Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Book 1 of the Dawnwalker Cycle
The glow of Lava Falls stayed with Randy during the next four days to Diamond Creek.
The last night on the river at a place called Granite Springs was sad. This long journey was nearing an end. All journeys have to come to an end; the party had started as a group of strangers, but had become compatriots, friends sharing each other's joys and sorrows. It was a magnificent feeling, but now, it hurt to realize that the last night was here. It was already a time to start to say goodbye.
After they'd pulled the rafts up on the bank, the boatmen broke out the last of the beer from the drag bags. The river was still cold, still icy from the bottom of Lake Powell nearly 250 miles above, and it was cold enough to make the beer taste just fine. He sat on the tube of the gear boat, staring back up river, sipping at the beer, realizing that now he'd been there, and he'd done that.
He looked up as someone sat down on the tube next to him. "Hey, Randy," he smiled. "Crystal tells me you're going back to Spearfish Lake, getting married and moving into your new house. She tells me you've got a hell of a good job, too."
"Yeah," Randy sighed. "It seems a lot closer, now."
"Randy," Al grinned, "You do what you have to do. But, look, I gotta say one thing. You've done a hell of a job on this trip. You didn't have to do anything but go along for the ride, and you've worked harder than many of the people I pay." He let out a sigh. "Oh, hell, Randy. What I'm trying to say is that if it all goes to hell for you, there's still a spot waiting for you here as a boatman. I can always use someone like you."
"Probably won't happen," Randy said. "There's too many reasons to go back. But, it's nice to know it's an option, if I ever need it. This is a hell of a Canyon you got here, Al. It's going to be hard to leave."
"I know," Al said. "I never could manage it. It's always hard to wait for the next time. You're a stronger man than I am, Randy. Look, though. Like I said, you busted your ass on this trip when you didn't have to. When I get back to Flagstaff, I'll have Michelle cut you a hell of a discount. It's the least I can do."
"You don't have to do that, Al," Randy said. "I got my money's worth by being allowed to be a part of the trip, not just a passenger."
"You're a good kid, Randy," Al laughed. "Come back sometime, and bring Nicole next time."
"I might just have to do that," he grinned.
"Catch you around, Randy," Al said as he got up. "I got a few other people I need to talk to."
Randy sat on the raft for a bit longer, just pulling at his beer until it was gone. He threw the empty into the garbage bag, realizing that Al's mention of Nicole reminded him that he still needed to talk to Crystal alone; he hadn't managed that the entire trip.
He found her up on the bank, sitting with Karin. The two were laughing and telling stories, mostly about the trip. When he got a moment, he said, "Crystal, is there any chance you could find a little time to take a walk with me? Just us?"
"Sure, Randy," she said. "I've been needing to talk to you, too. There's a nice overlook not far away."
It wasn't real close; it was a fifteen-minute walk that involved a little climbing. At the top, the view was as predicted -- a nice overlook, with the river spread wide and dark below them, Canyon walls raising above them into a sky that was broader now against the rim that had grown lower but more distant as the days had passed.
"Randy, I'm glad you came on this trip," Crystal said. "Maybe you'll understand a little of why this is becoming my home."
"I think I do," he said. "Look, I've been wanting to talk to you, and this is the last chance, probably."
"Nicole?" she asked.
"Yeah," he let out a sigh, "Last winter, I had a plan in mind. I was going to hike up Katahdin with her, like I did with you, and give her a ring at the top. That didn't work out, for a number of reasons, and I'm just as glad, but when I get back to Spearfish Lake, I'm not going to put it off any more."
"I knew that," she said. "It's been pretty clear."
"Yeah," he said, "But, Nicole and I have been doing some talking. You remember, back when you started on the AT? I knew you were hurting, Crystal. Hurting bad. I didn't know what to do to help. About all I could do was offer you a safety net, when I made that standing offer to marry you. All this time, the offer has been on the table. But, on this trip, I've seen how you love this place, and how you belong here. I don't see how it'd ever work unless I threw in everything at home and came here to become a boatman with you. There isn't anything else that would work. Crystal, I've worried a lot about you the last three years. I'm still worried. I hate like hell to take the safety net out from under you, but I'd like your permission to withdraw my offer."
