Alone Together

Part II of the Dawnwalker Cycle

"A Spearfish Lake Story"

a novel by
Wes Boyd
©2004, ©2009

Chapter 16

If Jon and Tanisha thought Crystal had been dropping bombs on them for the last hour, it was nothing compared to the next one. There werenít a lot of major, life changing surprises, but a lot of catching up, now that the time for covering up was past. Al, Karin and Crystal learned a lot about what Jon and Tanisha had been doing over the past three years. They couldnít talk much about what they were currently doing at Lambdatron, of course, but some of the older things held a few surprises all around.

They were out of beer, but the Canyon Tours three had realized this could well turn into a party; Al excused himself for a minute, then came back from the car, carrying a cooler full of beer. "Just extras from the drag bags," he grinned. "It was kind of cool last trip; the customers didnít get into it as much as they thought they would."

"You drink a lot of beer on the trips?" Tanisha asked.

"It gets hot, and when it gets real bad in the Canyon in July and August, the customers sometimes knock back a few," Al grinned. "Even the boatmen every once in a while, too."

Jon was holding a beer can that looked like it had obviously been through a cement mixer. The beer was still good, but it was just about impossible to read the label. "What happened to this?" he asked.

"A leftover," Crystal said. "You know youíve had a tough day when the paint is sanded off the beer cans."

"Thereís no refrigeration," Karin explained. "They drag the beer in the river in sacks behind the rafts."

"Best possible cold beer on a hot day," Al smiled.

"I guess," Jon smiled. "This is about as good a beer as Iíve ever had, considering the circumstances. Anyway, Mom, I take it Dad has just gotten worse and worse."

"Thatís about right," his mother agreed. "I hung on and hung on, mostly for Nanciís sake, and then the chance came to reconnect with Crystal, and possibly with you, so I took it. I take it Crystal told you about that."

"A fair amount. I take it this only happened in the last month or two."

"Yes," she smiled, "While your father was in Japan. I hadnít planned it when he left, but the opportunity arose, and I took advantage of it."

"I have to ask," Jon said, "What was he doing in Japan?"

"Iím not very clear on the technical side," she said. "He didnít tell me a lot. It had something to do with adapting some older die-cutter machinery to a new controller that became available in the past year. The company they were working with in Japan thought they needed a better consultant than one of the regular tech reps. Since it was such a big account, he had no real choice but to go, no matter how much he didnít like it."

"A new controller?" Jon smiled, holding back on a surprise of his own.

"Iím not entirely clear on that, either," she said. "I do know it wasnít designed at Hadley-Monroe, but by some other company under contract. Your father was very impressed with it. He said several times that he wished you were able to work with him on it. He said youíd do well at working out some of the possibilities it has."

"This is for the laser die cutter, right?" Jon smiled again.

"Yes, your fatherís pride and joy, but he took one look at it and said the old unitís time had come. He said it made him feel a little old and out of date."

"Yeah, that is a pretty slick unit," Jon smiled. "You can do things with it that Hadley-Monroe never even dreamed of."

"Youíre familiar with it?" Karin asked with a frown.

"Pretty familiar," Jon laughed. "Tanisha and I designed it."

"Jon!" his mother exclaimed, "Youíre kidding!"

"No, we did it," he smiled. "I thought it was pretty cool when we got it dumped in our laps."

"Actually, you almost shit your pants," Tanisha laughed. "But then, I did, too."

"Well, yeah, but that was the surprise of the moment," he laughed. "I laughed a lot about it last summer while we were working on it. It took us about six weeks, but we were working on other projects at the same time. Pretty much cookbook work, no big deal, but I kept thinking about the bricks theyíd be shitting at Hadley-Monroe if they knew that an undergrad was redesigning their sacred controller."

"Yeah," Crystal laughed, "And probably the ones Pete would have been shitting if heíd known it was you, too."

"Well, yeah," Jon said. "Our company knew about the problem with Dad, so they had one of the shareholder engineers front for us as Project Manager, but we hardly ever saw her, about that anyway. Extremely cool woman, very unique, very brilliant, very flamboyant."

"Yes, your father did mention something about a woman from the contractor. He said he was surprised at her technical competence, and was quite good looking, to boot."

