Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Book 1 of the Dawnwalker Cycle
"If it gets too bad, we can always go find someone with an RV and make big, sad eyes," Jackpine said to Marlin as they sat in the campground at Katahdin Stream shortly after sunrise on the last Saturday of August, drinking weak coffee and feeling hungry. They'd cut it tight on food, and had shared their last package of oatmeal a few minutes before; there were a few crumbs of gorp they'd decided to save for lunch.
"Yeah, I suppose," Marlin said, sipping at the coffee. At least it was warm. She glanced up and saw an interesting sight. "Hey, check that out!"
"Check what out?"
"That Jaguar coming this way. Neat wheels."
"Seems kind of out of place," Jackpine grinned. "RVs and pickups all over the place, but this isn't the place you'd expect to see something like that."
They were sitting there wondering about who would be crazy enough to drive a car like that up the bumpy gravel roads to Baxter State Park. Whoever it was, the driver was going slowly, as if looking for something. Much to their surprise the dark green Jag sedan turned into their campsite and stopped. The door popped open, and Randy got out.
"Randy!" Marlin called. "What happened, you hit the lotto?"
"Rental," he grinned. "Supposed to be an economy car, but it was all they had. Nice car, though. Look, you two been up Katahdin yet?"
"Yesterday," Marlin said. "You were right; it's a hell of a view." It had been a hell of a view, in fact, though the two had had trouble seeing it through tear-filled eyes. Like Crystal two years before, climbing Katahdin at the end of the Appalachian Trail had been an emotional experience, and both had needed some time to put it in perspective. She knew Randy had wanted to be with them, but she was just as glad to find out when they'd called from Monson a few days before that he was going to be on an extremely tight schedule and had told them to go ahead without him. He had done it once before, after all.
"Good deal and congratulations," he smiled. "Pack up your stuff, we're burnin' daylight."
"Cinderella, I do believe our carriage has arrived," Jackpine grinned as she tossed what was left of her coffee. "I wonder if he brought anything to eat."
There wasn't a lot to pack; they were still running with the ultralight gear, and they'd been pushing their luck with the weather since Monson with it, but it was behind them now. Marlin, knowing that she was about to become Nicole again, pulled her sleeping bag out of her bivy sack and stuffed it roughly into the stuff sack as she said, "We thought you were going to drive through from Spearfish Lake."
"That was the plan when you called from Monson," he said. "Things got tighter. I knocked off work early, drove to Chicago, flew to Boston, and rented the car at midnight."
"What'd you do?" Jackpine asked, in a flurry of packing of her own. "Drive all night?"
"Yeah, I'm running on pure caffeine. Hope one of you has your driver's license with you. Jackpine, I've got you on a flight to Detroit at four, and Nicole and I head to Chicago at 4:50. Is that going to be all right?"
"Sure," Jackpine said. "So long as I get enough time to call and get someone to pick me up. How much is it going to cost? I don't have a lot of cash on me."
"I'm covering it for you. I promised to get you home, after all."
"What's the big rush?" Nicole asked.
"Big news for you, maybe," Randy said. "Only found out about it yesterday, but I've got a number you have to call as soon as I can get you to a phone, anytime day or night."
"No phones here," she said, wondering what this was all about. "We checked."
"I know, there weren't the last time, either. We need to get gas down in Millinocket. You can call from there."
"What's this all about, anyway?"
"I'm not sure, but it's Harold Hekkinan you have to call. I talked to him yesterday afternoon. Since it's only two days before school starts, I donít think you need a lot of guesses."
Both Randy and Nicole knew Harold Hekkinan from way back -- he'd been the football coach for years, and their high school principal through their last three years of high school. Both Nicole and Randy also knew that almost every year, there was a last-minute rush to hire a replacement for some teacher who got hired somewhere else they'd rather be as a last-minute replacement, and it seemed like a likely prospect. "Hell, yes!" she cried. "Let's get moving, we're burning daylight."
A few minutes later, the Jag was rocketing down the gravel road heading out of Baxter State Park, leaving a huge cloud of dust behind it. "So how was the hike?" Randy asked.
