow, would you believe it?" Crystal said. "There's one now. OK, when I yell 'Go!' left forward, right back, and paddle hard so we can spin around. We'll be bouncing a bit when we do it. I'll yell 'Forward,' and then go as hard as you can. Crystal had them maneuver a bit to get through the upper part of the rapids, and then as they were coming into a big hole with a big back roller, yelled, "Go!"

The raft spun around, and she yelled "Forward," then "Stop!" Suddenly, they were pointed upriver, the nose of the raft downward, riding on the wave. "Yeeeeehaaaaaaa!" Crystal yelled exuberantly, and Karin got a big grin. They only stayed on the wave a few seconds, then Crystal gave a big sweep stroke with her paddle to swing the raft around, and they were swept sideways over the top of the wave. The wave train continued downstream, but Crystal had the nose pointed to ride over it. "Now you can tell 'em you surfed on the Ocoee," she grinned. "Let me tell you, it's a miracle to find a hole that you can surf a raft on in this place on a Saturday. It's not like real surfing in the ocean, and more fun in a kayak, but that one was pretty good."

"Just as well," Pete said. "I thought we were going over when we went over the top of that wave."

"Naw, not even close to it; we were fine," Crystal assured him as they bounced down through more waves and over a ledge. "Hope they got a photo of us surfing."

"Photo?"

"Yeah, there's a guy who sets up there and shoots photos of all the rafters that come by, races the film through a one-hour processor, and someone'll meet us at the bottom and sell you one. I gave him a good move, it oughta be a nice photo for your scrapbook. If you want copies, they'll mail them. Make a nice one for your desk at work, Mom. OK, heads up, Slice and Dice coming, we're gonna have to paddle some. It'll just be forward, I'll steer."

The next rapids was busy. There were kayakers playing in some large waves, and at the bottom, there was a raft sticking up on a rock. "Oh, crap, we've got a Baptist swimming," Crystal said. Karin looked, and yes, there was someone in a life jacket and helmet, being swept downstream. "Pin doesn't look bad," Crystal told her family. "They're getting it off." She raised her voice. "I'll get the swimmer!" she yelled to the group trying to get the raft off the rock. "OK, Mom, Jon, I'm gonna bring them up on your side. I'll yell to get their attention, and try to grab them as we go past. We'll have to backpaddle to slow down."

The swimmer proved to be a young teenage girl, smaller than Nanci. Crystal came up on her quickly, but backpaddling slowed to a reasonable speed separation. "We're here, kid," Crystal yelled. "Grab on as we come by!" It was over in an instant. She grabbed onto the handlines at the side of the boat, and just as quickly, Karin and Jon helped her into the boat. "You OK, kid?" Crystal asked.

"Yeah, I guess," the girl said in a thick southern accent. "I lost my balance when we hit the rock."

"Good deal," Crystal told her. "When we get back to the bus, tell the driver and he'll give you a pin that says, 'I swam the Ocoee.' There's an eddy up here a bit, and we'll wait for your boat." A few seconds later, she made a few paddle strokes, and the boat swung to a stop in a small eddy..

Crystal glanced back upstream. "They ought to be along in a minute or two," she said gently but seriously to the girl they'd just plucked from the river. "Hey, look, you remember what they said about swimming in the safety meeting? If you get thrown out of the boat, try to get on your back with your feet pointing downstream. That way you can see what's coming, and you've got your legs to bounce off something hard. Better your legs than your head, right?"

"I guess I forgot," the girl said, a little abashed.

"No problem this time," Crystal grinned. "But that's something you gotta remember, OK? Like a lot of things, this river is dangerous, but you can play on it safely if you play by the rules and do the right thing."

"I'll try," the girl said. "Hey, I thought all the river guides were guys, but I see a lot of girls."

"About half of us are," Crystal said. "You wanna do this someday?"

"Yeah, it looks like fun!"

"I'll tell you a secret," Crystal said. "It is fun. Here comes your raft, now."

In a minute, the other raft pulled into the eddy, and the girl scrambled over the tubes onto it. The guide, who looked to Karin like he wasn't old enough to be out of high school, said, "Thanks, Crystal."