"Thatís her," Tanisha smiled. "Sheís about the best friend weíve made out here. We spent last Christmas together. She flew us down to the Virgin Islands on her Learjet."

"Her what jet?" Crystal said wide-eyed.

"Learjet," Jon smiled. "Itís an old one, a í67, I think she said, but it climbs like a homesick angel and cruises about 550. She picked it up at a government auction cheap. Somebody made the mistake of trying to haul a load of cocaine into the country with it. Weíve been on another trip with her, too."

"Good grief," Crystal shook her head. "And to think I spent last Christmas looking at dog assholes."

"This has got to be some woman," Al grinned.

"Oh, she is," Jon laughed. "Sheís a helluva pilot. Couple of other things, too, but letís not get into that right now. So, anyway, whatís the deal on Nanci?"

"I wish I knew," Karin sighed. "I know sheís in the Chicago area, I used to get a call from her every now and then, but not for several months now. I do know sheís been in and out of trouble, fortunately nothing terribly serious. Jon, I feel a little guilty about walking out on her, but I have about come to the conclusion that thereís nothing left that I can do for her. Perhaps if she realizes she doesnít have her mother to run to when sheís in trouble then sheíll straighten herself out. Perhaps Iím deluding myself, but I see now it was pointless to continue on the way I was going. I had no idea I was going to rediscover Al when I came out here. Then I was very saddened to hear about Louise."

"Louise?" Tanisha asked.

"My wife," Al said sadly, shaking his head. "She died last spring. Cancer. She was a good woman, loved the Canyon with all her heart. We were together for almost twenty-five years."

"I met her when I was on my first trip," Karin said. "She was our trip leader. Thatís where Crystal got her middle name."

"That trip when you and Al . . ?" Jon asked.

"Yeah," Al nodded and came up with a wry smile. "We got together after that, when her husband left her. He told her it was him or the Canyon. She chose the Canyon, and well, I sort of came along with the deal after a while." He let out a sigh. "Crystal and I started on a trip last spring, got down to Phantom Ė thatís a ranger station with the only phone down in the Canyon Ė where I got a message that Louise was in the hospital. I told Crystal she was now the trip leader and started for the rim. I barely made it to the hospital down here while Louise was still conscious. I was broke up pretty bad about it for a while, but your sister and the rest of the good people Iíve got at Canyon Tours pulled together and kept things going. Sheís turned into a damn good trip leader."

"Louise was a very cool woman," Crystal said. "I learned a lot from her, and wish Iíd had the chance to learn more."

"She was," Al said. "I still miss her a lot, but Iím still surprised how your mother came out of the mists of time to wipe away my tears. Like I told you down at Baseball Man, Crystal, Louise, and I never had kids, but I often dreamed that if I had a daughter sheíd come out about like you. And then, to find out . . . " he shook his head.

"Al," Crystal said softly, "I spent a year running trips with you wishing I had a father like you, rather than a jerk like Pete."

"The wildest things happen down in the Canyon sometimes," Al grinned. "That one takes the prize. Oh, well, enough about me for now, this is for all you Chladeks." He glanced at Tanisha. "All four of you," he grinned. "Itís getting late. Anyone up for dinner?"

"Iím afraid thereís not a lot in the house," Tanisha said. "Not for a crowd like this, anyway, and Jon and I donít eat very fancy."

"No problem," Al grinned. "Thereís a few steaks in the cooler, too. Theyíve been down the river, so I donít want to refreeze them, but they should still be OK."

"We could broil them," Tanisha said. "I think, anyway. Iím not sure how to use the broiler. Jon and I arenít much good as cooks," she added apologetically.

"We do have that grill and charcoal weíve threatened to use sometime," Jon suggested.

"OK, that works," Al said. "Crystal, letís get to it."

"Small night seventeen menu, right?"

"Should work, if they have a few spuds," Al laughed. "Tanisha, letís go raid your refrigerator and see what we can do about putting together a Canyon Tours dinner."

Over the next few minutes, Tanisha basically stood out of the way while Al and Crystal threw together a masterful dinner based on a raid of the refrigerator. "Like father, like daughter," Karin commented wryly to her son and daughter in law. "Neither of them can cook worth a damn on a stove, but give them an open fire outside, and they can conjure up a banquet out of thin air. Iím starting to learn some of that."

