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 63: January 1999

"Many hands make light work," the proverb goes. Randy knew well there were times when hands were not appreciated, so mostly he and Nicole stood back and tried to help where asked, while Josh and Tiffany did the final loading, and Mike, Mark, and Crystal also did what they could to help. But, there were a number of other people who "came to help" as well, including Kirsten, Jackie, Josh's parents, and several of the local dog mushers.

This was the fifth year that Josh and Tiffany had piled into a pickup truck loaded with dogs, sleds, and gear and started on the long drive to Alaska, and perhaps they were used to it, but it seemed to be incredible confusion to Randy.

He knew that in the early years, they'd driven Josh's old rusted-out beater of a pickup truck, with over 300,000 miles on the odometer, but after the trailer had gone north last year, Jennifer had surprised them with an early Christmas present -- a huge Dodge Ram 3500 long-box quad-cab pickup, all smelling of new. Jennifer had been a main sponsor since the beginning, and told them that she didn't want the "Jenny Easton Productions" logo on a truck fit for the junkyard. Now, the big white Dodge had a huge dog box in the back, and one by one the five were loading the forty dogs that would go to Alaska. It would be a long drive, nearly a week, with stops several times a day to "drop the dogs" -- let them out and get a little fresh air, exercise, food, water, and chance for relief on a picket chain. There was an enclosed trailer already hooked behind the pickup truck, loaded with dog sleds, dog food, including bags already marked to be sent out on the trail, and various miscellaneous gear.

Finally, all the dogs were loaded, and twenty dog heads hung out the holes in the doors of the dog box on either side of the truck. There wasn't anything left to do but go; there were some hugs all around, a couple "see you in April's," and the pickup started on the long haul to Alaska, leaving the crowd standing behind.

"Is it always like this?" Randy asked Mike, who stood there watching the taillights disappear down the driveway into the light blowing snow.

"No," Mike laughed, "Some years it gets a little confusing. That's why they loaded everything except the dogs last night. The first year was a madhouse, trying to load everything at the last minute, and they forgot the dogsleds. Josh went by himself that time. That was before they were married. Tiffany was still in high school and flew up later to meet him, but she was the one who discovered the mistake. I had to get in the car and chase him down. I caught him out on the state road, and they were both just a little embarrassed."

"Yeah," Randy laughed, "It'd be hard to have a dogsled race without dogsleds."

Crystal came wandering over. "Well, that's that, I guess," she said. "It's gonna seem lonely with them gone."

"Always does to me, too," Mike said. "Crystal, I don't know if they thanked you enough, but I do have to thank you for taking a load off me this winter. You've been a huge help. Look, I'm going to stick my nose in once or twice a day just to check on things, because that's the kind of worrier I am, but I don't expect you'll have many problems."

"I doubt anything will come up, unless a dog gets sick. I'm no vet."

"I'm not either, but I've learned a lot over the years. If you need anything, I'm just across the road. Don't be a stranger, and come over for dinner once in a while."

"Sure, I'll do that," she said. "Between eating with the Clarks, the Szczerowskis, the Gravengoods and you, I shouldn't have to do much cooking for myself."

Life would be slower for Crystal, now that Josh and Tiffany had headed for Alaska, Randy knew. Her main job would be to care for the eighty or so dogs left behind, give a few dogsledding tours of an hour or two, and get a few of the younger dogs out for short training trips, mostly on the complicated network of trails within a mile or so of the dog lot. It ought to make for a nice rest break after the hectic pace of the last two months -- and, a little more comfortable for Crystal, it'd been worked out that she'd move into Josh and Tiffany's mobile home while they were gone.

Randy glanced at his watch; the time was getting close. "Nicole, you got an hour or two, or should I get you back?" he asked.

"I can take an hour or two, but I really need to get some miles on outside today." It had been a cold and snowy winter, and she hadn't been able to do anything like the miles she'd gotten in down at Mosquito Valley. She'd happened to mention her frustration over dinner at the Clark's a few days before, and Ryan offered her a warm place to train: the plywood plant. The workers had gotten used to seeing her walking endlessly around the inside of the large, complex plant, carrying a heavy backpack weighted with bricks. When Matt heard about it, he'd gone out and taken a picture of the incongruous sight.

"Well, all right, then. I need to get moving. Crystal, we'll see you this evening, I guess."

