Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Book 1 of the Dawnwalker Cycle
You could spend a hundred bucks on a steak, Randy thought, leaning back, filled to contentment, and not get one as good as that. Working from coolers and over a fire pan, Crystal, Scooter, and Dan, one of the boatmen, had put together a heck of a meal. It wasn't quite as good as Thanksgiving dinner at home, there wasn't the selection, but the quality was superb. Of course, anything would taste good here.
Randy set his beer in the sand and leaned back against a rock. He hadn't been sure what the trip would be like, but so far, it was living up to his expectations. A lot of things were working out pretty well. He'd been about as surprised as Crystal to see Karin in the crowd at the boat launch -- when he'd been up near her by the bus, her back had been turned, and he hadn't recognized her. They hadn't had a chance to talk until dinner, and she hadn't said much, but he remembered the stories of Pete and his temper, and realized something must have happened for her to be here at all, as much as he knew she'd wanted to take this trip again. What it was, he didn't know, but expected he'd find out sooner or later.
But, having Karin along pretty well relieved him of his own major worry about the trip, so she'd seemed like a godsend. He and Crystal had a history; they'd rolled around in beds and sleeping bags together for quite a while, up till the night after they'd climbed Katahdin together, over two years ago, now. Being down in the Canyon like this, together for over two weeks, he'd worried that the old juices would start to flow, and he'd louse things up with Nicole big time. Crystal could get crazy -- he knew it well -- but she wasn't likely to with her mother close by. Karin would never know, but she'd be a chaperone this trip. That made things a heck of a lot easier.
But, he hadn't felt like a passenger, at least not today. They had barely gotten out of sight of Lee's Ferry and past the first little riffle when Crystal said, "Randy, I've been busting my butt all day and you've been sitting on yours. Get up here and row this thing!"
"Crystal, I'm not a boatman," he protested. "I was only in a raft with you once."
"No time like the present," she said, standing up so he could get into the high drybox seat that the boatman sat on. "Really, it is easier than a kayak. It handles just like a concrete truck on an icy road." She turned to the rest of the passengers, a couple about their own age, and a guy, slightly older. "Don't worry," she said. "Randy's done a chunk of whitewater in the past, and this is how we train boatmen, right in the saddle."
And, after a fashion, he learned she was right. The raft was just about as happy going down the river sideways as it was end wards -- in fact, he was to learn, that's how they often ran in faster water when maneuvering was necessary. While the raft didn't exactly turn on a dime, it did turn pretty easily despite being such a big monster, and running sideways, it could move across the river into a promising line easily. In the heaviest water, they did run end on, but only after getting onto a promising line in the first place. Only on the slowest of flats would it be rowed in the normal way, oarsman facing upstream.
And yes, it did handle like a concrete truck on ice, especially after all his experience with the nimble Mongoose or Grind. There was a lot of momentum there, and it didn't change directions easily. "You have to figure out what the raft really wants to do, and try to help it," Crystal grinned.
Once he started to get used to it, it did seem fairly easy, although he knew he had a lot to learn. The river experience he had did count for a lot, and he found he was enjoying it. Still, when the roar of Badger approached, he expected Crystal to take the boat back over -- but no, she said, "Just take it straight down the tongue and ride it out," she said. "This ain't a playboat, so don't be trying any enders on us, OK?"
Badger was a rush. The raft slid smoothly down the tongue, up over the first back roller, crashed through the second with water all over the place and Crystal whooping and hollering, and bounced down through the wave train. "Randy, you did that so well, I think I'll let you drive some tomorrow," she grinned, then told him to pivot and set up for a landing.
He helped haul stuff up the beach and people get their camp stuff collected, feeling like he was doing something. Yes, he thought, he was glad he'd decided to come. This trip was going to be fun.