"No great trick," Al snorted. "Try cooking something the size of a Thanksgiving dinner for twenty people over an open fire or camp stove every day for eight months a year for going on thirty years, and see if you donít figure out how to do it."

The steaks were good Ė Karin was dead right, it was a Canyon Tours banquet, and the night grew late. It was great to just reconnect after many years apart. Crystal, Karin and Al had originally planned to drive back to Flagstaff that night since they had to go grocery shopping the next day. Jon and Tanisha didnít think that was that big a deal, until they realized they were talking about supplies for twenty people for three weeks Ė and pack them all for a river trip in the process! To top it off, that had to come out of Crystal and Alís time off, and they didnít get a lot of spare time during the season, which was starting to wind down. But, when they learned about the ten-K, they offered to stay around and watch, and Jon and Tanisha volunteered to drive up to Flagstaff, to help with the groceries, for whatever help they could be.

"Weíd love to have you," Tanisha said, "But Iím sorry we donít have a spare bedroom. This is supposed to be a two-bedroom unit, but we turned the second one into an office."

"Oh, no problem," Crystal laughed. "Youíre dealing with Canyon Tours people. We wouldnít know what to do with a bed this time of year anyway." By now, Jon and Tanisha shouldnít have been surprised to see Paco pads and sleeping bags appear out of the trunk of his motherís Buick, but there they were. They were even more surprised to see the three reject the offer of the living room floor and unroll things out on the patio with the comment, "We wouldnít know what to do about sleeping indoors this time of year, either."

"Good grief," Tanisha said as she and Jon finally got into bed, well after midnight and totally exhausted beyond comprehension, to boot.

"Good grief, what?" Jon asked, pulling her to him and holding her tight.

"Just good grief." Tanisha said. "What a day! Jon, do you realize we were firing the Swallowtail only ten hours ago?"

"Youíre right," he said. "My God, it seems like a month. Or more. Maybe another lifetime."

"Right, and all this on top of it. Jon, your mother and Crystal and Al are super good people. A little rough-cut compared to what weíre used to, but just as competent or unique as, say, Jennlynn or Stan."

"Mom did come across a little rough-cut tonight," he snickered. "Thatís a little surprising. She always was a very neat dresser, very organized, very business suit and high heels. It seems a little strange."

"You want to know what I think?" Tanisha snickered back. "I think sheís trying to throw off that part of her life and become a Canyon Tours river rat, and it shows."

"Exactly what I was thinking," he said. "Damn, that Al is a neat guy. You can see he and Mom are still kind of sniffing around each other, trying to get used to the idea of having a romance again."

"But itís clear they both want it bad," she agreed. "I never dreamed that this evening could happen, especially like this." She let out a sigh. "Jon, I realize we were planning on trying to out-party Jennlynn this weekend, and I think weíve lost the chance. But, you know what?"

"This is better," he answered for her. "But maybe weíd at least better get on the boards."

"Jon," she shook her head. "Youíre insatiable."

"I know," he said. "Ainít it nice?"

* * *

They awoke the next morning to the smell of strong coffee Ė Al at the stove, making it river style, powerful, to help make up for the short night. They barely got a chance to sip at it, though; they drove over to Lambdatron, got set for the ten-K Ė and Jon and Tanisha said it was nicer than they could believe to have a cheering section.

But they got another surprise as they finished the ten-K together, although in no great time Ė they found Al and Crystal in an animated discussion with Angela and a couple of other Lambdatron people. "Tanisha, Jon!" Angela exclaimed when she saw them. "I didnít know you knew Al Buck!"

"You know this old river rat?" Jon grinned.

"Why of course," she said. "Iíve run the Canyon with him three times, now! I ran with him last spring, before you got out here. And Crystal! I should have made the connection on the last name! Sheís a magician at the oars."

"I donít know if you know the other river rat here," Jon laughed. "This is my mother, Karin. Sheís Alís girlfriend."

"This is your family?" Angela said wide-eyed. "I thought you were . . . "

"We still are hiding out from my father," Jon explained. "All of us, now. But, thatís changed things a little. Is Stan around?"

"No, heís tied up in the office, working the phones along with Jim. Al, Stan will be sorry he missed you."