"Yeah, probably around dark, maybe a little later," she said. "Hey, Nicole, now that the rush is over, maybe we can walk together a little."

"Yeah, sure. It gets a little boring, doing the same route over and over and it's hard to talk over all the noise. It's going to have to mostly be in the evenings, though."

"Why's that?"

"One of the history teachers over at the high school is sick," she said. "Looks like she's going to be in the hospital for a while, so I'll be filling in for a few weeks."

"Good," Crystal grinned, "Might give you a chance to get your foot in the door."

"Yeah, I thought that," Nicole agreed. Randy thought it was good from that viewpoint, but it cut a wide swath in the time together that he thought they might have before she left on the trail. He wasn't happy about it either, but after the discussions they'd had before Christmas he knew to keep his mouth shut.

As he and Nicole drove down Dog Town Road in the Dakota, headed for the state road, she asked, "What's going on, anyway?"

"Gotta pick up Rod, and then go over and meet Binky," he told her. "I've got a house I want to look at, and I want your opinion as well as Rod's."

"A house?" she frowned. "What's this all about?"

"A little idea I've had on my mind for a year or two," he told her. "I've had Binky looking since last fall, and she called me up yesterday with this."

Since the early eighties, Binky Augsberg had been far and away the leading real estate salesperson in Spearfish Lake. She'd taken a job at Northwoods Realty as a receptionist shortly after she and Steve had been married, and soon discovered that she'd been put on earth to deal real estate. She'd worked hard at it. She now owned the company, and if there were any truth to the stories, had an annual income well over her husband's, although they lived modestly with their two kids at what had once been his bachelor pad, across Hannegan's Cove from Joe.

"If Binky is involved, it must be serious," Nicole commented. "What's this all about?"

"Maybe nothing," Randy told her. "I've had her looking for a fixer-upper on the lakefront that I can buy cheap. I'm no great shakes with tools, but I know people who are. A lot of them are laid off this time of year. Some of them don't mind supplementing their unemployment." And, some of them need the help to make it through the winter, he thought -- sometimes good workers he wanted to have available when Clark started calling people back in the spring.

"An investment?" she asked. "I can see how you might be able to make something on the deal."

"Maybe. But, maybe a place to live, too. I'm starting to get a little tired of living with my folks. If the price works out right and I don't shoot myself in the foot on the rebuilding, I may just refinance for the long term. Rod's going to look it over with us, see what it needs, and sort of oversee things if I decide to do it. We need him too badly out at the company getting ready for the Albany River project to actually work on it, but he figures he ought to be able to look in on it a couple times a day if we use carpenters he trusts."

Randy didn't want to lean too hard on Rod, though; he knew he was busy. He hadn't been to a workout all fall -- the excuse he'd used at Spearfish Lake Appliance was he was taking a couple of classes down at the Moffatt Community College extension campus at Blair that he thought would help with his new job. That was true, as far as it went. Randy knew more than he'd told the gang, but like Rod, he wasn't saying what the classes were: they were GED prep classes, and Rod had aced the first two of the four sections, and it made him feel prouder than he thought he could imagine. If everything went according to plan -- and there was no reason to think they wouldn't -- Rod would be a high school graduate by summer. It was an awesome accomplishment for a man who had been a functional illiterate less than a year ago.

Randy, Nicole, and Rod rode in Binky's car out to the house, which turned out to be not far up the cove toward the main lake from Joe's. One look from the car was all Rod needed. "You didn't need to bring me along," he told him. "This place is totaled."

"I wasn't sure," Randy shook his head. "It is a nice location, and the house has some interesting features."

"It isn't very good," Binky admitted. "There was a fire a year ago, and quite a bit of damage. It's been sitting empty ever since, and it's really an eyesore. I was hoping you might improve the view from my living room."

"Well, let's take a look. I mean, as long as we're here."

One look convinced Randy and Nicole: the house was a total loss -- it was badly burned out inside, and it hadn't been much of a house to begin with, really more of a summer cottage than a house. "What do you think, Nicole?" he asked.

"It's a dump, and never was anything more. I was in here years ago, and it was a dump then. There is a nice view out the front, but the house wasn't built to take advantage of it. It'd be neat to be on the lakeshore, though. I always sort of wanted to live on the lake."

