Scooter lay back against the tube of one of the rafts. The sun was beating down pretty hard, and she thought she might go find a patch of shade, but it was pretty clear that there was a private discussion going on between Al and the Chladeks, and she thought it was best if she just butted herself out. If they wanted her in on it, they knew where to find her.
She thought about wandering down the ramp, to where a couple of Grand Canyon Rafters motor rigs were getting set to leave, probably in a couple hours. She knew one of the boatmen, Jim, pretty well – they’d been on a special Park Service trip, back in March, set up to give boatmen and trip leaders a little more background on the Canyon. Jim proved to be a nice guy; they’d had some good times, and she wouldn’t mind knowing him better. She’d had the chance to do that on the last Canyon Tours trip; Al had come up short a boatman at the last minute, and since GCR hadn’t started their season yet, she had made the suggestion that he could fill in.
But, now wasn’t the time to go over and get friendly, even though she’d last seen him when they got off the river on Thursday. She could see that the GCR trip leader, who she didn’t know, was having a crew meeting with Jim and the other boatmen, swampers, and helpers. Maybe she’d get the chance to wish Jim a good season before they left, and maybe not. As far as that went, she’d have the chance to wave at him often enough; GCR ran their motor rigs down the river in a week, while the Canyon Tours oar trips usually took two and a half weeks. He’d be passing her frequently, sometimes twice on the same trip, and maybe they might get a few minutes to talk sometime.
"This ought to be a fun trip," she heard Barbie say. Scooter looked up and saw that she was sitting on the raft tube nearby, a can of soda in her hand. Of the new boatmen, Barbie had the most experience. She’d been a swamper last year, her second season, but had handled a raft a lot.
"Yeah, should be pretty good," Scooter smiled. "This is sort of a goofy trip. This isn’t the usual group of customers. I know everybody on the trip, some pretty well; they’re all good people."
"That’s good," Barbie nodded. "Scooter, do you ever get a little nervous along about this time?"
"Always," Scooter grinned. "Everything should go OK; it usually does, but you never know. Shit happens. Got some butterflies?"
"Yeah," Barbie said, reluctantly. She knew it was an admission the guys would never have made, but then, they were guys, after all. "I mean, I haven’t run this year yet."
"The river’s the same," Scooter grinned. "You’ll be OK when we get out there." Truth be told, she was a little nervous, too – she always was just before a trip. Eager, too, but you never knew quite what was going to happen. The thought lingered, long enough for her to get up, pop the latch on the drybox seat of her raft, and dig deep inside for the drybag she’d been looking for when Karin called her over earlier. Might as well, she thought. The bus ought to be along pretty soon, anyway. She found the bag she was looking for, pulled it out, and began to unroll it. She reached inside and pulled out a cigar. "Want one?" she offered Barbie.
"Are you kidding?" Barbie laughed. "Christ, I’d puke if I tried to smoke one of those things."
"Suit yourself," Scooter grinned, and lit a kitchen match with her thumbnail, then used it to light the cigar.
Scooter didn’t smoke very much, but she did like a cigar once in a while – she had ever since she’d been at the University of Virginia, long ago. They did relax her, helped her mind roll back. She drew in a puff of bitter, strong smoke and let the smoke drift upriver, driven by a pretty good wind. Gonna be a bitch to buck that breeze down the river, she thought. Glad we’ve got some extra bodies along to help row. If it blew hard, it might be tough to make it as far as Badger tonight, and with the schedule they needed to keep to get to Phantom, it’d be better if they could get farther than that. But, no matter. They would be out on the river again. She’d just gotten off her first regular trip of the season two days before, and it had already been too long. Face it, she thought. You’re addicted, just like Al, just like Crystal, and hell, just like Karin.