"It's fine with me, Randy," she smiled. "Nicole will be good for you. She's the kind of girl you need, not a river rat with a bad case of wanderlust, like me." She let out a sigh, and went on. "Look, I guess Nicole never told you, but she and I had an agreement. This was back when we were hiking the AT. We just sorta agreed that whichever one of us you chose, the other one would back off out of the way. I knew then that it'd never work between us, so I sort of backed off, anyway, to let her get a fair shot at you. That's part of the reason I stayed gone so long."
He grinned. "She told me part of that. She said she backed off some to let you have a shot."
Crystal shook her head and laughed. "There you go. We both had the best of intentions, and you still got the short end of the stick. I'm sorry about that, Randy. Maybe we should have been a little more above board, but we were all trying to be nice to each other's feelings."
"It worked out," he said, understanding that she had more to say.
She did. "Look, Randy, two or three times I thought real hard about taking you up on it, even though I was pretty sure it wouldn't work. I was pretty bummed when I got back from that trip to Hawaii. The trip was OK, but it was just fucking long and dull, and I guess right at that moment I was a little tired of roaming. I was heading back to Spearfish Lake, and I was going to kind of nose around and see how you and she were doing. Then, I needed gas in Flagstaff, and everything changed. Then, when I got back to Spearfish Lake, I took one look at you and Nicole, there at your folk's house that evening, and knew it was a lost cause. I think I could have brushed her aside if I wanted to, but I knew it would be the wrong thing to do. I really wanted to learn something about dogsledding though, and that was a good chance to learn from people who really know their stuff, otherwise, I would have just stayed a couple of days and headed to Florida. But, I knew I had to stay away from you. That's why I asked Josh and Tiffany if I could stay in their pickup camper for the winter. I probably could have stayed with your folks, and that would have been a disaster for you and Nicole."
"Yes," he said. "I think it would have been, too."
"The camper was OK, and the best part was that it was right outside Josh and Tiffany's living room window, so I knew it would be hard for us to get fooling around. Guess it worked OK."
"It did, even after they left," he agreed. "I wish you hadn't gotten Nicole hooked on the AT, but it was good for her. She had a little wanderlust, too, but I think that cured it."
"Yeah, it was her big adventure, like this one was yours. But Randy, there doesn't have to be just one big adventure. Mom learned that, this trip."
"Guess she has," Randy grinned. "She really seemed to get into it. She's seemed pretty happy, especially the last few days."
"Yeah," Crystal admitted absently, "She has."
"Crystal," he continued, "Nicole and I have talked about it. We're both still worried about you. We've agreed that there's still room in our lives for you if something happens, if you need a place to come to. Consider us family, or something."
"Thanks, Randy, I appreciate it. Thank Nicole for me, too. But, I don't think it's going to be needed, now." She leaned back, searching for words, but Randy could see the warmth in her, mixed with . . . something. "Randy, the last few days have been pretty incredible, but I've got a family forming around me again."
"What?" he frowned, "I thought it was all over between your mom and your dad."
"That's the incredible part," Crystal said. "It's all over between Mom and Pete, but it's starting all over again between Mom and Dad."
Randy frowned. "Crystal, this isn't making much sense."
She smiled serenely. "Think of what it's been like for me," she said with a huge grin. "I never knew till after we ran Crystal. Randy, Pete's not my dad. Al is my dad."
"My . . . God," Randy said, the world shifting to a different axis.
"They had a big Canyon romance, back when Mom ran the trip before," she explained. "I was the result. Pete never knew. Dad never knew about me. Mom and Dad never thought it would work. So, after the trip Mom went back to Glen Ellyn and married Pete. Don't tell anyone, not even Nicole, but I have to tell someone, I'm so happy. It'll come out in time, but there's some things that need to get sorted out first, like Mom's divorce."
"Done deal, Crystal," he grinned. If this worked out, she'd have a new safety net -- in this Canyon she loved. It was a huge load off his shoulders. "What happens now?"
"It's still coming together," she said. "Mom and Dad are going back to Flagstaff on the crew bus with us. Since we're shorthanded, Dad is going to have to do the next trip. Mom is going to go back to Glen Ellyn, file for her retirement, and get divorce proceedings going. She's not sure whether to do that in Illinois, here in Arizona, or in Las Vegas, whatever works out best. But, she says she's going to stick around to see Dad and me off at Lee's Ferry. Me, I think there's at least a fifty-fifty chance that she's going to sign herself onto the crew manifest at the last minute and run with us. See, she's fallen in love with this place, too. Actually, she fell in love with it twenty-five years ago, but never could admit to being able to live like we do."