"Real good," Nicole said. "We booked right along since we knew you were on a tight schedule, and knocked a day off what we planned." In fact, they hadn't moved quite as quickly as they'd hoped since they'd last seen Randy; she'd twisted an ankle badly in a rock field in Pennsylvania, and the two had laid over a couple days at the nearest shelter, then proceeded gingerly onward. Only a couple days later, Jackpine had the same experience, and by the time both were walking good again, they'd lost more than a week. Things had gone well after that, and they'd picked up some of the lost time, but then they'd gotten into the White Mountains in New Hampshire just as some bad weather blew in. Unwilling to risk the higher elevations with their lightweight summer gear, they'd been pinned down at a shelter for four days until the weather cleared. But, there was no point in detailing all of that now; Randy had known about it from the continuing letters she'd sent home. "Did you get the packet from Monson?" she asked.
"Yeah, first of the week," he told her. "I did tell Matt you were on the last leg over breakfast Tuesday, but I haven't been able to get it sent out yet. Been too damn busy."
"Yeah, we've been busting our asses to get the Albany River project done. Since, oh, hell, the middle of June, we'd picked up enough on the schedule that it looked like we had a chance to get it done before school starts, so the school board decided to go ahead and plan on using the school this fall. They've got classes all shuffled around so they can't use the old building, now. We signed off the occupancy permit and the certification of substantial completion at noon yesterday, and it was like dropping the green flag at Daytona. You never saw such a damn herd of people in your life, moving in desks and chairs, setting up classrooms, and the like. They got a bunch of parents and volunteers in to help. It was an absolute madhouse, but the kids will have their spiffy new school on time, actually ahead of schedule and under budget, to boot."
"So you're done with the project then?"
"Mostly," he said. "We've got a punch list that we'll be chewing away at for another month or two, but it's all piddly stuff. We can do some of it while classes are in session, but some will have to be done on evenings and weekends. Jesus, I'm glad to have that over with. The last couple months have kept me about as busy as Josh and Tiffany during sled training."
Nicole only half-heard Randy's story; the prospects of the phone call only a few minutes away were mesmerizing. There just weren't many jobs open for a history teacher around Spearfish Lake; if she were to find a regular job in the next few years that would let her stay around there, the odds favored a long daily drive. She'd had a talk with Mr. Hekkinan back when she'd subbed for Mrs. Gleason in January and February. He said he'd heard she'd done a good job, but there weren't going to be many prospects in the next few years. But, then Mrs. Gleason's health had still been shaky when she returned to school only a few days before the start of her hike. Could something have happened?
If this was what she thought it might be, there was no way she could turn it down, but damn! She'd been looking forward to a few easy days, just kicking back, keeping the weight off her feet, taking some time to put the whole trip into perspective, mentally organizing the experience as she got to know friends and family again. And, spend some time with Randy. A lot of time, in fact, making up for all the times they'd had to be apart, all the times they had plans blown up by the need for her to rush off someplace. She really liked Randy, and knew as well as he did that this day signaled the end of the waiting to get stuff out of the way between them. Sometime in the next few months, his new house would be done, and she looked forward to moving into it with him, and she was ready for it. But to have to come back, rush around pulling together lesson plans and organizing a classroom at the absolute last instant, changing gears mentally to teach, even just thinking about history -- it wasn't even a reality yet and she was already feeling stressed. Damn.
Millinocket reminded her a lot of home. It was woods country, and there were piles of pulp logs, a paper plant, and things like that. The town was about the same size, and there were the same sorts of businesses. It seemed like coming up for air after the summer on the trail. Randy soon found a gas station and convenience store with a phone outside. Even before he started to pump gas, Nicole was on the phone to Spearfish Lake.
The phone number wasn't the school's, so it had to be Hekkinan's home phone. It rang several times, and then her old principal's voice came on the line. "Mr. Hekkinan, this is Nicole Szczerowski," she said. "Randy said you wanted me to call any time, but as soon as I could. I hope it's not too early."