She toked on the cigar again, then held it in her fingers, re-entering her reverie. Two years ago somewhere right about now, she’d never have dreamed she’d be sitting here at Lee’s. Now, here she was – not only a Grand Canyon boatman, but a trip leader. In the rafting world, you couldn’t do better than that; it was a tough job, lots of work, dangerous, and the pay – well, it could have been better, but she wasn’t complaining. Who could ask for more? Who would want to? She’d be turning thirty over the winter, and she could imagine spending another thirty years doing this, growing hard and grizzled and sun-beaten, living like a homeless person seven months out of the year. It was a perfectly satisfying vision.
"Barbie," she drawled, noticing that the group over near the shade was breaking up. "Do you see yourself running this ditch for the next thirty years or so?"
"Something to think about," Barbie said. "I could see doing it for a few years, but I don’t think that long, though. I mean, I’d kind of like to get married or something, sometime."
"Pity," Scooter grinned. "Guess you’re not a real Canyon addict. Yet, anyway."
"Not like you," Barbie laughed, watching as Al wandered over their way.
"Hey, Scoot," Al grinned. "Jeff should be in any minute now. You got another one of those stinking things?"
"Yeah," Scooter said. "You want one?"
"I could be convinced," Al said. "Barbie, do you have any idea what the customers think when they get off the bus and find their trip leader is a woman and smoking a cigar?"
"Maybe something like, ‘Oh, shit, what have I gotten into?’" Barbie grinned. "I mean, it does look a little, uh, butch."
"More like a lot," Al laughed, taking a cigar from Scooter, and lighting it from a lighter in his pocket. "Oh well, just another one of those Canyon Tours characters, I guess. Scooter, we’ve got another guest."
"Nanci?" Scooter observed.
"Yeah," Al replied. "Crystal told you about her, I take it?"
"Frequently," she snorted with distaste.
"Try to forget about it," Al said. "She’s been through some trouble, and you’ll probably hear about it before the trip’s over with. Anyway, she says she wants to put the past behind her, and start over again. We don’t know how much of that to believe. She’s totally green, knows nothing about river running or the Canyon. We’re not going to dump on her, but we’re not going to cut her a lot of slack, either. Just try to be fair, but we’re going to see that she’s given the chance to pull her share of the load."
"I’ll try, Al," Scooter said quietly. "It’s just that I know how much trouble she caused Crystal."
"Then remember that her coming is Crystal’s suggestion," Al said, blowing out a big cloud of smoke from the cigar. "Right now, she’s a scared kid, and she knows she’s out of her depth. Try to help her, but don’t put up with any shit, either."
"All right," Scooter said, and changed the subject: "Al, it’s getting late. What would you say if we did a quick lunch here off to the side of the ramp as soon as the bus gets in, rather than stopping a few miles down? It’d save us some time. It’s going to be a long pull in this wind, even to get to Badger."
"Whatever you want," Al told her. "You’re running this trip; I’m just along for the ride. You know the schedule."
"That’s what I’m thinking," Scooter nodded. "I’d like to get past Soap Creek if we can, even if we have to run a little late. Barbie, break out a couple tables. I’ll get the guys setting up. Don’t get out any of the cold stuff till the bus gets here, though."
* * *
Though the Canyon around the first bend was a mystery to Jon and Tanisha, they knew Lee’s Ferry well, from several trips here to help the Canyon Tours crews rig for their trips. It was here, too, that they’d experienced what little exposure to outdoor living they’d had – the first time the two of them had ever slept outside had been under the stars in sleeping bags on a partly-loaded raft right here, and they’d repeated that on various occasions.
In their years living in the west, they had become used to bare rock; yet even now, the sheer barrenness of the place seemed strange to eyes brought up in the relative lushness of St. Louis and Chicago. The five-mile trip down from the hamlet of Marble Canyon, the last touch of civilization, was especially barren, at least until the waters of the Colorado appeared around one final bend of the road.