"I'll be damned," Randy grinned. Wasn't this something?
"If she doesn't do the next trip, she'll probably be on the one after that," Crystal grinned. "Dad says if he can't make a boatman out of her, he'll turn her into a good camp cook. She doesn't have the muscles that he and I have, but I wouldn't put it past her, either. It's not all muscle, you've learned that. But, more important, she's going to straighten out the mess at the office."
"Yeah, Louise used to do all the books. Michelle is OK on the phone, if she'd ever remember to take the damn bubble gum out of her mouth when the phone rings, but she's no bookkeeper, and things are loused up. Not seriously, but there are problems. Like, Randy, you and Mom shouldn't have been on this trip at all. There's a hell of a waiting list. When those cancellations came in, she should have gotten on the phone and started calling people, but when you and Mom called in a few minutes later, she just signed you up, rather than calling back the people she should have. It all worked out for the best, but it wasn't fair to people who have been waiting. Anyway, Mom is going to move to Flagstaff, take over the office, and get things organized. Unless Dad can come up with some boatmen, he's going to have to run every Team 3 trip this fall, but the past years he's only run three or four times a year. Maybe that'll change, who knows?"
"What are you going to do, Crystal?"
"Me? I'm going to enjoy it," she grinned. "I'm going to enjoy having a family again. Oh, I need to stay out of the way while Mom and Dad have their big romance, but that shouldn't be a big deal. Scooter and I were talking about spending the winter together, maybe in Florida, maybe somewhere else. I don't know. It doesn't matter, now."
"Josh and Tiffany would like to have you back."
"I know they would," she said. "But, I think I better stay out of you and Nicole's way, just in case."
"Don't let that be a worry," he said. "We can still be friends."
"I'm not worried," she said. "I'll drop by once in a while, I just don't think I want to spend the winter cleaning up dog shit again. Let me know when the wedding is. If it's not during the tripping season, I'll be there."
"You'd be welcome," he grinned.
"Look, maybe it's a mistake for me to let you marry her. I don't think it's a mistake for you. Mom and Dad made a mistake twenty-five years ago, and now they get to correct it. Who knows? Maybe, if it all turns out to be a mistake for us, in twenty-five years or so you and I'll get a chance to put it right."
It was hard to reach Diamond Creek the next day, hard to take the boats out of the water, unload the gear, and start stacking things on the truck and trailer. A big charter bus soon showed up, and the customers began separating out their personal gear, saying goodbye to the boatmen, and there were a few tears and some address exchanges. Randy noticed Scooter and her frequent hiking companion in a long, soulful kiss, and kept the thought to himself that he was witnessing another Canyon romance.
The remaining handful of them finished loading, then got on the crew bus for the ride back to Flagstaff, Karin among them. It was a long ride, but quiet; many people fell asleep, including Scooter and Crystal. Randy just looked out the window at the passing desert, wondering if he'd ever see it again.
Finally, they reached Flagstaff, the beautiful green town, an oasis in the desert. It'd be a good place to live, he thought, and with mountains like that, there had to be a ski slope somewhere around. Randy got his things and carried them over to the Dakota. It was late now, and he thought he'd find a motel before he hit the road in the morning.
He closed the tailgate and walked around to the driver's side, to find Crystal waiting there for him. "Had to say goodbye," she said, and took him in her arms. They shared a brief kiss and hug, one between friends who had once been lovers, but were still friends.
They quickly broke their kiss, and leaned back. "You going to see Myleigh on the way back?" she asked.
"I'm planning on trying," he told her. "No word on your folks to her, either, right?"
"No, I'll tell her when the time comes," she said. "Maybe this winter. We'll have to see."
"Just curious, Crystal," he grinned. "What do you do on break, anyway? Find a good bar and get drunk on your ass?"
"No way," she smiled. "Dad tries not to hire people like that. This summer, Scooter and I usually rented a motel room. There's a nice one out near the Interstate. They've got a water heater as big as Yellowstone and shower nozzles like a fire hose. We get a big bag of junk food, shower until they run out of hot water, then sleep around the clock, then get up, eat some of the junk food, and start all over again."
"Well, I don't want to keep you from it," he said. "But, what's the name of that motel? I could stand a shower myself."
She told him, and added, "I'm not going there this time. Scooter probably will. Mom and I are going to make a quick trip down to Phoenix. There's something we need to do there."