"Not to worry," Al smiled. "Looks like Iím going to be coming down here again from time to time. Maybe we can get some of the Lambdatron river rats together for a drink or dinner or something."

"Lambdatron river rats?" Tanisha said, surprised.

"Itís nothing organized," Angela explained. "There are several of us who have run the Canyon with Canyon Tours from time to time. Stanís one of us. He is going to be so surprised!"

"Heís got nothing on us," Tanisha smirked. "Al, you, Crystal and Karin have a lot to do. Maybe weíd better get moving."

It was a little hard to leave, since Angela was in a mood to talk Grand Canyon, but they finally broke away and drove back to the apartment. After Tanisha and Jon had a shower and changed clothes, they took off for Flagstaff, Al and Karin in her Buick, and the rest following close behind in the Monte Carlo. "Look at them," Crystal grinned at the scene in the car in front. "All snuggled together like a couple of teenagers."

"Hell," Jon snorted, "Thatís the one mistake I made with the Monte Carlo, getting bucket seats, or Tanisha and I would be snuggled up like that, too."

"Yeah, I noticed you two are pretty close," Crystal said. "And thatís on top of working together, too."

"Weíre very close," Tanisha said. "And we prefer to be together as much as we can. Thereís a number of reasons for that, not the least of which is that for two years, Jon had to stay in my sight in case my brother might show up."

"I donít know how much good I could have done," Jon said. "I did have a steel rod and a can of Mace that might have helped. Itís still a concern, and in a way itís a bigger one now because of our security clearances. Crystal, donít tell anyone, not even Al or Mom, but we have company armed guards at the office, armed security on call 24/7 at home, and thereís a .38 Special in the bedside stand. We both have permits, Arizona is a shall-issue state, and the company security guards took us out to the range and taught us how to use them."


"Thereís a .357 magnum in the glove compartment," Jon said. "We donít think her brother knows weíre here, we laid some serious false trail, but we donít know how heís taken it. Thatís why weíre trying to lay a little low."

"Thatís got to be a fairly serious threat," Crystal nodded. "You guys ever think about martial arts?"

"Weíve taken classes, both at Tech and here," Jon said. "Crystal, I need to thank you for teaching me that bit one time when we were both in high school. I had to deck Tanishaís brother to get her out of St. Louis. Just sheer damn luck, I screwed up the move but managed to hit him hard enough to give us a few seconds. I drove away burning rubber and wishing Iíd had you and Randy with me. Thereís been a couple times since that Iíve been afraid there might be another round."

"Hey, you made it work, Bro," she said. "Any old which way you can."

"Yeah," he said, "But letís not get into that and spoil a happy weekend. Letís change the subject. Whatís up with you and Randy?"

"Nothing," Crystal said. "Long story. Heís getting married New Yearís Eve; I got a call when we got off river the day before yesterday. Iím going to be the maid of honor."

"Crystal, Iím sorry to hear that," Jon said. "I always figured you two would get together."

"Donít be sorry," she said. "Iím happy for him. I hiked with the girl heís marrying on the AT for a while. Sheís cool, sheíll make him a good wife."

"Yeah," Jon frowned, "But still, well, itís nice to have someone. I learned that."

"Itís a little more complicated than that," Crystal said. "Randy ran with us the trip before last, the trip when Mom and Al got together again. We had an accident early in the trip, a boatman got hurt bad, and Randy wound up running a raft for the rest of the trip. I could make a hell of a boatman out of him if he wanted to be, but heís too wrapped up in his family business. I lived up there last winter, but not with him. Itís a nice town, heís got neat folks, but Iíve got too bad of a case of wanderlust. The only way we could manage it is if I spent eight months in the Canyon and four with him. I knew that wouldnít be fair to me or him or Nicole. Randy offered to marry me, back after I got thrown out. In fact, he was waiting outside in the car when I saw the two of you at Tech that time, but we figured Iíd better do it one on one."

"You didnít take him up on it, then?" Tanisha asked.

"No way," Crystal said. "Same issue, Iím not meant to stay at home and be a good wife. I sort of put him off, told him maybe someday, and told both him and Nicole they ought to get together. He actually ran the Canyon with us that time so he could get the chance to ask my permission to marry her. I told him yes, but I hated to do it, since I knew I was turning away the best guy Iíve ever known. But it wouldnít have worked, and that was that." She let out a sigh. "Iím still kicking myself, but heís too deep with Nicole now. Theyíre building a hell of a new lakefront house. Aw, hell, letís not talk about that any more, or itíll drag me down."