In the back of his mind, he knew that Don Bailey was supposed to have started on the house today, and he wondered how far they'd gotten. Well, there wouldn't be any way to find out, and there was no point in worrying about it, but maybe Nicole had driven by after school to check it out, and he hoped that she'd be thinking of him, at least a little. He was pretty sure everything would get done and done right; after all Don and Brent had done it for more years than he'd been alive, they ought to know what they're doing. Perhaps it was just as well that he was sitting on the bank of the Colorado River, down in Marble Canyon, the beginnings of the Grand Canyon, his fingers wrapped around a beer, watching the stars come out high overhead.
As the light grew low, he noticed that the fire had been built up, and people were gathering around it. He finished his beer and got up to join them. Crystal was the center of attention, as usual, picking away on her guitar, and singing old cowboy songs. He remembered how she used to talk about sitting around campfires playing a guitar, and a few they'd had -- especially the ones at Buddha and Giselle's, where Myleigh had joined them on her harp. How was she doing, anyway, with Ron now in her past?
"Aw, I don't know what I'm doing picking away on this thing when we've got a real guitar player with us," Crystal said. She handed it over to Randy. "Folks, like I said earlier, Randy and I have been around a few blocks together. He and I used to be considered the craziest people at Northern Michigan University. You all know that the river is pretty cold, and like I said today, if you get washed out, don't chase the raft, but get to shore and get out of the water. Randy and I know what cold water is. We used to go surfing on Lake Superior when the water was so cold our surfboards would ice up, right Randy?"
"Yeah," he grinned, and exaggerated a little, just like Crystal. "We'd have to sit under a heater to get the ice out of our wetsuit zippers so we could get them off. I suppose you're fishing for Edmund Fitzgerald? They don't let you carry a guitar onto the NMU campus unless you can play that."
"Sure," Crystal grinned. "Unless you remember The Legend of Crystal and Randy."
That brought a laugh from him. "No, Myleigh only did it once, and you know what happened to her."
"He turned her over his knee to spank her," Crystal laughed to the crowd. "Big, brutal, domineering beast of burden that he is."
There were a couple jokes in there for him to laugh at, and only him. He shook his head, and started in on Edmund Fitzgerald. To Crystal's delight, he started it off with Myleigh's version -- "The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down, of the surfers they call Crystal and Randy" -- but sang the rest of the song straight.
"It's a big lake, and it's cold, and it has a cold heart," Crystal said quietly at the end of the song. "Randy and I got to play on it some, but we learned to respect it, like I've learned to respect this river. We can play on it, and we can have fun, but we have to respect its power. That's why we insist on life jackets." Randy realized what she was doing -- she was taking every opportunity to gently drive home the safety messages she'd first made back at Lee's Ferry, and he imagined that he'd be hearing such little reminders through most of the trip. Maybe they'd get remembered that way, better than as part of a long, boring lecture.
"Listen to your boatman," he added to underline her statement. "They know what they're doing. You'll be OK."
"Took the words right out of my mouth, Randy," Crystal grinned. "Randy, play something else."
"Oh, all right. I never had been west before this trip," he told them. "Never had been in a desert, and now actually seeing one gave new meaning to this." He swung into Horse With No Name, which he hadn't done for a long time, but found he remembered it well.
"That was beautiful, Randy," Crystal said as he ended. "On this trip, we're going through a desert in boats with no names. The desert starts right here. Deserts seem tough, but they're really fragile. They live on what little water they can get." She led that into a discussion of water pollution, and how to handle wastes, with the heavy use that the Canyon gets -- it only lasted a few minutes, and Randy realized it was masterfully done, for an improvisation. "Randy, do you remember Dawnwalker?"
"Of course, I remember it," he said. "But I can't play it here. Myleigh's not here with her harp, and that's a woman's song, anyway."