Down at the landing, there was a tinge of greenery along the shore near the asphalt parking lot; close to the river, there was a small grove of scrubby little tamarisk trees, a welcome spot of green in the middle of a mostly earth-tone landscape. The tamarisks are a recent unwelcome invader to the Canyon at the hands of man, but eradication has proved nearly impossible. Still, they provide the sun beaten traveler with occasional shady places to sit along the shore when a hot sun beats down from the blue Arizona sky, or occasionally from strong winds that sometimes blow sand about the shore, so the tamarisks are welcome for that. They were especially welcome for the two of them; after the intense minutes clustered around Crystal’s car, they needed a bit of one-on-one decompression and analysis. "I thought she took it pretty well," Tanisha said, leaning back in the shade.
"Yeah, me too," Jon agreed, knowing exactly what she was talking about, and it wasn’t the discussion of whether Nanci should go on the trip or not. "Tani, I had no idea how the hell she was going to react, and I couldn’t figure out any way of sticking my toe in the water first."
"Just as well," she sighed. "Oh, well, whatever happens, she knows, now. I just hope it holds after this day wears off."
"If it does, it does," Jon said. "If it doesn’t, well, it doesn’t, I guess. She’s not seeing Dad any, I guess, and like I hinted at back up in the car, if Dad finds out, so what? He can’t think any worse of me than he already does. Really, when you get down to it, we’re all pretty much in the same boat."
"How do you figure that?"
"We’re all outcasts," he said. "At least as far as Dad is concerned. Face it Tani, until Crystal found us, we were in the same boat Nanci’s in right now, except we had our acts together. No friends, no family."
"At least we had each other," Tanisha nodded sadly. "She doesn’t even have that."
"Until now, maybe," Jon agreed. "After Crystal left, or got thrown out, depending on who you talk to, she at least had Myleigh and Randy and his family to turn to for support. Nanci hasn’t even had someone like that."
"We’re going to have to do what we can," Tanisha agreed. "As hard as it was for us, it has to be harder for her. But, she’s going to have to be the one to reach out for salvation. Jesus, watch over her."
"Yeah," Jon agreed, realizing that Tanisha wasn’t swearing with her last sentence. One of the few ways in which the two of them differed was in religion. Jon’s family was pretty non-religious, but Tanisha was a preacher’s daughter and had grown up awash in it. Much of it had been burned out of her the hard way, in quarrels with her father and brother going back long before Jon had met her. She’d rebelled against the suffocation of her family’s church; it was part of the reason she had felt free to take up with Jon in the first place. But, a core of that belief remained, and Jon didn’t begrudge it. It was part of who she was, and he loved her for who she was.
Jon looked up to see Scooter walking over, bringing one of the new swampers along with her. Scooter was closer than most people they knew, and they’d met the four new boatmen the previous year, although they hadn’t gotten to know them well. The swampers were new. "Thought we’d get a minute in the shade before the bus gets in," Scooter said. "Ought to be here any minute now."
"Crystal passed it down the other side of Cameron," Jon reported. "They can’t be very far, unless Jeff stopped to give everybody a look off the bridge."
"Might have," Scooter agreed. "Hey, I don’t think you guys met Trey, he’s one of the new swampers. Trey, this is Jon and Tanisha Chladek, they’re Crystal’s brother and sister-in-law."
"Pleased to meet you," Trey said. "Crystal and Myleigh have told me about you."
"You know Myleigh?" Jon asked, looking up at the swamper; average-looking guy, fairly short sandy hair, maybe a little taller than he was, built a little lighter in the frame. "Something else, isn’t she?"
"Yeah, we’re moderately close friends," Trey smiled. "I’ve been kind of her pickup stage manager this spring. Haven’t seen her for four days, now."
"Oh, OK," Tanisha smiled. "She stayed with us last night, and she was talking about you. She seems to think a lot of you. Glad you could help her out."
Jon cocked an eye at Trey. "How you fixed for sunscreen?" he asked. "You look a little red."
"I put some on earlier," Trey replied. "I don’t burn much."
"Better get some on," Tanisha told him. "I didn’t think I burned much, either, and I had reason to think that until I got roasted down here a year ago. Even skin like mine isn’t enough protection."
