The launch ramp at Lee’s Ferry is big, open, and empty. There’s not much shade – there’s not much for a hundred miles around – and when rigging in the height of the summer it could be very uncomfortable.
It was possible to leave Flagstaff well before dawn and unload and rig the rafts in a hurry before the customers arrived around noon, but there were plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong if they tried to quick-rig. So, almost always, Canyon Tours had their crews leave Flagstaff in the late morning the day before. They could take their time unloading and do some of the rigging in the heat, and they could stretch it into the cool of the evening if they needed to. It was much more leisurely, and gave the crew members the time to work off a hangover from a last night in town before the customers showed up.
The loading and rigging had gone easy this time, even though there was an extra raft and more gear and supplies than normal. Al and Karin had pitched in, of course, to help Scooter, the trip leader, and the four new boatmen with the process. It was a constant learning curve, and Al knew it well; even after thirty years of running the river there were things to learn, and he’d even picked up a few things from Scooter and Crystal in the last couple of years, drawing on their rafting experience in the east.
Al was closely monitoring what was going on, although he and Karin tried to stay out of the way. A little over two years ago, they’d had a staffing problem, and were short several boatmen. Crystal had suggested another eastern boatman she knew who might be interested in running for Canyon Tours: Her friend, Scooter, had been a guide on the New, Ocoee, and Nantahala Rivers in the east for ten years, minus a summer spent hiking the Appalachian Trail. Scooter was a little smaller and a little older than Crystal, with scruffy-looking short blonde hair and a big grin, and seemed cut from the same cloth, but was even coarser and more rough-cut, almost intimidatingly hard. Al had made up his mind about her long ago – even though she was a little rough-cut, she was an absolute jewel. It seemed pretty clear that she was going to be leading trips for Canyon Tours for a long time to come.
There was one shady spot off to the side of the launch ramp, and Al and Karin were in it, watching Scooter and the new boatmen putting the finishing touches on the rigging for the trip. "They seem to be doing pretty well." Karin observed.
"Yeah, a good bunch of kids," Al smiled. "But things always look pretty good at Lee’s. Karin, do you want to guess how many times I’ve sat here, waiting for the tour group to show up, so we can get going?"
"Lots," Karin said. "A couple of hundred, anyway." She’d never have the kind of experience that Al had, even if she ran the river as long as Georgie White did – and Georgie had run trips into her eighties. This would be the tenth time Karin had run the river – and one of those times was as a customer, almost thirty years ago. Two years ago, she’d run as a customer, then again as a sort of swamper, sort of camp cook, sort of boatman’s girlfriend. This was the eighth time that she’d waited for the tour group to show up. Even those kids had more experience with it than she did.
For some of the youngsters this would be the first summer as regular boatmen. Though it wasn’t always possible, Al preferred to bring boatmen up through the Canyon Tours ranks. There were nearly twenty companies doing raft trips in the Canyon, and each of them did it a little different. Al had ridden with each one of his boatmen on the river, several times over, adding his thirty years of experience and over two-hundred trips to that of the trip leader when training the crew. He’d personally approved their promotion from swamper to boatman after riding with them, and he’d ride with each of them again over the next few days, just to make sure they were ready for the awesome responsibility. Every time he approved a new boatman, he always had the worry if this was going to be the kid who screwed up bad.
There were new boatmen every year, and a bigger crop than normal this year. The majority of the Canyon Tours boatmen were college students, and usually they’d only run as regular boatmen for one or two summers, but some might fill in as an extra on the odd trip or two for years to come. But the college kids had to be leavened by a strong group of experienced boatmen, and those weren’t always easy to come by, especially in the spring and fall seasons. There was always the chance that something could go wrong. That was why he kept a pretty good eye on his crews and tried to ride at least half-trips with each crew once or twice over the course of the summer, just to back up the information he got from the trip leaders.
Being selective about his people and careful about their training had given him a staff that could confront emergencies without his input – and that kind of self-reliance had proved itself time and again. Even though Canyon Tours was one of the smaller companies on the river, its people were extraordinarily close and loyal.