"All right." Tanisha asked, "You said something about working on an Alaskan fishing boat. What was that all about?"

"Oh, that was a story," Crystal grinned. "I was up at Randyís, and . . . " It was a long story and a good one; sheíd been asked to take a new car and a travel trailer to Alaska, and had planned to take the ferry back to Seattle, but wound up hitching a ride on a fishing boat instead. They wound up in a survival storm when the captain got injured, and they barely made it back to safety. Crystal was a good storyteller, and this one had obviously been honed around many river campfires; it carried them a long way toward Flagstaff.

* * *

A couple hours later, Jon and Tanisha were to learn that what Al and Crystal called "getting groceries" proved to be a pretty big affair that filled the bed of the company pickup truck, along with a huge mound of ice from a freezer in the back of the Canyon Tours office. They pitched in with the unfamiliar chore Ė it gave them another few hours to be together with their newfound family, after all.

There were a couple people waiting for them when they got back to the Canyon Tours warehouse, behind the office Ė a young teenage long-haired blonde who sort of put Jon in mind of Nanci, and a short, solid, rough-looking muscular dirty-blonde woman who looked vaguely thirtyish. "So you found íem, huh?" the older woman grinned the instant they got out of the car.

"Sure did, Scoot," Crystal told her.

"Good," the woman said. "You sure as hell yapped about it enough last trip."

"Yeah, this is Jon, and my sister-in-law, Tanisha," Crystal told her. "Theyíre pretty cool, even though theyíre not river rats. Guys, this hillbilly is Scooter, sheís my assistant trip leader and my best buddy. We used to run together back east on the Ocoee and the Nanty. The gal with the bubble gum there is Michelle, sheís the one whoís actually responsible for tracking you down. Once we get the season wrapped up, the three of us are going to head down to Florida and do some surfing. Then weíve got a sailboat chartered; weíre going to dink around in the Bahamas a bit."

"Sounds like a nice break," Jon said, and turned to Michelle. "It looks like we have you to thank for our good luck. Thank you a lot."

"No big deal," Michelle said, popping a bubble. "Itís all in a dayís work. Karin told me she was like pretty worried about you, but I guess things are like OK, huh?"

"Couldnít be better, after you got involved," Jon told her. "Thanks again."

"Letís get this crap packed," Crystal suggested. "Then we can sit around and talk."

Packing everything out back in the warehouse at Canyon Tours was a chore. But, it was an interesting time, and the Canyon Tours people knew what they were doing. Jon and Tanishaís part involved mostly carrying heavy objects, and loading them onto another truck, which already had a big trailer full of rafts attached. They were joined in the chore by Scooter, along with Dan and Bob, the other two boatmen for the next trip. They soon found out that Michelle didnít technically have to be there, since she wasnít going on that trip, but she was obviously the kind of kid who pitched in when there was work to be done, so she was in there working with the rest of them.

As they were wrapping up the loading, Michelle called Al over, and the two of them disappeared into the office for a few minutes. Jon and Tanisha didnít think too much about it at the time, since they knew Michelle ran the office, but Al had an unhappy expression on his face when he came back out. He didnít say anything about it, though; and soon they were pretty well wrapped up. "That about it?" he asked Crystal.

"Looks like it," she said. "You know, when I was back up north working with dogs last winter, Mike told me the first time Josh and Tiffany headed for the Iditarod, they left the dog sleds behind, and he had to get out on the highway and chase íem down. I always think of that about right now, like what important thing are we missing? Like, say, did we throw in the oars?"

"Two hundred trips and I always think that myself," Al grinned. "I suppose some of you want to go over and drink the Burro dry while you can, but if any of you want to come over to the house, weíll fire up a grill and have some steaks so you can lay down a good base. We can probably find a beer or two if we look real hard."

Everyone took him up on the offer, of course, and soon there was a serious meal being put together. If two boatmen had thrown together a banquet the night before, five made it even quicker and more complete, even though it was mostly done on the porch in back of Alís ranch house, rather than in the kitchen. "Gee zow," Tanisha said in amazement, "Do you people eat like this all the time?"