Unlike Al and Karin and Crystal and the rest of the boatmen they knew well, Jon and Tanisha were mostly indoor workers and didn’t often get out into the midday Arizona sun, and then not for long. It seemed to shine down even more strongly here than in Phoenix. It had been here at Lee’s Ferry, a year ago, that Tanisha had learned that her deep black skin wasn’t all the protection she needed from the sun, and that sunburns were no fun. But she was miles ahead of Jon, whose northern European antecedents would burn at the thought of a summer day. She could get by wearing a tank top and shorts, along with a modicum of sunscreen on this warm day for late April, while Jon had on lots of clothing for sun protection: long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, although of very light material, and a wide-brimmed hat, along with a heavy dose of sunscreen.
"Tanisha is right," Jon said, pulling a tube of sunscreen from his pocket and handing it to Trey. "And it’s even harder for her to realize she’s had too much until she’s in real pain."
"Yeah," Tanisha grinned. "I don’t tan worth a darn."
"They’re right, Trey," Scooter grinned as he took the tube from Jon and squeezed a wad of high-SPF into his hand. "I had to learn it the hard way, too. So, how was the trip up, anyway?"
"Pretty good," Jon admitted. "At least till we got to Flagstaff and found out Nanci was there. Then, it got a little crazy."
"Yeah," Scooter replied, wishing she could ask about Nanci, but not wanting to with Trey standing right there. "Trey, usually the customers come out of Lost Wages on a charter bus, and we don’t get out of here for another couple hours, but this time Al decided to run it out of Phoenix and use the crew bus."
"Simplified it for us," Tanisha agreed. "Although we told Al that if he wanted to run it out of Vegas, we’d have driven up yesterday and taken the crew bus out. Oh, well, I guess it was cheaper than a charter bus, with this many comps. Your first trip, Trey?"
"Yeah," Trey grinned. "Seems pretty different than anything I imagined."
"It’s our first, too," Jon said. "Although we’ve helped rig a lot." He looked up to see the old short-bodied school bus, painted redrock brown and with a huge "Canyon Tours" logo on the side driving onto the parking lot. "And, here they are."
"Time to get to work, Trey," Scooter grinned. "See you guys on the river."
"The sooner, the better," Tanisha grinned.
The bus backed up right to the rafts clustered along the shore. The side door opened, and one by one the passengers stepped off. Earlier this morning, Jon and Tanisha had met those they hadn’t already known. As Jeff opened the back door of the bus to start handing out gear, they noticed Myleigh making a beeline for Trey. She threw her arms around him, and laid what could only be called a seriously hot kiss on him.
"Haven’t seen each other for four days, now," Jon smirked to Tanisha. "I think I could call that ‘moderately close friends.’"
"That’s how it looks to me," said the woman who rarely spent an hour apart from her husband, and both preferred it that way. "Think of what we’d be like after four days. They could sell tickets."
"Yeah," Jon laughed. "At some of the nastier clubs in Vegas."
* * *
Scooter had let her cigar go out as everyone stood around working on sandwiches and soda. "OK, folks," she called out. "Like I said earlier, I’m Scooter Whitsell. Scooter isn’t my real name, and some of you know what it is, but I’m trying to forget it, so I usually don’t answer to it. I’ll be your trip leader the first half of the trip, since Crystal knows a lot of people here, and it’ll give her a little more chance to be friendly. She’ll be leading the second half of the trip, after I climb out the Bass Trail to start all over again in about ten days. Now, I know a lot of people here know each other, but maybe not everybody knows everybody. But, since Crystal does, I’m going to let her do the introductions. Crystal?"
"Yeah, thanks Scoot," Crystal snorted as she stood up on the boatman’s box of another raft. She glanced around. "Yeah, I guess I do know everybody, although some of you not real well. What Scooter didn’t say is that she’s been running this river a couple years, and this will be her first full season as a trip leader. She ran the Nanty and the Ocoee for about eight years, with me some of that time, and she did the Appalachian Trail one time, like Nicole and me. We’re also the best of buddies, but as you see from that cigar, she’s a little more butch than I am."