"All right," Randy said. "Binky, you said this has a pretty good lot, right?"

"Quite a bit of space," she told him. "The lot lines are well over toward the neighbors, on both sides. It's outside the city, but on the city water and sewer."

"What money do they have to have?"

"It's what do I have to have," she said. "The township was leaning on the owners to tear it down or fix it up, and their insurance had lapsed when it burned. I offered them ten to get them out from under it, and they jumped on it. I want to get something done with it, or else the township will be leaning on me, and I don't want the neighborhood kids playing in it and getting hurt. Like I said, I'd like to get rid of the eyesore."

"All right, I'll give you twelve, just to make it worth your time, and pick up the transfer costs on both ends."

"Randy, the lot's worth it," Rod warned. "Worth lots more than that. But this house ain't worth a nickel."

"I know. You think maybe the fire department would come out and burn it down the rest of the way?"

"Might be," Rod frowned. "You'd have to ask Joe or Harry. You thinking of a new house?"

"Damn straight," Randy told him. "I was talking with Ken, out at the company. He's got a couple ideas for a neat, architecturally interesting house that he'd like to play with. Something a little striking. Maybe Nicole and I can go over and talk to him, get her input. A good lot like this, there's no point in dumping a ranch house on it and calling it good enough."

"You're not thinking bootleg job if you do something like that," Rod pointed out.

"No, it'll about have to be a Clark Construction job," Randy laughed. "But then, I know the owner. I ought to be able to get a good deal."

"Well, yeah," Rod grinned.

"Binky, I could pay you cash, but I'd really rather do it on a construction loan basis," Randy said. "It'll take a few days to get everything pulled together. That OK with you?"

"Yes, but I'd like to have a purchase agreement to wave at the township," she said. "We can head back to the office and draw one up."

Later that afternoon, Randy and Nicole drove out to Ken's house and went over some of the ideas he had. It was a striking house he was thinking of, and not cheap. Nicole had some ideas to offer, too, and Ken said he'd work them in after he'd been out to get an idea of the site.

"Just knowing the schedule, it's probably going to be fall before we can get to the building," Randy said as he drove Nicole back to town. "But that doesn't matter."

"Randy, it's a dream house. It's a lot of money."

"It is," he agreed. "It's a reach to think of it now, although I don't know what it's going to cost until Ken can come up with some better prints and I can work on the estimates. But, considering the lot and the fact that I probably can cut myself a construction deal at close to cost and time it for a slack period, I should be able to make out pretty well if I have to sell it, but I don't plan on doing that if I can help it."

"Randy, I've got a question," she said. "Why didn't you invite Crystal along? She would have been able to make time to come."

"Nicole," he replied, looking at her, "I don't care about Crystal's opinion on this. I do care about yours."

"Randy," she said suspiciously, "Are you asking me to live there with you?"