"Pretty much," Scooter told her. "We do work pretty hard, so we burn it off pretty good. Itís a great life if you donít weaken."

Again, with five river guides and Karin working at it, the dishes were done in a snap. They obviously had it down to a science, but then, Jon realized they had to. Once the dishes were done, Scooter, Michelle, Dan, and Bob took off; Crystal told them, "Sorta like to be with you, but, you know . . . "

"Yeah, you got family stuff," Scooter replied. "See you in the morning."

"Try to be vertical," Crystal said, "But have a good time."

In a few more minutes, they were back out on the back porch, still with beers in hand. "Thatís pretty impressive," Tanisha said. "Youíve got a bunch of good people working for you, Al. I mean, especially considering this is everybodyís day off."

"We have to go hard through the season," Al told her. "When it gets to the end of the season, though, itís time to sit back and relax. Itís too bad you have to head back in the morning. You could come on out to Leeís Ferry and help us rig. We usually sit around in the evening, generate another hangover, burn some wood, tell a few river stories. Itís kind of a chance to relax before the customers pull in."

"We could do it," Jon said. "We donít have to be back tomorrow, weíve got the day off."

"Fine," Karin said. "Thatíll give us another day together. Weíve got two more runs, then the season will be over, and weíll be able to get a little quieter time then."

"Not quite," Al said. "I didnít want to talk about it in front of everybody, but Michelle put the screws to me this afternoon, she wants to get back on the river, and sheís been talking with GCR about running a motor rig next season if I donít get her back between the walls. Losing her isnít an option, so I told her to figure on doing the next trip. Next year, weíll have to switch off, or something."

"Oh, darn," Karin said, "Iíd sort of looked forward to getting that one in, too."

Al shrugged. "Well, itís not all bad. I mean, technically, you are the office manager, you ought to figure on spending some time in the office."

"Well, when you put it that way," Karin replied. "It will give us a little quiet time together, and youíre right, losing Michelle isnít an option."

Something didnít compute in Jonís mind. "Hey," he said, "Are you telling me that bubblegum chomping teenybopper is a boatman?"

"She nailed another one," Crystal said with a huge grin. "Jon, that bubble-gum chomping teenybopper is a freak of nature. Sheís actually twenty-five years old, strong as a mule, a black belt who can whip my ass, can drink any other two boatmen on the river combined under the table, and happens to be the next senior boatman in the company to Al himself."

Tanisha shook her head. "Al, is she bullshitting us?"

"Not in the slightest," Al said. "Although you should see the look on the customersí faces when she pops a big old wad of Double Bubble and they realize sheís going to be their boatman. You may have also noticed that sheís a serious bubble gum addict, which does make her look like she ought to be wearing her junior high cheerleaderís outfit. Iíve often threatened that we need to take an extra raft when she runs, just to carry all the bubble gum."

"Just your typical astonishing woman," Jon shrugged. "We do tend to keep meeting them."

"Michelle saved our butts this summer," Al added. "After Louise died, I wasnít worth jack shit. Jeff, the bus driver and general handyman, grabbed her from Team One when they came off the river and stuck her in the office, since he knew she knew how to run the computer and where the checkbook was. Weíve basically had her there all summer and she doesnít like it. I donít blame her. She started running as a swamper at the age of fifteen. I donít usually start kids that young, but her folks were both Canyon Tours boatmen, and they sort of twisted my arm. Our insurance company wouldnít let her have a raft until she was eighteen. We let her have it on her birthday. It was the second day on the river, and I took the raft the first day and hiked out Badger Canyon the next morning, but only after I turned her over my knee right after breakfast. Technically, she should be a trip leader instead of Crystal, but she doesnít want to be, which is good, since she looks so young people would have a hard time taking her seriously."

"I have to ask," Tanisha said, "How come Crystal is the trip leader tomorrow, instead of you?"

"Mostly because I own the company and get what I want, when my people let me, anyway," Al laughed. "Being a trip leader is a pain in the butt. After youíve done it for a while, youíd just as soon be a boatman and let some other poor bastard have the responsibility. I can get away with it."