"Well, have fun," he said. "Look, how about a real letter once in a while, no more of this 'Having a wonderful time, wish you were here' stuff, OK? I want to hear how this all turns out."
"Will do," she said. "I'll probably stop by Spearfish Lake after tripping season anyway. I can tell you then. Hey, think about trying to talk Nicole into taking a trip sometime, huh?"
"I'll ask," he said, "But as far as I'm concerned, the long solo trips are over with. It'll have to depend if I'm free."
"If you can get free, I'll see if you can buck the line, maybe go as swampers," she grinned. "Let's stay friends. Take care, Randy. Be good to Nicole for me."
"You take care," he said, breaking the hug. "I better be going. You got work to do."
"Yeah, see ya sometime, Randy. 'Bye for now."
Randy got into the Dakota. It was warm and fetid inside there, from having sat in the desert sun for almost three weeks, but the air conditioner soon took hold. He found a motel room, called Nicole, took a long shower, and feeling clean for the first time in a long time, collapsed onto the bed, without bothering with supper. He was tired, too.
He felt better the next day as he went out and got in the Dakota for the long drive home. Far up the river, he'd happened to mention to Al that he didn't want to go back directly. Al said that if he had the time he ought to check out the red rock desert up around Escalante and Capitol Reef, on Utah 12 and 24, and maybe check out Canyonlands National Park, too. Great views, he said. It sounded like a good idea to Randy.
He drove back up the highway to the north, the route he'd taken to the river on the crew bus almost three weeks before. This time, he stopped at Navajo Bridge, walked out on the old one, and stared down at the river. He'd been there, and he'd done that, and there was a pang that was hard to stifle. In a few days, Al and Crystal would be down there again. Maybe Karin, too; he wouldn't be surprised. But not him. It was hard to turn away, but finally he managed it.
He got back in the Dakota and drove north, up through Kanab, Utah, and up the highways Al had suggested. The scenery was indeed spectacular, and the views were great, although they couldn't compare to the views he'd had from the rafts, down at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Those would be hard to top, ever. He decided to skip Canyonlands; he could feel Nicole and Spearfish Lake beginning to pull at him, now that he'd managed to break free from the river, and he pointed the Dakota toward home. Maybe they'd have to come west for their honeymoon, he thought absently; he didn't think she'd ever been in that vast, empty, beautiful land.
As he drove across the flat, boring expanse of Interstate 70 toward Kansas City, he knew Myleigh lay ahead, too. It had been spring since he'd seen her, and she'd been a little distant then, wrapped up with Ron. Crystal's revelation at the beginning of the trip that she'd broken up with him had come as a surprise, and there was a little unfinished business there, business that he'd thought was long finished. He'd long ago promised Nicole that he'd have things cleared away with both Crystal and Myleigh before he married her. Now, maybe he'd better be sure.
The Marienthal College campus was located in a suburb of Kansas City. It wasn't large, and it was no trick to find Myleigh's office. As luck would have it, she was there when he knocked on her door frame. "Randy!" she cried. "What a surprise! How have you been?"
"Pretty good," he smiled. It was good to see her again.
"You look strong and bronzed," she said. "What have you been doing?"
"Spent the last three weeks with Crystal," he said. "In the Grand Canyon."
"Oh, my word," she grinned. "Since you're here, I imagine that it did not capture you the way it captured her."
"Came close," Randy admitted. "If it weren't for other things, I could live like that."
"How is she? I have not heard much from her."
"Just fine," he said. "She's right, that's the place she's supposed to be."
"Just as pretty as ever. Finished the AT last month. We're getting married sometime soon, but haven't set a date yet. Anyway, how've you been doing?"
"Oh, all right," she shrugged. "I'm doing much what I always wanted to be doing, and it makes me happy."
"I heard you broke up with Ron," he said, hardly daring to mention it.
"Yes," she said listlessly. "It would not have worked. We liked each other a lot, Randy. Loved each other. But each of us has our careers, and we could not tear ourselves away from them."
"That's a shame," he said. "In a way, that's sort of what happened with Crystal and me. Well, with you and me, too, but we always knew that would happen."
"Yes, we did," she said, looking at him and brightening. "I was just leaving to go to my apartment. It's just across the street. Would you care to come along with me? Perhaps I can find us a bite to eat."