"You owe me one, Gene," Crystal laughed, as she took a couple paddle strokes and spun the raft out of the eddy. A ways downstream from the other boat, she told her family, "Just as well I caught her. Gene's a junior guide, hasn't got the touch yet to get through to her. That was a serious safety-rule violation, but it doesn't solve anything to yell at her. I think I got through to her."

"You handled the whole thing very well," Karin said, admiring her daughter's poise and the gentle way she'd admonished the girl. She had the touch.

"Just part of the job," she said. "Got a fairly big one coming up," Crystal yelled over the roar of the water. Pretty straightforward, but I'm gonna have you paddle forward. Mom, see if this one reminds you of the Colorado!" They swept down through the rapids, and there were a couple of big waves in there. They were coming down so fast that they punched into the first one a little, and a couple bucketfuls of water splashed over the side of the raft, with everyone getting a little wet.

That did feel good on this hot day, Karin thought. "Big for here," she yelled back at her daughter as they caught their breaths after the wild ride. "I can remember bigger ones on the Colorado, but they never came at us this fast. Sometimes there'd be miles of flatwater before you hit a rapids."

"Quick and dirty, that's the Ocoee," Crystal smiled.

They swept on down the river, through several more rapids, sometimes paddling, sometimes letting Crystal just steer the boat. Yes, Karin thought to herself, this is fun. I'm glad I thought of it. And, I hope it'll give Pete, Jon, and Nanci some idea of just how good and competent Crystal is at what she's doing.

A ways farther along, they could see a number of rafts pulled up on the shore. "This is the Doldrums, a pretty good break spot," Crystal told them. "I see we got a bunch of Baptists pulled up here, so we might as well stop and take a breather too. No point in getting way ahead of them and then having to wait at the takeout." She helped coach the family into bringing the raft to a stop just downstream of the main part of the church group.

"Solid ground at last," Pete said thankfully as he got up and clambered over the raft's tube. "My legs are killing me."

"Does take some getting used to," Crystal grinned, peeling off her life jacket and throwing it in the boat, while the rest of the family took the hint and did the same. "I brought us some Cokes. Anybody want one?"

Everyone did, and Crystal untied a small plastic cooler that had been tied unobtrusively at the back of the raft and handed them out. Karin watched with a muted giggle as Nanci sat down on the side of the raft, and began to see how well her flirting skills worked on Baptist boys. There was no question in Karin's mind that Nanci was easily the prettier of her two daughters, small and slender and well built, a long ponytail hanging down her back. Crystal, on the other hand was big, with muscles that seemed to have been chiseled out of granite, casual and comfortable in her baseball cap and sunglasses. Yes, she belonged on a river, she thought.

Nanci's flirting skills were well-developed, but Karin knew that already. It didn't take long before she had two or three boys among the Baptists staring at her, and she wondered how long it would be before someone had the courage to come over and strike up a conversation with this Jezebel in a string bikini. Karin wished that Nanci would tone it down a little; this wasn't the time or the kind of people to act like that around, and she was afraid that it had become a little too ingrained. Crystal had proved she could take care of herself and act like a competent adult -- and was one, having turned twenty-one earlier in the year -- but Nanci was still a teenager and acted like one. Crystal had been a lot more mature at that age. Not for the first time, Karin wondered if her younger daughter was heading for trouble.

Soon they had a visitor, and it wasn't one of the boys that Karin's siren daughter had been visually teasing, but the young teenage girl that they'd pulled from the river not long before. She had her life jacket off, too, and was wearing a one-piece swimsuit, like most of the girls in the church group. "I just wanted to thank you for pulling me out," she said. "It went kind of quick when you met up with our raft."

"No problem," Crystal smiled. "We've all got to watch out for each other on something like this. Heck, down at some place like Hell Hole, it might be you guys who have to pull us from the water." Crystal's attention was on the girl, but Karin stole a glance at Pete, who obviously wasn't happy to hear that statement. She'd managed to get him on this trip, with Crystal's assistance, but there'd obviously be a hell of a time getting him on another raft trip again. But, at least he was getting a chance to see Crystal in action in her world.

"How do you get to be a raft guide?" the girl asked.

"It helps to be crazy," Jon butted in. Karin didn't detect any joking in his voice, and Jon wasn't a kid to joke around much. He had the same sense of humor that his dad did, which is to say, very little.