"Oh, all right, I'll sing it if you play it," Crystal said. "Folks, Myleigh was my roommate in college. That was a while ago -- she's got her PhD now, and she's a college professor. Her hobby was playing the Celtic harp, and she was pretty good. If any of you are Jenny Easton fans, it's her playing the harp in Jennifer's recording of this song, and I was there when they cut part of it. Sorry, folks, but I'm afraid you're going to hear a lot of Jenny Easton music around these campfires, especially if we let Randy play very much. I don't sing much like Myleigh, let alone Jennifer, but Randy, let's take a swing at it."
As he started the first bars, Randy idly wondered what safety message Crystal was going to pull out of it, but figured she'd come up with something. Dawnwalker was a little rough; Randy had usually just played the accompaniment, while the lead was Myleigh's, and now, without practice, he had to play her part. But here, down in the bottom of the Canyon, it seemed more alive and real than ever.
"Most of us have folks at home, wondering how we're doing," Crystal started. "Like that Irish woman, they're walking the beach in the dawn, waiting for our return. I know what the other side of that coin is like. Scooter mentioned that I worked a fishing boat in Alaska. Well, one day Chuck and I were crossing Queen Charlotte Strait in a storm. It was rough out there, huge waves, bigger than anything on this river, cold and dangerous, shore line miles away, and the ocean at full roar. Our fishing boat, the Glacier Bay, got swept by a rogue wave and got beaten up pretty good, and Chuck, he was the skipper, he got knocked unconscious. He was hurting, in a lot of pain, and I couldn't leave the wheel to help him, since there was only him and me. I fought it out the best I could for hours, thinking I was going to die in every wave, until finally I could get the boat into the lee of some islands and get him down to his bunk and stabilize him a little. Then I had to go out and fight the ocean some more, until finally I could get us into a little harbor with the best name in the world: God's Pocket."
She let out a big sigh and continued. "It may have been the closest I've ever been to buying it, but I learned something out there. Don't give up when you're in trouble. If you do get washed out of a boat in a rapids, don't give up. Swim hard, keep your head up, try to get out of the fast current, keep your feet pointing downstream if you're in rocks. The rapids don't last forever, ride them out. This ain't the ocean, we're not out there alone, like Chuck and I were. If there's a swimmer in the water and you're in a boat, try to pick them up. If you're in the water, try to help yourself, but someone will come for you."
"You never told me that story," Karin said from the edge of the group.
"Lot of stories I never told you, Mom," Crystal said softly. "You'll hear some of them on this trip."
The stories and the singing continued around the fire until it burned low and people began to drift off to their beds. Finally, only Karin and Crystal were left, looking at the tiny flickers of flame in the fire pan, and the glow of the coals. "Crystal, I'm amazed at some of the things you've done," Karin said, softly enough that only her daughter could hear. "I wish I'd known."
"Just as well," Crystal told her. "Some of them you probably wouldn't have wanted to know about, anyway. Like that time on the Glacier Bay. That really was pretty scary, but I exaggerated it a little for the sake of the safety message. You got that, didn't you?"
"Yes," Karin smiled, "I thought it was rather clever."
"It gets through," Crystal said. "That's one thing I learned in education classes, how to teach a group without them being aware they're being taught."
"Still, I wish I'd known about them," she said. "I worried a lot about you. I still do. Now, I guess I know I had reason to be worried."
"No reason to," Crystal said bitterly. "After all, you wanted me out of your life."
"I never wanted any such thing," Karin said. "You were the one who left."
"I left because if I didn't, I was less than five seconds from pounding the crap out of Dad," she said. "Damn it, I knew what was going to happen. Why didn't you say something?"
"I tried, Crystal. Things blew up so quickly, and you were out the door."
"You could have done something," Crystal said with quiet anger. "It didn't have to come to that. It had been blowing up for months. You could have stopped it long before I left. Damn, on my fucking college graduation day, I'm driven out of the house. You know what happened then? I've essentially been a homeless person for almost three years now. My only home is the trunk of Randy's old Dodge. But, you know what really ate at me? Those fucking pork chops."
"I'm very sorry, Crystal. That was thoughtless of me. If it's any consolation, I have not served pork chops since."