"Hey, Crystal," Scooter snorted as the laughter died down. "I do like guys, you know."
"Only if they buy you cigars instead of flowers," Crystal smirked in reply. "OK, sitting over there next to the food are Randy and Nicole Clark. Randy and I go way back, we’ve run a few rivers, surfed a few waves, skied a few hills and played a few songs together, along with some other stuff. He manages Clark Construction, up in Spearfish Lake. Randy’s wife, Nicole, is another old friend. We walked a part of the Appalachian Trail together several years ago, the year I went the full length. We were going to do it together a couple years later, but I discovered the Canyon, so she went and did it with a girl whose trail name is ‘Jackpine.’ Nicole’s trail name is ‘Marlin,’ and I think she still answers to it as well as her real name. In real life, she’s a high school history teacher and runs a Girl Scout camp in the summer. Oh, and she’s another one of us Outdoor Leadership Training Academy grads, like Scooter and me, as well as being a surfer, too."
"That’s how you tell the real hardcores on this trip," Scooter laughed. "If you haven’t been through OLTA, you’re something of a wuss to us."
"Ain’t it the truth," Crystal grinned. "OK, next to them are Buddha and Giselle Varsos. They run B&G’s Surf Shop, down near Sebastian Inlet in Florida, and they taught me, Myleigh, Randy, and Scooter how to surf, along with several other people on this trip. If you’ve ever thought about learning surfing, they’re the people to talk to. Buddha’s pretty good, and Giselle’s just about the best I’ve ever seen, period, and that includes when Scooter, Michelle, and I went to Hawaii. Giselle also works part time as a nurse when she’s not on a wave, and I’m told that after a quarter century of avoiding honest work, Buddha’s actually teaching a couple college classes, now, too. Buddha was Dad’s best friend, back in California when they were kids."
"Next to them," Crystal continued, "are my brother and sister-in-law, Jon and Tanisha Chladek. This is their first Canyon trip, and they agreed to come only if nobody has any intentional cowabungas on their mind. You remember that, Noah?"
Noah shook his head and gave a rueful grin. "Might as well let you in on a secret," Crystal continued. "Old Ocoee guides like Noah and I know of a rock in an eddy at a certain place on the river. If you spin the raft just right and hit that rock just right, you’re almost sure to send the left front passenger for a swim, unless they know what’s coming and hold on real tight. We Ocoee guides called it a cowabunga. Noah was watching when I cowabungaed Jon, years ago."
Noah thought about that for a moment. He remembered the incident, although Jon was far from the only raft rider that Crystal had cowabungaed over the years.
"Jon and Tanisha aren’t really outdoor types," Crystal went on, "but they are runners, and they finished the Sun Marathon back last winter. Scooter and I have gotten them out on a ski hill a few times, so maybe there’s hope for them. They’re both working part time on their doctorates, while they work full time down in Tempe. They won’t tell me what they’re actually doing – it’s classified government stuff, but I figure it’s got to be something way more destructive than karate. Jon was a real computer nerd when he was a kid, and I guess Tanisha was, too. But, it looks like they’ve outgrown it. Well, maybe."
"Next to Jon and Tanisha," Crystal went on. "Is Jon’s and my sister, Nanci. She had some boyfriend trouble back in Chicago and came along on this trip at the last minute." There wasn’t much else Crystal could think of to say about Nanci at the moment, so she pressed on. "Next to her, that tall, skinny guy is Pastor Noah Whittaker. Now, most of you might think that a Baptist preacher is going to be a little square, but I do have to say that Noah is pretty cool. He was a raft guide with me on the Ocoee for four years, like I said, and he was the cowabunga champion of the river. He still is, as far as I know. He even managed to dunk the guy who later became his boss, and he got away with it. I tried to pull even with him, I really did, but he had that nice, pleasant demeanor that really made it look like an accident. He’s youth pastor at Glen Hill Road First Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and I’m just happy that I could tempt him out west to see what some real water is like."