"Not yet," he said. "But that question will be waiting when you get back from Katahdin."

~~~~~

March, 1999

The weather was almost spring-like in Georgia, after the snowy winter in Spearfish Lake. It was still a deep winter far away on the streets of Anchorage, where Randy knew that Josh, Tiffany and their dogs would be lined up on the street in a few hours, getting started on the run to Nome. In the back of his mind, he thought that considering everything, including the approach hike, Marlin and Jackpine would be stepping off from Springer Mountain at almost exactly the same time.

But that was tomorrow, and this was still tonight. They'd rented two rooms at a motel in Gainesville, about forty miles from Amicola Falls State Park, and Nicole had told Jacqueline right up front that she planned on spending the last night before the trip with Randy.

"It's finally here," Nicole said as they lay in bed, wrapped in each other's arms. "I wish now I'd just canned school and gone with Crystal. It'd be over with then, and you wouldn't have to be waiting for me."

"Nervous?" he asked.

"Of course, I'm nervous," Nicole told him. "Jackpine and I have done everything we can to get ready, but there's a lot that can happen. Randy, I'm feeling pretty guilty about leaving you behind again. All of a sudden, I'm thinking that I don't really want to go."

"We've been over that before," he laughed. "The reason I'm hiking up Springer with you tomorrow is to make damn sure you actually get started."

"It still seems unfair," she said in a concerned voice. "Have you given any more thought to doing that Canyon trip this fall, like Crystal suggested?"

"Not a lot," he told her. "Unless it turns warm real quick up there, we're not going to get a good start on the Albany River job, so that'll probably drag on into fall. Besides, right now, it looks like I'll have the house going, then. So, it's probably out. It'd be fun, but . . ."

"I know," she said. "But you're getting the short end of the stick, again. I'm sorry I haven't been able to spend the time with you that I hoped since I got back from Mosquito Valley, but, damn it, it just worked out that way."

"You had to do what you had to do," he whispered in her ear as his hand caressed her naked body.

"God, I've missed that," she said. "I've missed it, and I know I'm going to miss it more the next six months."

"I can wait, if you can. I've waited for a long time, now. Another six months will seem like the home stretch."

She was silent for a moment. "Randy, I hate to ask you this, right now, but there probably won't be another chance while we're alone. Where are you with Crystal? I've gotten the impression you haven't been seeing her much."

"I haven't. She's been busy; I've been busy."

"That's not what I mean. I mean, seeing her like this."

"Not for a long time," Randy told her. "The night after we climbed Katahdin was the last time. I haven't even thought about it since she's been back this winter. Look, a long time ago, she, Myleigh, and I agreed to keep it off campus, to not be blatant about it, and you and I have pretty much been keeping it the same way. Crystal and I haven't talked about it, but as far as I'm concerned, being in Spearfish Lake is the same as being on campus. We haven't been off campus, and I don't intend to ask."

"That's what I thought. I haven't been with anyone else since my first trip to OLTA, and I plan on keeping it that way. Look, no agreements till I get back, right?"

"As far as I'm concerned. But, I don't intend to do anything else."

"You're ready, aren't you?"

"Yes, Nicole, I am."

"You know," she said. "I talked with Crystal right after she got off the trail. I know it was a little hard for her, since she had nothing particular to look forward to when it ended. She was still pretty morose about it days afterward, until you came up with that deal to take Josh and Tiffany's trailer to Alaska. At least, I've got something to look forward to."

"Yeah, he said, "Me too." There was no more talking for quite a while.

~~~~~

They had gotten up early, had breakfast, and driven on to Amicola Falls. It was a long hike up Springer to the trailhead, and even lightly loaded with just a daypack with lunch and a couple water bottles, Randy had trouble keeping up with Marlin and Jackpine. Been sitting at a desk too long, he thought. Going to have to do something about that, maybe take up running or something when the weather breaks a little. He knew he probably wouldn't do it; the summer looked busy enough that he didn't know where he was going to find the time.

Still, it was hard to hike up the trail in another way. Two years before, he'd watched Diamond and Scooter start up this trail, and it had been hard to watch them turn their backs on him and head out to new adventures. Now, he was doing it again, and it hurt even worse.

The trail had a lot of ups and downs, but the trend was basically upward, through naked trees that had yet to get a hint of leaves on them. It was a cold day, although not cold to someone used to a winter in Spearfish Lake, and there was a hint of snow in the air. Randy hoped that Marlin and Jackpine wouldn't run into any seriously bad weather, but knew they were prepared for it, and would be prepared for winter camping up until they mailed back some of their heaviest items, possibly after leaving the Smokies. With the weight, the first part of the trip would be slow, and he was already concerned about how things were going to go with the two.

They reached the top of Springer Mountain a little after one. Already the time was getting tight for him to get back before dark, so they didn't stay long. He took a couple of pictures, gave Marlin -- damn it, Nicole, just this once -- a hug and a big, long kiss.

"Take care," he whispered in her ear as they held onto each other. "I'll be waiting."

"I'm already looking forward to seeing you on Memorial Day," she said. "You take care, too."

"You two gonna take a pebble from here to Katahdin?"

"Sure," Marlin smiled, bending over to pick up a possibility. "You know, it crossed my mind that southbounders bring pebbles here from Maine. I wonder how many have made the round trip."

"No way of telling," Jackpine laughed as she bent to get one, too.

"View's lousy here," Marlin said to no one in particular.

"Take my word," Randy grinned, "It's better from Katahdin. Go see if I'm right."

"All right," Marlin grinned. "Jackpine, what do you say we go check it out?"

There was nothing left to say. Randy had already decided that he wouldn't walk down the trail any with them; this, of all places, was the best place to say goodbye, and now even that had been done. He stood by the bronze plaque of a hiker, the words "Appalachian Trail - Maine to Georgia" on it, and watched as they turned and walked out of sight around a bend in the trail.