This time that loyalty and closeness was sort of a problem, although they’d worked it out the best they could. Considering that there were a number of Canyon Tours boatmen plus some people from other companies who wanted to be at the wedding, it had taken a monumental amount of schedule juggling to bring this trip off at all. In six days, the tiny beach down the side canyon from the water pocket would be inundated with the biggest collection of rafts it had ever seen. It had taken over a year for the divorce to get settled, although much less for the two of them to decide to get married – and what better place could there be for them to do it?
Just six days, now. Not two years ago, when Louise lay dying in a hospital in Phoenix, far away from the Canyon she loved, it seemed as if he’d never be happy again. Life plays funny tricks on you sometimes, he thought. "You still up for this?" he smiled at the woman he’d once thought could never share his life – but had come out of the mists of time to do it, anyway.
"Couldn’t be happier," Karin grinned. "You know, I never dreamed this would happen."
"Me, either," Al smiled at the small fiftyish woman, still slender, still good looking after all the time that had passed since that first afternoon at the water pocket down above Ruby, half a lifetime ago. This time, she hadn’t shied away from the life a boatman had to lead – she’d been learning to glory in it. If it weren’t for the critical need for someone to keep an eye on the office, she’d have been down there with him every trip. In fact, there had been one trip last summer that she and Michelle and Crystal and Scooter had run, leaving him behind to run the office. Goofy scheduling had much to do with it, but he’d also realized that he was going to be marrying another Canyon bum. Which was fine with him – in thirty years, he’d never been able to figure out a way to live without the Canyon.
"You know, I still can’t get over how strange it is that it worked out like this," Karin said, with obvious amusement.
"Guess it was supposed to be," Al grinned. "I just wish we’d figured it out way back then."
"It would have been nice," Karin said with a smile. "But, I sometimes wonder if we were really ready for it, back then."
"Probably not," Al said thoughtfully. "Oh, we might have been able to make it work, but we’d have had some rough edges to knock off along the way."
"You’re probably right," she nodded. "But, it’s still pretty strange how everything worked out."
"It’s strange for me, too," Al laughed. "I mean, I never had a family all these years, except for Louise. Now, I’m discovering that it’s pretty good. You brought some good kids into my life, Karin."
"They are pretty good," Karin said. "Tanisha came as a big surprise to me, but I can’t imagine a better woman for Jon."
"Me, either," Al said. "I’ve taken newlyweds on trips down the Canyon who aren’t in love as much as those two."
"They’ve been good for each other," Karin agreed. "I mean, I never dreamed that would happen, either. I always figured that Crystal would wind up doing something in the outdoors, so being a guide down here really didn’t come as a big surprise. But, to have Jon fall so in love with a woman, that he’d defy his father for her – well, Al, that was a big surprise, and it doesn’t matter whether she’s black, white, or green with big purple spots." She let out a big sigh and continued, "I just wish Nanci had been half as lucky."
"Maybe she has," Al said soothingly. He knew that Karin hadn’t heard from Nanci in nearly two years, since before she’d left Pete.
"I doubt it," Karin said. "I’d like to think so, but I’m not very optimistic."
Al knew all about that, of course – it had been the topic of many conversations over the past several months. The girl had a definite talent for getting into trouble, without considering the consequences. Much of the reason that Karin had stayed with Pete for the last year or so of their marriage was in hopes of being able to somehow influence Nanci to clean up her act and straighten out her life. Leaving Pete had been as much with the intention of signaling to Nanci that she wouldn’t have Mom to get her out of trouble anymore as it had been anything else. Whether it had worked, no one had any idea. "Sometimes, it’s hard for people to grow up," he offered. "Hell, it was for me. I wasn’t any less wild until I went in the Army, and look where that got me." It had given him a bad knee, and it was luck that it hadn’t been any worse. As it was, he still drew a forty percent disability, although his only real disability in practice was that he couldn’t hike around the Canyon like he’d been able to when he was younger.