"I'd like that," he said. "I've been sitting in the truck for a lot of miles."
She led him out of her office and across the green campus. She pointed out some of the sights, and they talked about the river and Crystal a little. Her apartment was right across the street, in fact; not a long walk at all. It was on the second floor, up a flight of outside steps. She unlocked the door, and he could see it was a small apartment, cozy, but with the walls covered floor to ceiling with books on bookshelves. In the middle of it all was her favorite overstuffed chair. What a nice little nest for her, he thought.
He followed her inside; she closed the door, and turned to him. She put her arms around him, and planted a passionate kiss on his lips. Helplessly, he felt his arms go around her, kissing her back, hard and deep. Damn it, he thought. He'd always had special feelings for Myleigh; once upon a time, he'd hoped that somehow she'd be the one he wound up with, although he'd known that it could never be. But, there was still a lot of love there, a lot of passion. She'd always been a little tentative, especially at times like this, but now, she was being assertive, aggressive even -- very unlike the Myleigh he'd come to know and love. Even in the few short minutes he'd seen her, he knew that she wasn't the shy, retiring girl he'd first known, but a competent, confident adult. Was this going to louse things up with Nicole?
Suddenly, she broke away. "It isn't working anymore, is it?" she said sorrowfully.
"I don't think so," he said.
"I could feel Nicole in you," she said, shaking her head. "But I could feel Ron in me, too. Damn it, Randy, do you know what this means?"
She took him in her arms again, but buried her head on his shoulder. He could almost feel tears. "Damn it, I knew this could happen, falling in love with him, and now I can't be with him."
"Myleigh . . ."
"I thought it was for the best," she sobbed. "Randy, I don't know how I can say this. I love Ron. Love him a lot. But, you and I share more than he and I do. Much more. Ron and I never managed to be together for more than three or four days at a time, and they were wonderful, intense days and nights. But, we were always happy to be apart again, so we could recharge our batteries for the next time."
He shook his head, feeling for her. It wasn't the same. He pulled her tight, holding on, just trying to comfort her. She was still something very special to him, and although he knew he could never have her, it didn't keep him from feeling her pain. Finally, a thought came to him. "Myleigh," he said. "Let me tell you a story."
"What?" she said, tears still rolling.
"Once upon a time, there were two people who were very much in love, but their lives were very different. They knew they could never stay together, so they went their separate ways, had their own families, and eventually both lost them."
"This isn't a fable, is it?" she said, a little confused. "This is someone you know?"
"Yes," he smiled. "They stayed apart for twenty-five years, until chance brought them together again. Their lives were still very different, and they knew that even then, they might only be able to see each other for a few days every few weeks, at least for much of the year. They decided that it beats the hell out of nothing."
"Randy," she said, looking up at him. "What are you telling me?"
"Myleigh, I'm saying that if you have a lick of sense, you'll go to Ron and tell him that story. Ask him to take you back."
"Oh, God, Randy, I'd like to," she said tearfully. "But how in the hell would it ever work? It's a long way from here to Franklin."
"Myleigh, there are some marvelous silver inventions called airliners. There's a direct route between here and Camden. I'm saying that a weekend or two a month, and term breaks, beats the hell out of nothing. Go to him. You may think you're a slave to his penis, but if you're anything like the woman I know you to be, you've enslaved him, too."
A while later, Randy was back on the Interstate in the Dakota, heading toward Spearfish Lake and Nicole. The Kansas City airport wasn't far off, and he could see a jetliner point down the runway, rear back, and head for the sky. Myleigh might be on it, he thought. The odds were actually against it, but symbolically, she was there; she'd be on one like it, soon anyway, heading to Ron. He looked at the airliner, and sent her luck from his heart.
The traffic thinned out a little; he set the cruise control and began to reflect, not just back on the last few weeks, but on the last few years. In that time, he'd loved three women, the most exciting women he'd ever known, or could ever imagine. One was wild and free, another intense and mysterious, and he knew that he could have had either one if he'd been willing to decide between them and make the sacrifices that each one demanded. He hadn't been able to manage any of that, despite everything. Now, he was heading back to the third one, and she wasn't the last choice, but the best one for him, and now, he was sure of it.
He loved Nicole, loved her a lot. But, he knew, there would always be a couple of empty spots in his heart, waiting there for the women he'd loved and lost.
-- 30 --
2:56 PM, December 29, 2002
Revision completed May 1, 2010