Crystal snickered. "Well, that's something, anyway."
Karin reached for some way to change the subject. This was heading off into bad water, and she knew it. She'd had several reasons to come on this trip, and patching things up with Crystal and being with her some had always been the big one. She wasn't as concerned about the reason that had driven her to make the decision. It was pretty clear now that she and Al hadn't been lovers, close friends though they were, with a lot of respect for each other -- but with Al grieving over Louise, who knew what would happen? The need to tell Crystal was still there, just not as urgent. But, there was another problem starting to loom, as well, one that she'd given little concern to: this trip would have an end. What would happen then? Oh, well, that would happen when it happened; the time had come to change the direction of this discussion. "Do you have plans for the winter, Crystal?"
"I don't know, Mom," she said. "I can go back to Josh and Tiffany's, they want me back, but that's a hell of a lot of work, and scutwork to boot. I respect Tiffany as much as I have any woman in the outdoors, but she's tied to those dogs worse than any woman is to a child. I love running dogsleds, but dogs, 24/7, that's a little much. Scooter and I have talked about taking off, spending the winter in Florida, maybe in Mexico, someplace warm, maybe with some surf. It's a ways off yet. What are you going to do?"
"What do you mean?"
"Mom, you don't think Dad is going to let this trip go by the boards, do you? What's he going to say when he finds out?"
"He will not be pleased," Karin said. "In fact, the one negative to the whole thing is that he's in Japan with a tech rep. I sent Pete an e-mail telling him I was going to find you. I need to find that tech rep and apologize to him. He's having to bear the brunt of it."
Crystal snickered again. "Poor guy. But what happens with Dad?"
"Crystal, I've taken a page from your book. My clothes, and everything else of value to me, are in the trunk of the Buick at O'Hare. Unless Pete is extremely apologetic, I intend to go to Heller-Aller and file my retirement."
"He won't be apologetic," Crystal said flatly. "He's never been apologetic, especially to me."
"I don't expect him to be," Karin said. "Crystal, it's been a lot of years. I do feel I owe him the opportunity to apologize, but I may leave even if he does. I'm just tired of it." There, I said it, she thought. She was even more sure of it than that; there would be no turning back. Now what?
"You should have done it a long time ago," Crystal said. "I don't know how you put up with it that long."
"It wasn't easy, but it's not easy to break old habits, either," Karin said philosophically. "As to what I'm going to do: I don't know. I only know two things -- it will not be in Glen Ellyn, and I do want to reconnect with Jon."
"Jon? The fair-haired boy who can do no wrong?"
"The fair-haired boy who is nearly as estranged as you have been," Karin said. "In a way, that's more troubling. At least I know what the problem has been with you. I may try to find him before I head home. I know he's in Phoenix, but not where he lives."
"Mom . . ." Crystal started to say something, but changed her mind. "What about Nanci?" she asked instead.
"Frankly, after all the trouble she's caused, I don't care," Karin said. "Let her go to hell in her own way."
"Mom, that's pretty brutal," Crystal said.
"I know," Karin said. "It's not easy to say."
"Mom, you remember the last time we were together, that thing with Kip?"
"Yes," Karin said sadly. "I felt I was so close to bringing you back, to me anyway, if not to Pete, and he had to louse things up."
"Mom, as much as I loathe Nanci, she's still my sister. I pounded on Kip for her sake, to protect her. I don't know if it did any good, but it might have."
"It did," Karin said. "She didn't go back to him after he got out of jail. The men she's taken up with since haven't been much better, but to my knowledge, none of them have beaten her up."
"Good," Crystal nodded. "But Mom, she is your daughter. You can't just walk away."
"I don't want to," Karin said. "But, it's gotten pretty hopeless. If there were something I could do, I would. In three years, I haven't been able to think of anything. She is simply going to have to learn to be a responsible adult, and babying her will not teach her to do that. Perhaps my leaving will. It's the only thing I can think of. No, Crystal, it's you and Jon I'm worried about. I don't know much of what's happening with Jon, but at least he appears to have a home and is safe and happy, from what little I can find out."