"No, I got enough coffee in me to know who I am," he laughed. "Glad you called. Let's keep this simple. Would you like to take over Mrs. Gleason's job Monday on a permanent basis?"
Not just yes, but hell yes, she wanted to say. "Of course I'd be willing," she did manage to say. "Is something wrong with her?"
"She decided at the end of last semester that her health was so shaky she didn't want to try to teach anymore," Hekkinan's voice came from the other end of the line. "She bought up a year of retirement, and we put out notices. We had about a dozen applicants, found three we liked, and hired one. She took another job Thursday. The other two finalists were already working someplace else. Well, I got home on Thursday night, and saw the story in the Record-Herald about you and your friend, and remembered that you'd done a great job for us last winter. I called your folks, and they told me to call Randy. Anyway, I'm glad you'll take the job. I like to bring Spearfish Lake kids back when I can, they fit in better. This has been a huge hassle and I'm glad you're coming to work for us."
"I'm more than happy," she said. "I'm just afraid I'm going to get off to a slow start, since I won't have time to set up lesson plans."
"Mrs. Gleason has a collection she'd be glad to let you use," he said. "She also said she'd be glad to help someone get their feet under them. In fact, she agreed to sub for a week or two if needed. Anyway, I need to get together with you, go over some details, sign some paperwork before school starts. Any chance you could come over this weekend?"
"Mr. Hekkinan, I'm in Millinocket, Maine, right now," Nicole told him. "We're supposed to fly back tonight, so I suppose I could see you sometime tomorrow."
"Great, that'll be fine. Give me a call when you get in. So, how was the hike?"
"Real good," she told him. "The adventure of a lifetime."
"Good, you can tell the kids all about it Monday," he said. "It'll give them something to gossip about. See you tomorrow."
Nicole hung up the phone in a daze. It was true! God, the next few days were going to be a major hassle, but it was absolutely the perfect position. If only there had been a few days to regroup . . . she noticed Randy standing next to her, wondering what was going on. She turned to him and put her arms around him, and gave him a kiss that there hadn't been time for back at Katahdin Stream. "Hey, lover," she whispered, "Did you stop by the hardware store?"
"For that chain you were going to have to use to keep me in Spearfish Lake?"
"Oh, that hardware store," he grinned, the joke beginning to pierce his exhaustion.
"If you did, I hope you kept the receipt," she smiled. "It's not going to be needed."
It was a long drive back to Boston. Randy managed to go about another hour, mostly talking with Nicole about the prospects of the new job, while she and Jacqueline munched on sandwiches and junk food from the convenience store. Even with the excitement, he felt himself starting to fade, so he got in the back seat and Jackpine moved up front, and he slept while Nicole drove them toward Boston.
They arrived at the terminal in plenty of time, even with the hassle of the Boston traffic, and Randy watched as Nicole and Jacqueline had an emotional departure. They'd been as close as sisters for almost six months; now it might be years before they saw each other again. That had to add to the stress on Nicole, he thought, as if this news about the teaching job wasn't stress enough.
Even as much as a year or so ago, he'd had a plan for this day, especially if Jackpine dropped out for some reason and Nicole made it. He'd planned to hike to the top of Katahdin with her, much as he had with Crystal, and there, offer her an engagement ring. But, it hadn't worked out that way; as far back as their meeting on Memorial Day, it had seemed pretty likely that Marlin and Jackpine would wind up going all the way, unless something untoward happened. He also knew it would be an emotional experience for them, and his presence would be an intrusion, so he was rather thankful that his plans hadn't worked out.
There was going to have to come a time -- and soon -- when he and Nicole were going to have to sit down and, between the two of them, talk about their future, but he didn't need any great strain of brilliance to tell that this wasn't the time, and this wasn't the place. He'd been kicking around alternative ways to tell her, but nothing had the impact of the top of Katahdin. About the best he'd been able to think of was to take her out to the site of the new house, after she got back, and ask her to live there with him. That probably would have to do.