"It obviously has been for her," Karin said. "I just wish I knew. You get right down to it, she’s the one person I wish was going on this trip who won’t be here."
"Maybe it’s just as well," Al offered philosophically. "If she were coming, she’d probably be carrying a peck of trouble with her."
"I suppose," Karin said glumly. "But still, I wish I knew how she was doing."
Both of them heard the sound of a car behind them, and both looked up to see Crystal’s white Dodge approaching, faster than it should have been – in other words, normal speed for Crystal.
"Now what the hell?" Al said to no one in particular. They watched as Crystal slid to a stop, as close to them on the ramp as she could get. Doors popped open, and people began piling out – Crystal, Jon, Tanisha, and a small blonde with a black eye and bruises who he didn’t recognize at all.
Karin let out a gasp. "My God, that’s Nanci!" she said, starting to get to her feet.
"Be careful what you wish for around here," Al laughed, getting up himself. "You might get it."
In a few moments, mother and long-lost daughter were in a deep tearful embrace, as Al and the rest of his pickup family watched. Nanci was smaller than he’d imagined, smaller than her mother – and very forlorn-looking, especially with that healing black eye and bruises. Someone had worked her over pretty good, he thought. "Nanci, how have you been? Karin gushed. "What happened to you?"
"I . . . uh, I came to see you and Crystal," Nanci stammered, eyes full of tears. "Oh, Mom, I’m sorry!"
Over the next few minutes, Karin and Al heard a brief version of the story of how Nanci had been beaten up, left Chicago with little more than the clothes on her back and a couple grocery sacks of other things, and how she’d barely made it to Flagstaff on an empty tank.
Al remembered Karin telling the story of Crystal beating one of Nanci’s old boyfriends within an inch of his life, and he knew he’d really rather not be the guy who had worked Nanci over if Crystal found him. He knew his daughter had a temper and the skills to back it up . . . just like he’d once had, before the Canyon had burned some of that shit out of him. Who knew, maybe it had mellowed Crystal, too, or would. He hoped so – it would be tough to have a trip leader in jail, especially if that trip leader was his daughter . . .
"I couldn’t think of anything else to do," Nanci continued. "I heard from the girl in the office that you were getting married again. I asked Crystal to bring me out here so I could apologize to you for all the trouble I was, and to wish you good luck. I – I wish I could be at your wedding, but if I can’t, I can’t."
"I didn’t promise anything either way," Crystal said.
"Nanci, whether you go or not," Karin said sharply. "What do you plan to do from here?"
"I . . . I don’t know, Mom," she said, tears rolling. "All I’ve been able to think about for days is getting here. I just haven’t thought about it any more than that. I just know I can’t try to make it in Chicago any more. I want to get away from how I used to live there, and I know I can’t do it there."
"I don’t know," Karin sighed, and looked over at the rafts where the guides were sitting around just killing time waiting for the bus to get in. "Scooter!" she yelled, "Would you take Nanci over to the restrooms and maybe get her a soda or something?"
Scooter had been digging around in a dry box on her raft, and Karin was pretty sure she knew why – she’d run with her before. "Sure," the trip leader replied, swinging off the raft tube and sauntering over to the little group.
As the two walked away, Jon, Tanisha and Crystal gathered in close to Al and Karin, and the five talked in low tones. "Al, you were right," Karin said. "I should have been more careful what I wished for. This is a load of trouble. I don’t want to ask for more, but I don’t want to turn my back on her and send her away, and yet I don’t want to louse up our wedding. What do you think?"
"It’s going to have to be your decision, Karin," Al said. "Believe me, I understand the bind you’re in. My only thinking is that if she goes, well, the Canyon has changed people’s lives before."