"Iím learning that," Crystal said. "Next season, Scooter and I are planning to trade off as trip leader and assistant. Scooter actually has more raft experience than I do; Iíve just been here longer. Michelle is actually ahead of both of us in total experience."

As the evening grew late, Al suggested Jon and Tanisha spend the night with him. "You might as well stay here," Crystal told them. "The house is pretty small, but even with three of us, it doesnít get a lot of use."

"Three of you?" Tanisha frowned.

"Mom, me, and Scooter," Crystal explained. "We only got the house after Mom joined us, and of course Scooter and I are only there three nights once every three weeks, and weíre probably going to be gone some over the winter." She snickered, and went on, "And, with Al in town for the winter, thereís no telling how much Mom is going to be there, either."

"I told you we were going to keep it above board," Karin objected lightly.

"Yeah, Mom," Crystal laughed. "Like Scooter and I are going to set a curfew and wait up to make sure you make it in."

* * *

Jon and Tanisha wound up spending the night at Alís, and early the next morning they all drove back over to Canyon Tours, where they watched as the rest of the guides finished loading for the trip. Michelle was there too, helping out. "Al," she asked as things got loaded, "Jon and Tanisha are going to spend the night at Leeís and drive back, right?"

"Thatís the plan," he said.

"Could I maybe ride out on the crew bus, and come back with them? Jeff could watch the office in the morning, and Iíd at least get the chance to see the river."

"All right," Al said, "If they donít mind, and if you promise me you have no intention of bopping Dan or Bob over the head with a blunt instrument so they canít run, and you have to fill in for them at the last minute."

"Itís tempting," Michelle smiled. "Iím glad you thought of it. All right, I wonít bop anyone over the head or anything, but I will sort of hope for an honest accident."

It was a long drive through the desert to Leeís Ferry, which proved to be a paved parking lot in a low part of Marble Canyon. It was reached about five miles after crossing Navajo Bridge, a pair of high steel structures far above the water of the Colorado River. There was a row of low, scrubby tamarisk trees near the river, and a toilet building not far away. To them, it seemed wild indeed, but they knew it was nothing compared to the wilderness that the party would soon be heading through.

Rigging was a lot of work and there was a lot more loading and sorting and getting stuff distributed around. The day grew late, and there was another great dinner, beer, and a campfire.

Jon had grown up as a city boy; and Tanisha a city girl. Although Jon had watched his older sister Ė well, half-sister, he now admitted Ė go heading off on camping and adventure trips, his inclinations had never led that way. Heíd never spent a night sleeping out, and neither had Tanisha. So, it was a strange experience for them that first night, to be spread out on Paco pads in a raft pulled up on the shore, sleeping out under the stars shining brightly and sharply above, the river whispering almost silently against the raft, making it shake just a little when they moved. It was just a taste of Crystalís life Ė and Alís and the other boatmenís Ė and the life his mother seemed to be heading toward. It wasnít their lives, but they could see how it could be addicting.

There was a good breakfast the next morning, and more work, but soon it was done, and the group gathered in the shade of the tamarisks, waiting for the busload of customers to arrive.

"Al, Karin, Crystal," Tanisha said as they sat there lazily watching the river flow by. "Itís been very neat meeting you, and even neater that youíve given us a glimpse into your lives, and I want to thank you very much for it."

"I realize itís been brief, if intense," Karin said. "But things will slow down shortly, in three weeks, in fact. We can spend some more time together then. And Thanksgiving wonít be far off. You kids are coming up for that, I hope."

"Actually, Mom, thatís what we wanted to talk to you about," Jon said. "You see, ever since Tanisha and I have been together, itís just been the two of us, and weíve always wished we could tell someone about us. Actually, what we really wished is that just once we could have the family over for dinner, and just be family. This Thanksgiving is the first real holiday weíll have had since weíve been married, and we hoped youíd come join us. I realize we canít cook as well as you, but itíd be special to us."

"Sure, weíll make it," his mother grinned. "Thereís no way we could turn an offer like that down."

"Would you two mind if I brought Scooter along?" Crystal asked. "She doesnít have any family out here."

"Sure, bring her along, sheís cool," Jon said. "Weíve got kind of an interesting friend who doesnít have family out here either; we might just invite her, too."

"You might as well," Karin smiled. "Itís your dinner, after all."