As it turned out, they got bumped off the 4:50 flight to Chicago, but the ticket agent promised that the 8:20 flight was under booked and there'd be no problem getting on it. "Northworst strikes again," he told Nicole as they left the ticket counter. "Time to spare, go by air. That's the reason I drive whenever I can."
"I can wait. It gives us a chance to have a decent dinner, a couple beers, and I can tell you about the trail."
"I'd like that," he said, wondering if the subject was going to come around to what he really had in mind. If it did, it did, but right now he hoped it wouldn't. This was going to be a memorable enough day as it was.
They found a restaurant in Logan Airport, and did have a decent, although exorbitantly expensive dinner, with a couple of expensive beers to go with it, and managed to wile away three hours in the process, mostly with Nicole telling trail stories. It seemed to Randy that she was trying to race ahead to put the trail experience in perspective in the face of her new job. So, he let her run with it -- he was interested in it anyway -- and tried to keep her on the subject. It continued on the flight to Chicago.
It was close to ten when they got out of O'Hare in the Dakota, which, nice truck though it was, wasn't a Jaguar. "A car like that could spoil you," he told Nicole. "But I'd never dare drive something like that around home."
"Guess not," she said. "It'd be like putting on airs."
"Yeah," he sighed, "In my position, that's not a good idea. Yours, either, now." He spotted a gas station ahead. "Think I'll slide in here and get some gas before we get out on the road. You need anything?"
"Not really. Nothing but sleep. It's been a long day."
"OK, look, you get a choice," he said. "We can stop somewhere around here pretty quick and get a motel, then get moving in the morning. Or, we can drive straight through and get in at a weird hour."
"I think I'd just as soon get on home," she told him. "I can see I've got a lot to do tomorrow. If I can sleep a little in the truck, and then some when I get home, I may be able to make it through the day."
"Works for me," he said, pulling up at the pump. "After sleeping most of the way down from Katahdin, I'm in pretty good shape. Hey, got something to show you," he said, pulling an envelope from behind the visor.
"A couple pictures of Crystal," he smiled. "I was going to mail them on to Karin, but thought I'd hang on to them till you saw them. I've got color copies, but they're not as good as the originals."
"Neat," she said as he got out of the Dakota. She popped open the right door, so she could use the better light of the service station overheads. The first picture was obviously a telephoto shot, of Crystal in a raft filled with passengers going over a horrendous drop. She flipped the picture over; written on the back were the words, "Crystal shooting Crystal. Ain't that neat?" Nicole had heard the story of Crystal's namesake rapids when she walked the trail with her, and it was sort of ironic; she grinned and looked at the other picture. It was of Crystal, again; sitting on a raft tube, bronzed and muscular, wearing a bikini, arm in arm with a fiftyish man, also bronzed and muscular, wearing a swimsuit and T-shirt. She flipped it over, and read, "Me and Al, the guy who owns Canyon Tours. I really love my boss!"
"Looks like she's doing fine," she said to Randy, standing a few feet away at the gas pump.
"Yeah, from everything I hear, and I don't hear much, you'd have to use a nuke to get her out of that Canyon."
"Have you thought any more about taking a Canyon trip like she suggested last winter? With the school job done early, would there be a chance?"
"I thought about it," he nodded. "I'm not going to be as busy as I was the last couple months, but there's still enough on the board that I haven't even thought about getting away. Looks like we're going to be busy right up till snow flies. Actually, I'd just as soon get those pictures on to Karin and not have them around to torture me."
Nicole glanced at the envelope -- it was already addressed and stamped; Randy just hadn't sealed it. "You want me to drop it in the mail?" she asked. "There's a mailbox over there, and I think I'll get an iced tea and something to snack on, maybe use the can."
"Go for it," he said. "If we're going straight back, I need to fill the caffeine tank, as well."
Nicole licked the envelope, sealed it, hopped out of the truck, made a detour by the mailbox, and headed inside, deciding to use the facilities first. A few minutes later, they were out on the Interstate, heading for Spearfish Lake. "I guess Crystal really does run true to form," she snickered. "After all those years on the Ocoee, she's graduated to the big time."