"She doesn’t have to go," Crystal said. "I told Michelle that if Jeff brings her back, to cut her a check out of my pay, so at least she won’t be broke. But Jon and I talked it over a little, not in front of her, and we pretty well agreed that she ought to go if it’s all right with you. I had Michelle pull together gear for her in case the decision was yes. My thinking is that if nothing else, it’ll give her a few days to pull herself together, maybe think more clearly."
"She’s already gotten put on pretty good notice that things aren’t the way they used to be," Jon said. "I think that she wants to try to go straight. I’m willing to help her try, at least once. Maybe she’ll finally get the message."
"I’m very reluctant," Karin said thoughtfully. "I don’t want to give her the message that all she’s got to do is to run to her mother to make things all well again. She got that message too many times in the past. I’ve seen her hurt before and bounce back to her old ways."
"Yeah," Crystal said. "But, not like this, I think. I did have a couple thoughts. I think she can’t be just forgiven; you know: ‘There, there, that’s all right.’ She’s going to have to show she still wants to change when that black eye goes away. If we handle it right maybe we can help her earn some self-respect, as well as earning her way back."
"You might have a point there, Crystal," Al said thoughtfully. "What do you say I give her a job, as a swamper?"
"I’d be reluctant to do it, right now," Tanisha commented. "Maybe she needs that held out in front of her, as a way out of the pit, if she proves she’s ready to try."
"Yeah, you got a point too," Al nodded.
"It’s got potential," Crystal said. "I thought of that too, but I agree, not right now. Maybe if she shows she wants to try, well, it’s something to consider."
"It comes down to the fact that she’s got to be shown that things aren’t the way they used to be," Jon said thoughtfully. "She’s been told that, but she doesn’t believe it. It’s all pretty strange to her right now. If she wants to accept it, then she’s going to have to change, too. But it means that you’re going to have to be a little hard on her."
"I suppose," Karin said. "I agree, I can’t just be forgiving, but the last thing I wanted to do on my wedding trip is to be a hard-ass to my wayward daughter."
"We do have an ace in the hole," Crystal said thoughtfully. "I could tell Noah to work with her."
"Noah? Oh, the preacher," Karin frowned. "As much as I’d like to see Nanci change her ways, I don’t know that a heavy religious message is what I want to see happen to her."
"Noah isn’t quite like that, but it could be worse," Crystal smiled. "You get right down to it, I’d rather see her come to Jesus than I would see her go back to some of the things she’s done."
"I suppose you’re right," Karin smiled. "It would be an improvement, after all."
"Besides, I not thinking so much of Noah as a preacher as I am as a youth counselor," Crystal said. "He’s had a lot of time and experience counseling kids with their problems, including me. Nanci is a little old for that, but what she has is a kid problem that she’s never quite grown out of. He’s pretty good with those issues, at least he used to be when I knew him on the Ocoee."
"All right," Karin said. "I’m still reluctant, but I don’t see any other way from where we’re at. And, it might work. We’ll just have to see how it goes."
"I guess I better be the hard-ass," Al smiled. "She doesn’t know me like she knows you. Karin, before she’s told she goes, I think you and I had better give her a little lecture, and let her understand it’s not a free ride."
* * *
Nanci knew very well that the jury was out on her while Scooter took her over to the rest rooms, not far away. It had been a real surprise to discover that Jon was married to that black chick – but she had soon realized back in the car that Tanisha was one smart cookie and really had her act together. No wonder Jon had disappeared years before! Their father would have blown up if he’d known about her – and the fact that Jon would defy him for her sake told her that Tanisha was something pretty special.
Up at the restrooms, she washed her face, tried to clean up a little. She didn’t know Al, the big, bronzed guy who looked a lot like Crystal – they’d never gotten around to introductions – but after what Crystal and Jon had told her, she could well believe he was Crystal’s father.
Scooter was a little scary. She’d never met her before, of course, but she suspected that this tough-looking woman with a mild southern accent had a pretty good idea of who – and what – she was. Still, Scooter bought her a soda, not saying very much, and that made her even more nervous. She tried to make some small talk, but there just wasn’t much to say. Finally, Scooter told her, "If you’re going on this trip with us, this is your last chance to use a flush toilet for two weeks."