He stood there watching for a minute more, thinking about might-have-beens until he realized that it was useless. He looked at his watch; there was plenty of time if he got a move on. The thought crossed his mind that Josh and Tiffany had to be setting up on Fourth Street in Anchorage, ready to do their own trail trip, but it was no comfort as he sadly turned to start the hike back to Amicola Falls.

~~~~~

May, 1999

The Albany River School job was no less a hassle than any other school job, but Randy had been around the block a couple times now and had a better idea of what to expect.

It was a busy three months for him. As it turned out, the weather did break right after he got back to Spearfish Lake, and they were actually able to break ground a few days early, giving them a good head start on the project.

About the time they started breaking ground on the Albany River school, Josh and Tiffany were finishing up with the musher's banquet in Nome. Tiffany had managed a top ten finish, but Josh, who deliberately had taken the slightly weaker dogs, had been lucky to struggle to a finish ten places behind. Still, the race was over with, and in a couple weeks they were back in Spearfish Lake. As expected, Crystal already had the Dodge packed, and was on the road within half an hour of Josh and Tiffany's return. She did stop by Clark Construction to say goodbye. Once again, Randy had to say, "Take care," to one of his best friends as she started off on an adventure, but this one didn't hurt as bad as the one at Springer a month earlier.

"I'll be careful," she promised. "You know I'm pretty respectful of rivers in general, and even more of the Colorado. It can get nasty at times."

"You going to be back next fall?"

"Most likely," she said. "I expect Josh and Tiffany will be happy to have me back for another winter. Glad you thought of it. Hey, I really do need to get moving. Wish Marlin and Jackpine luck when you see them. Tell them I'm sorry I'm not hiking with them, but there's only one other thing I'd rather be doing, and I'm going to be doing it."

~~~~~

One major thing was different with Marlin and Jackpine's trip over the AT from Crystal's, two years before: Randy was kept very well informed of what was going on. At irregular intervals of several days, he got mail from Marlin -- not just the occasional postcard note or odd phone call like the ones he'd received from Crystal. Before she left, Nicole had the local print shop make her up some special note pads of carbonless copy paper, and a couple of pads went out in every mail drop. Unlike Crystal, Marlin kept a detailed journal -- and she sent the copy pages to Randy with every mailing. He read through them anxiously, then sat down, typed them up, and sent copies all over the place -- to her parents, of course, but also to Crystal, and Myleigh, to Harmony down at Mosquito Valley, and to others. It was a much more intimate way to share the journey, and he felt more a part of it.

Marlin and Jackpine had a slow start; they got caught by a spring snowstorm and had to posthole their way down the trail for a couple days in lousy conditions, but the snow had gone away after a while, and they were able to pick up speed. As they got into Virginia, he began to realize that they were going faster than Crystal had managed. Of course, Crystal had fallen behind her schedule in North Carolina when Scooter's knees gave trouble two years before, but once Scooter had dropped out, she'd been able to return to her planned pace, although several days behind the original plan. She'd only pulled ahead of the original schedule after she'd hiked with Marlin.

By the first of May, Marlin and Jackpine had pulled ahead of their own schedule, and were ahead of Crystal's elapsed time. Back in the winter, first target for the gear swap on Memorial Day weekend had been the south end of Shenandoah National Park, but by May first it had been moved to Harper's Ferry. The Monday before Memorial Day, Marlin called home from Harper's Ferry, six days ahead of the planned meeting, and left a message with her parents to have Randy move the meeting place again, ninety miles up the trail, to Caledonia State Park in Pennsylvania! What's more, she'd reserved a campsite for them there, and suggested that Randy plan on hiking to Pine Grove Furnace State Park, the halfway point of the trail.

As busy as he was with the school job, he knew he'd have trouble even getting to Pennsylvania for the gear swap -- it was still every inch of 800 miles to the meeting point, fourteen hours driving at a minimum, and likely more since it would involve going through Chicago. He did want to walk with the girls for a while, even if it was only for a day, just for the experience, but that was going to cause schedule problems. With work as busy as it was, it looked like about the only thing he was going to be able to do was drive all day each way, and just make the gear exchange and give Marlin a kiss. Then when he'd dejectedly mentioned the prospect at the breakfast table at the Spearfish Lake Cafe, Matt came to the rescue. Janelle was going to have to work all weekend, and there was no point in sitting around the apartment watching ball games on TV, so he offered to come along and help with the driving. Randy went to the office and made a hurried call for campground reservations at Pine Grove Furnace State Park.