"Yeah, sort of makes me think that the Ocoee was her real college," Randy laughed. "She spent four summers there. I was down there a couple times to see her. We had some good times, and that one bad time, too."
"Oh, yes," Nicole replied. "I remember you telling me. Does it bother you anymore?"
"No, I think I've put it in the past," he said thoughtfully. "Along with Crystal, pretty much, I guess. It's about time. Nicole, I think we've jerked each other around long enough. I don't really want to raise the issue right now, because I know this is a pretty stressy day for you, but let's find some time in the next few days, maybe next weekend, where we can go somewhere and talk it out."
"I appreciate your not wanting to bring it up," she said. "You're right. I do feel very stressed and emotional. I need to get some things in perspective, but I do want to have that talk, and we both know what's going to happen, don't we?"
"I think we do," he agreed. "But I'm not going to say it right now, and I don't want you to."
"Thanks," she said. "You know, today about puts the icing on the cake, though."
"I know. Maybe now we'll have some time for each other. Maybe not as much as we'd like, but at least some."
Nicole was silent for a moment. "Randy, I do have one question to ask before we have that discussion. Back when I hiked with Crystal, two years ago, she said you'd made a standing offer to marry her. Is it still standing?"
"We've never said it wasn't, but it's been, oh, hell, two and a half years ago. She's never once shown any signs of interest in it. She was pretty stressed then, with her family hassles, not knowing what she was going to do, and, damn it, I like Crystal. I thought I ought to offer her a safety net. It doesn't look like she's going to need it, now."
"I understand that," she said, her exhaustion showing. "I think it was nice of you to make the offer. But, Randy, I've never told you this before: Crystal and I had a long talk with each other about you, back when we were on the trail. Basically, we agreed that if things got serious with one of us, the other would back off. At the time, I thought it would be you and her. I suppose I was offering her a safety net, too. I guess that was part of why I stayed away from you a couple times when I didn't really have to, like when I went to OLTA the first time. But, things have changed since then. I don't think she needs it anymore."
"Yeah, that's pretty clear," Randy agreed. "Oh, if she showed up on the doorstep broke and hungry, I don't think either of us would kick her out. But, I don't think that's going to happen, either."
"You're right, on both counts. Randy, I don't know how to say this, but I thought about it during those last days in from Monson. Thought about it a lot. I'm willing to go on regardless, but I'd rather you took away that safety net."
"I can do it," he agreed without hesitation. "I've got no problems with it. I'll kick out a letter to her tomorrow. As far as that goes, if I read the dates of her postcards right, she ought to be finishing up a trip in the middle of the week. I can leave a message for her at Canyon Tours and have her give me a call, maybe next weekend."
"That's so impersonal," she protested. "It sort of strikes me as a 'Dear John' letter. Maybe we're reading things we don't know into what we hear from her. It'd be nice if you could sound her out a little before breaking the news."
"Yeah, I guess you're right," he agreed. "I know if it were the other way around, and I was covering up some trouble, that could just be more trouble I didn't need."
"Absolutely. Look, we've got time. Whatever happens, we're probably not going to do anything until your house is done. It'd be a hassle to have to move into an apartment, then move right out again. She is coming back for the winter, isn't she?"
"As far as I know. Josh and Tiffany want her back, anyway, and the last I heard she was planning on it. Probably around Thanksgiving, if it's like last year."
"Even if they started on the house this week, it'd be three months before we could move in, wouldn't it? Or, have they started it?"
"No, except for the footers, like last spring. I'm not sure how it's going to work out, but we may pull together some of the crew in a month or two and get started. We shorted some other jobs to get the school done, now we've got to catch up on them. In a month, maybe six weeks, we may have the chance."
"So, we have some time. Like I said, it's not an absolute with me, but I'd feel more comfortable with it if it's settled in both your minds."
This wasn't the discussion that Randy had been planning to have with Nicole, but the outcome of that planned discussion had pretty well been decided in the last few minutes, unless something blew up. And, Randy realized, something still could. Nicole was right. "Tell you the truth," he said finally, "I'd be more comfortable with it, too."