"I don’t know if I’m going or what," Nanci admitted. "But I guess I better take the chance."
While she was in the little cinder-block restroom, Nanci took the opportunity to try and clean herself up a little more. When she came out, she looked out at the little group clustered around Crystal’s car; Jon was waving them over. "I think we better go see what they decided," Scooter said quietly.
"God, Scooter, I’m afraid." Scared of her or not, she knew that a lot depended on what had been discussed in the last few minutes.
"Courage, child," Scooter smiled. Somehow, it was reassuring. It was a long walk across the launch ramp, the longest, scariest walk of her life, that hundred yards or so to where the four were clustered. Nanci was close to tears, but with Scooter walking with her, she couldn’t quite break down and cry.
They walked up to the group, and Nanci knew that every eye was on her. "Nanci, we didn’t get introduced," the big, tanned older guy said. "But I’m Al, your mother’s fiancé," he said gently, as Scooter headed back to the raft, knowing that she wasn’t a part of this discussion.
"You’re Crystal’s dad, right?" Nanci asked, looking at him. "She, uh, told me about that."
"Yes," Al said quietly, but firmly. "We’ve been talking it over, Nanci. You have to understand that we’ve become a family in the last couple years, and that family includes Tanisha as much as it does your mother, your brother, or your half-sister. We’ve become a family because we have come to love and trust each other, not just because we were born that way. Your mother, Crystal, and I live a hard life, and Jon and Tanisha live one that’s just as hard, if not harder, in its own way. We like the way we live, but we don’t have a lot of room in our lives for kid games. This canyon is pretty as hell, Nanci, but it’s damn dangerous, too, so there’s not much room for nonsense."
"I - I understand if you don’t want to take me," Nanci said, right on the verge of tears. "I don’t blame you."
"We’ve talked it over," Al said. "We’ve pretty well agreed that we would like to be able to welcome you to the family we’ve created. But considering the past, it’s not just a blood thing. You are going to have to earn our trust, earn our respect. Now, that can be done. Nanci, I have a lot of kids come through here working for me. It must be hundreds over the years. Some have been great kids, and some of them weren’t worth the shit in the groovers. I don’t know you, but everybody has told me stories about you. I’m going to ignore those stories and give you a level start. I think everyone will agree with me that I should give you that much. Does that sound fair?"
"Al, uh, that’s even more than I deserve," she said, hanging her head. "I think I’ve learned that the shit I’ve done doesn’t pay in the long run."
"If you decide to come with us, I would hope that you will recognize that," Al continued in a firm but quiet voice. In spite of the subject, Nanci was impressed; her father would have been screaming and swearing, but Al’s quiet intensity was hitting her harder than that. "Now, while this is a wedding trip, it’s still a working trip, not a joyride. You can’t just go along for the ride. You’re going to have to carry your share of the load, just like everyone else on the trip. Even your mom and me will be doing that. You also have to remember that there’s no room for screwing around, playing those old flirting games that I’ve heard about. This is serious business, and I won’t have you messing things up. If you screw up you’ll have to walk out the first opportunity, and it’s a hell of a long climb to the top of the rim. You wouldn’t be the first kid I’ve told to start hiking."
"And if Al makes you hike out, there won’t be a check waiting at the office," Crystal added. "There will be if you leave here with Jeff."
"It’s your choice, Nanci," Al said. "A lot of it is going to be strange, and some of it will be hard. Most of it will be fun, but some won’t. But we’ll see just how bad you want to change your life. If you can convince us by the time we get off the river, we can talk about the future."
"I don’t have a lot of choice, do I?" Nanci said. "Al, uh, Mr. Buck, I’ll do my best. I mean, I don’t know anything about what I have to do, but I hope you’ll show me."
"I think we can manage that," Al grinned. "And, I suspect you’ll find in yourself what you need to be able to do, and what you have to do. If you don’t, it’s going to be too bad for you."