In the very small hours of Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend, Matt and Randy loaded camping gear of their own and two long-packed boxes for Marlin and Jackpine, tanked up their thermoses with coffee, and pointed the Dakota toward Pennsylvania. At five that evening, they were sitting on the porch of the ranger station at Caledonia State Park when Marlin and Jackpine walked up.

Marlin looked wonderful -- bronzed, healthy, as fit as he'd ever known her, as fit as Crystal, even. "God, you look wonderful," he said as he threw his arms around her.

"Randy, I've missed you," she said, hugging him and giving him a kiss. "It's really good to see you again."

"Everything OK?" he asked after they came up for air. "Really OK, I mean."

"Just fine," she said. "I just wish we could have met you two weeks ago. It'll be good to get rid of these anchors and get to the lightweight gear, especially with the rough trail we've got in the next couple weeks."

"Could have, if I'd known."

"It'd still have been guessing on the weather," she told him. "But it would have meant that I could have seen you two weeks ago."

A few minutes later, they were in a campsite in the back of the park, sitting around in folding lawn chairs brought from home in the truck, drinking cold beer from the iced-down cooler that also made the trip. "Beer! Chairs! Is this the lap of luxury, or what?" Jackpine grinned happily.

"Matt and I also brought the grill and some steaks," Randy laughed.

"Randy, I swear you're going to civilize me so much I won't want to walk another inch," Marlin laughed. "What's the word from home?"

"Everybody is still healthy, we're through the worst of the black flies, and I'm busy as usual."

"Matt, how's Janelle?"

"Fat an' sassy as ever, yaah," he told her. "She wanted ta come on dis trip, but she hadta work, yaah."

"I'm sorry," Nicole smiled. "It would have made a nice break for her. I'm glad you came, though."

"It's a lotta drivin', eh? 'Sides, I figured someone hadta come ta drag Randy back ta Spearfish Lake so's he can bust his ass on dat school some more, yaah."

"How is the project going?"

"I have to admit, better than expected," Randy said. "We got a break on the weather at the start, and a couple things have worked out right. The biggest break is that someone decked the state school board electrical inspector with a shovel, put him in the hospital."

"Randy! You didn't!"

"Would I use a shovel?" Randy laughed. "Not that there haven't been times that he didn't deserve it, like when he blew up our Christmas vacation the year before last. It was some guy down in Camden. The new guy is reasonable to work with, and seems to think the old guy was being a pain in the ass just to justify being kept on the job. Looks like the old guy is trolling lawsuit and workman's comp. There have been some calls around the construction companies that do school work suggesting a legal defense fund for the guy who hit him. I told them I'd kick in. We've probably gained a week or so, just on that. If everything goes right, we may just make the start of school. On top of that, right after you left, Joe cornered me with the news that I'd have to be finishing sections four and five of his EMT classes, or I'd have to go back and take the first three sections. I wrapped up section four Thursday, and start on section five Tuesday. Add all that up, and I haven't had much time."

"How about the house?" she asked.

"The fire department burned the old place back in March," he told them. "It was kind of a party, we had fire trucks all over the place, and the fire auxiliary made hot drinks and sandwiches. Had a lot of people out there, lots of fun. Then, we got the footers in back in May. We had a little seam for the excavating and concrete crews, and it kept them busy for a few days. Ken did a hell of a job on the prints. I brought a rendering, just to give you an idea. But, there's no telling when we'll actually get the rest of the house built. We've got Don Bailey and the house crew scheduled up tight until the snow flies, but we might have some hands available when we get the school job done. And, we might not, since we won't be freeing up that many carpenters. Since it's a no-profit in-house job, the regular customers have to come first, and it could be a while."

"Darn. I hoped to come back and have it done."

"Well, I wanted it done when you came back," he said. "But, first things, first. You like another beer?"

"Yes, please," Nicole smiled. "I seem to have inhaled this one."

"I'll get it for ya, eh?" Matt grinned. "You want I should get started on da steaks, or ya wanna wait a while?"