Crystal ignored her brother's smart-mouthed remark. "You have to ask for the job," she grinned at the girl. "But you have to be ready before you ask. You from around here?"

"Chattanooga," the girl said.

"Then you're right in the heart of the whitewater country," Crystal replied. "Get on a few more raft trips, and then when you get a little older, bug your parents to let you take a whitewater kayaking course over at some place like Nantahala Outdoor Center, or some of the other places around here. Get practiced at that, and when you're eighteen, start bugging the raft companies."

"Is that how you did it?"

"Sorta," Crystal grinned, taking a pull at the can of Coke she had in her hand. "I got my first whitewater experience up north, and at a place out in Idaho called Outdoor Leadership Training Academy. It's a neat place, but they worked my butt off. It's not for everybody."

"Do you do this all the time?" the girl sparkled.

"Would be neat, wouldn't it?" Crystal grinned at her. "I'd sure like to, but no, in the winter, I'm in college, up in northern Michigan."

"Do you get lots of snow up there?"

"Lots and lots," Crystal told her. "It means I get to go skiing and snowboarding a lot."

"Hey, it looks like we're getting set to go. I better get back," the girl said, "But, thanks again!"

"Ya'll have a good trip now, hear?" Crystal told her as she turned to go. "See you at the takeout."

As soon as she was a little ways away, Jon muttered, "There you go, sucking someone else in." Karin could see that Jon was about as happy with this trip as his father, which was to say, not very.

"I get asked that about every trip," Crystal told him casually, but with an edge to her voice, that Karin could detect, even if Jon was too dense to. "That's pretty much a standard answer. There are people who do enjoy this, you know. Just because you're not one of them, doesn't mean it's wrong."

"It may be OK for you," he said, almost sullenly. "But I'd prefer to be doing something worthwhile."

There had been some family arguments over this in the past, and it looked like it was heading that way again to Karin, but this time, her older daughter didn't appear to be in a mood to fight. This was her territory, after all. "Jon, Jon," Crystal said shaking her head, "I'd sure hate to be the girl you wind up marrying, if you ever manage to get away from a computer long enough to find one who'll marry you. She's never going to have any fun."

Even Pete laughed at that one -- probably because even he could see that she was heading off a confrontation that would be out of place here.

"Well, I don't think of being bounced around like I was in a cement mixer as fun," Jon replied defiantly. "Maybe you do, but I know you're out of your mind. Christ, this is dangerous and you think it's fun! I don't want to get hurt or drowned or something! I don't swim like you do!"

"That's why you have a life jacket and a helmet on," Crystal said, rather sharply. "It's pretty rare for someone to get hurt on one of these trips. And, it's almost always because they do something stupid, like not listen to the safety lecture or their guide. Yeah, it's wet, you're gonna get wet. Even I dump one every now and then, as well as I know this river, usually because someone pushes me someplace where I don't want to go. Now, loosen up and try to enjoy yourself. With any kind of luck, you ought to survive at least enough to get to your computer in a wheelchair, which is what's gonna happen to you sooner or later if you don't start getting some exercise and taking care of yourself. Now, those damn computers," she said, lightening up her rant. "They'll kill you."

It was another old family argument, and Karin thought Crystal had a point. Jon got even less exercise than Pete, who thought mowing the lawn on a riding lawnmower was exercise, and his cholesterol and blood pressure were out of hand. But this wasn't the time or place to get into it. "It looks like they're getting ready to go," she commented before Jon could fire off a comeback. Karin could see that he really was scared, even worse than she'd thought at the beginning -- and she realized that Jon, and Pete, for that matter, were uncomfortable at least partly because for the rest of the trip they were in Crystal's world, where fun and excitement and exercise and adventure were part of the joys.

"Yeah, guess we'd better, too." Crystal nodded. "OK, life jacket and helmet time. Let's switch sides, and let Jon and Nanci get in front. Cinch those life jackets up pretty good, there's some places where we're gonna get wet."

Karin detected an evil note in her daughter's voice -- just a slight one, and she didn't think anyone else heard it. Yes, they were likely to get wet on this next section, and Karin suspected that Jon was going to get wetter than everyone else combined.



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