"We probably ought to warn you," Tanisha said, "Sheís rich, sheís brilliant, and sheís talented. But she has one little, uh, I guess you could say sideline that sometimes turns people off. But she really is our best friend weíve made out here, and we owe her, so we ought to tell you."

"Is this the woman you spent Christmas with last year?" Karin asked. "She sounded interesting, all right!"

"She is," Jon said. "And sheís a good friend, loyal and true." He took a deep breath and went on. "But a couple times a month, she hops in her Learjet and flies over to Antelope Valley, Nevada, where she spends some time working in a place called the Redlite Ranch Bordello. Itís kind of how she deals with her sex drive, and she can do it legally in Nevada."

"Thatís . . . different," Karin said uncertainly.

"Thatís Jennlynn Swift, right?" Al said. "Youíre right, sheís good people. I guess I heard she got that Learjet now that I think about it. She was flying a twin Cessna when I met her."

"You know her?" Karin asked.

"She ran with us two, three years ago," Al said. "Sheís a character, got some good stories. She made it clear she keeps it straight in Arizona, but at the Redlite Ranch, all bets are off. Yeah, if you hooked up with Jennlynn, you hooked up with one of natureís great people. Lucky you."

"At Lambdatron, we have this motto," Jon said. "Well, itís not a motto, itís just a phrase thatís used a lot: ĎBreak the paradigm.í Jennlynn breaks more than most, including that one." He sighed, and looked around, noting Scooter smoking a large brown cigar. "Not that you Canyon Tours people donít break a few yourselves."

"Yep," Al grinned, "I guess weíre all a little goofy."

* * *

All too soon, a big charter bus pulled in from Las Vegas; people began piling out, and Jon and Tanisha helped with the unloading and getting people moved around. And then, Jon and Tanisha and Michelle were standing at the river bank, watching the rafts back out into the moving water, heading for adventure and excitement in the most awesome landscape on the face of the planet. It hurt all of them to stand there and watch, knowing they were being left behind.

"Guess we better get heading back," Jon said absently. "Sure would like to be going with them, though."

"Damn, I hate that," Michelle said, popping her bubble gum. "Three weeks, and like Iíll be out there."

"Itís gotta be tough," Jon told her. "But you can stick it out."

"Yeah, but still . . . " she pouted. "Letís get out of here before I like swim out there and bop someone over the head."

The Monte Carlo wasnít far away, and soon they were headed away from the river; far in the distance, they could see the blue dots of the rafts disappear around the bend. "Tell you what," Michelle said, "Letís stop and get a soda up at Marble Canyon, hang out a little, and we can watch them go by from Navajo Bridge."

"Might as well," Tanisha agreed. "Then we can drop you at Flagstaff, go back to Phoenix and turn back into pumpkins."

They took their time; Michelle knew it would be almost an hour, but they were parked at the parking lot in plenty of time. Navajo Bridge turned out to be two parallel bridges, nearly twins: a new one, quite a bit wider, that carried the highway, and the old one, which had been turned into a footbridge and observation deck. Michelle decided to head into a gift shop to check it out; somewhere along the way, theyíd learned that her parents ran one on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and she always liked to check out the competition. While she played spy, Jon and Tanisha stood out on the bridge, looking down at the green water far below, and wishing.

"Jon," Tanisha said finally, "It turns out your mom and sister and their friends, well, theyíre seriously nice people. That went better than I ever dreamed it could. I mean, they all know Iím as black as can be, but I donít remember one word said about it. The fact that Iím your wife was far more important."

"Itís more important to me, too," he said, as they turned toward the car. "But, youíre right. They see you as a person, not as a black person. And really, once Mom got her mind around the concept a little, sheís prepared to accept Jennlynn the same way. I think itís pretty neat."

"I do, too," she smiled. "I still canít believe this isnít a dream."

"Me, too," Jon smiled. "I mean, I keep thinking of Mom as normally wearing a business suit and heels. Iím still having trouble visualizing Mom in blue jeans and a Canyon Tours T-shirt, humping heavy stuff around, getting set to head down the Colorado River on a three-week trip with her boyfriend, weeks away from anything resembling a flush toilet, a shower, or a telephone. You think about that, and I guess it makes us seem pretty normal."

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