"Any time you're ready," Nicole laughed. "You would not believe how much I eat! I mean, I'm burning a lot of calories, but I have to have them to burn. Did the two of you possibly bring any ice cream?"

"Only a gallon." Randy remembered stories of Crystal inhaling it on the trail stops. "We just got it back up the road, so it's still nice and hard. You want it now?"

"I'd love it. But let me get through the beer that Matt's getting me. Randy, any word from Crystal?"

"Unlike last year, I get a postcard every three weeks," he said. "You can tell when she gets off the river trips. Not a lot of news, though, just how much fun she's having. That makes me think, though -- I didn't tell you the good news."

"What's that?" Nicole smiled as Matt handed her a dripping wet can of beer.

"Myleigh got a job!"

"She did? That's great!"

"I don't know the details," Randy said. "Since Christmas I haven't heard from her the way I used to. I guess she's spending her spare time thinking about Ron. Anyway, it's at some little college down near Kansas City, Marienthal, or something. Never heard of it before. Apparently not a big school -- under a thousand kids. But, it's a tenure-track position, and she was about as happy as a pig in mud when I talked to her."

"That's wonderful news," Nicole glowed. "That's what she's always wanted, isn't it?"

"Yaah, dat's all she ever talked about wantin' ta do," Matt agreed. "I allus taut it was a long shot, eh? But I guess long shots, dey do come in now an' den."

Nicole frowned. "What about Ron? What's going to happen there?"

"She didn't say," Randy told her. "Apparently it's still in discussion. You want my bet, if it comes down to her job or Ron, I'll bet on her job."

"That's kind of a shame," Nicole said. "It's got to be hard to put a job ahead of someone you love."

Randy looked down. "Yeah, I know it," he said. "Boy, do I know it. I hope she makes the right choice, for her, whatever it is."

~~~~~

Randy knew that Marlin and Jackpine hadn't been carrying real tents, at least not since the Smokies. They'd mostly stayed in trail shelters, or occasionally spent the night in bivy sacks, and figured that they'd appreciate a night in a tent, as an alternative, so he'd brought several. He and Nicole unabashedly shared one of them that night, sleeping in each other's arms, and sometimes not sleeping.

They got up and around early the next morning. Since the plan was for Matt to meet them and Randy at Pine Grove Furnace a few miles up the trail, they took the opportunity to leave their packs in the Dakota and walk light. It was hard for Randy to keep up with what had become a casual saunter for them, but it was a nice hike, mostly through a mature pine forest that reminded him of home in some ways. He was bushed when they finally made it into the next campground, even though it had been a light day for the girls. Matt already had the camp set up, and Randy was happy to collapse into a camp chair with a beer in hand.

It was still early in the day for the girls, but there was work to be done -- changing over to the lightweight gear wasn't a simple process, since there was gear that didn't change, which meant the older packs had to be sorted through. Once they got everything organized, they decided to walk out to the halfway marker of the trail, just north of the state park, to try out the new packs. They were carrying a fairly full load, for them, but they seemed to think it was a big improvement, although a few adjustments were needed. Randy and Matt walked with them; at the halfway marker, Matt took several pictures. "Dis one's for da paper, yaah," he said. "After dat story of ya walkin' in da plywood plant, we been havin' people ask how it's goin'. We been printin' an update every now and den. Hope ya don' mind, eh?"

"Fine wid me, yaah, you betcha," Nicole laughed, having picked up a little Yooper from hearing him and Randy talk. "We bring ya a picture from Katahdin in two-tree months, yaah?"

That evening, there was more beer, more steak, more ice cream, and more trail stories. There was a campfire in the evening -- a rarity for the girls -- and again, they retreated to the tents for the night. It was hard for Randy to think that it would be his last night with Nicole for a while; the next time he saw her would be in Maine.

They were up early the next morning -- Marlin and Jackpine liked to get on the trail very early, to get the bulk of their miles in before it got hot, so the two got up and got moving. The sun was barely above the horizon when they finished the breakfast Matt and Randy cooked for them, and it was time to go.

It was time for one last hug. "Be careful, Marlin," Randy whispered. "I'll be waiting for you to get to Katahdin."

"I'm looking forward to coming home," she whispered back. "This time, I'll stay around, I promise."



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