"And, I'm homeless, and doing dangerous stuff, right?"
"Yes, exactly. I have reason to worry."
"Look, Mom, that's the way I am. I don't have to be a homeless person. Hell, after Dad made it clear I wasn't welcome around the house, I could have driven back up to Spearfish Lake and said to Randy, 'Hey, let's get married or shack up or something,' and he'd have jumped on it. Maybe I still could, but I don't want to hurt Nicole. I can get a job, get married, and live a normal life. I couldn't stand it, but in theory, I could do it. I don't have to live like this. I do it because I like it. If anything, I've found a home here, like Al and Louise did, years ago. Did he tell you about her?"
"Yes," Crystal said, "I was very sorry to hear it. She was a wonderful woman when I knew her, alive and full of spirit. You're a lot like her, you know."
"No," Crystal shook her head, "I'll be a long time being like her. Tough old girl, but absolutely in love with Al and the Canyon."
"Well, I meant when she was young. She was proud and capable and competent, proud to be a woman breaking into a man's world, doing things better than a man could. I didn't know her well enough. There were things I could have learned from her, too."
"Yeah," Crystal said, "I'd liked to have learned more of what she had to teach me. At least, I have that to thank you for. If you hadn't let Dad drive me out of the house, I'd never have met her, maybe never have gotten to know this place."
"You didn't have to leave, you know. At least leave so thoroughly."
"Oh, yes, I did," Crystal said bitterly. "It was him or me. Like I told you, I was less than five seconds from pounding the shit out of him. Do you have any doubt I could have done it?"
"No, no doubt at all."
"Suppose I'd done it," Crystal said, the anger obviously starting to return. The memory of that night still burned in her, Karin knew. "Then where would I have been?"
"It wouldn't have solved anything, except to still have you out the door with the police looking for you," Karin said.
"I knew that," Crystal said, "So I left. I had no choice. God, you had no idea how I cried, even though I knew it was coming. What a fuck of a thing to have to happen on my graduation day! I come home, proud that I worked my ass off, pulled my grades up to a Cum Laude, for God's sake, after my half-assed grades in high school, and Dad brushed it off like it was nothing. God, that hurt! Like I said, I knew it was coming, but I still cried. I must have been an hour, right on the edge of the sub, thinking I ought to go back and knowing damn well that if he said one more word -- well, what I did to Kip would have been a warm-up. I thought about going to Randy, like I said, but I didn't want to dump my problems on his parents. They're good people, Mom, they didn't deserve my troubles. So, I had no choice but to go to Myleigh. At least I knew she'd been there with her parents; she'd understand. She put me back together, a little. But Mom, it didn't have to happen at all. If you'd just listened to me a little bit, back up there in Marquette that time, it wouldn't have happened at all; but no, you didn't and Dad didn't and everything came out just like I figured it would."
"I know," Karin said. "I'm truly sorry. I wish I could go back and do it over right, knowing what I know now, but there's no way. It's washed down the river, now, and all that we can do is to try to put what we can back together."
Crystal shook her head; it was hard to see her in the dark, but Karin could hear her almost crying. "I don't think it can be put back together, Mom. There's been too much hurt."
"Crystal . . ."
"You better hit the sack, Mom," she said summarily, obviously not wanting to talk about it anymore. "We've got a big day tomorrow. I need the sleep, too, but I think I'm going to have to be with the river by myself for a while before I can get it."
"All right, Crystal," she replied, wishing that the discussion didn't have to end so badly. A couple times, it seemed to be going in good directions, but always it turned back to touchy areas. There were a lot of them. "Let's try to talk again, down the river."
"Yeah, sure Mom," she replied without enthusiasm as she got up, and started to walk down the beach away from the camp. Dear God, Karin thought, has the wall between us gotten that bad? What am I going to do?