Being the cowabunga champion of the Ocoee wasn’t something that Noah really liked to admit to, anymore. But, he did have a little bit of a wild side back in those days, and he realized what Crystal was doing – trying to humanize him a little; people were often pretty uptight around preachers.
"Next to Noah," Crystal went on, "the little lady with the big words is Myleigh Harris, my old college roomie." She shook her head. "I don’t really know what to say about Myleigh, but she has a doctorate in English literature, and teaches at Marienthal College in Kansas City. She plays the Celtic harp, which is very cool." Crystal stopped and sighed. "Whenever Myleigh and I meet anyone, the first thing they do when they get me off to the side is always ask, ‘Does she talk like that all the time?’ The answer is ‘Yes.’"
"Aw, dat ain’t so, yaah, you betcha," Myleigh laughed in a thick Upper Peninsula of Michigan accent, known as ‘Yooper.’ "Ya know dat when we went do Norddern, dey taut us howta talk right, eh?"
""Yaah, you betcha," Crystal answered back in the same accent. "Dat’s right, Myleigh, ya godda make a liar oudda me." She dropped the accent and went on. "Next to Myleigh is Trey Hartwell. Trey is on his first trip as a swamper with us. He’s a senior at Marienthal College, in business ad and sound engineering, and he’s been Myleigh’s road manager when she does shows. I only met Trey last winter and don’t know him too well, but he did some time in the Army. He and Myleigh are also another couple of us crazy surfers, too." She stopped and let out a sigh. "You look at the two of them, and they look like boyfriend and girlfriend."
"We are but close friends," Myleigh protested. "Compatriots, perhaps, indeed close friends, but not boyfriend and girlfriend."
"I’ve heard that from both Myleigh and Trey," Crystal said. "I’ve also watched them. They’re lying."
"But, Crystal . . . " Myleigh started.
"You can’t cover it up," Crystal grinned. "The seeing eye knows all, tells all. Don’t try to deny it. OK, back behind them are my dad and mom, Al and Karin. If you know why you’re here, you don’t need any further introduction to these two lovebirds. Anyway, next to them are Josh and Tiffany Archer. I spent a winter working for Josh and Tiffany one year, living in a pickup camper surrounded by a hundred and twenty of their howling huskies. The dogs do make pretty beautiful music of their own, though, but maybe we’re lucky we won’t be hearing it on this trip. Now, Nicole and Scooter and I have seen a fair amount of trail, but Josh and Tiffany have seen a lot more trail, and a lot harder, than anything on the AT. Their idea of fun is to set off across Alaska in the winter behind their dog teams, and not sleep for ten days to two weeks. They’ve both run the thousand mile Iditarod dogsled race between Anchorage and Nome six times. Tiffany, you ran eighth, the best woman finisher, the last time you ran, wasn’t it?"
"Ninth," Tiffany called. "Josh only did the Iditarod five times though. He did the Yukon Quest instead one year."
"Yeah, I guess I forgot that," Crystal grinned. "They can tell you the details of why they quit running the race, but if you’ll look at Tiffany, one of them is pretty obvious. Anyway, they have enough else to keep them busy. Josh is a railroad engineer in his day job. They also lead some tours of their own, and I know if I ever get a week off in August, I’m going to Quebec whale watching with them. Josh, Tiffany, I just now remembered. Make sure you get Giselle off in the corner sometime – her home town was originally Tadoussac, so she knows what whales look like."
"No kidding?" Tiffany asked.
"I grew up with whales off the beach, every summer," Giselle said in her accent. "I thought it was no big thing, until I moved away to Montreal."
"We have got to talk," Tiffany said. "You might be able to help out with some problems we’ve had."
"It is possible," Giselle said. "Although it has been a very long time since I have lived there."
"You’ll have some time to talk about it," Crystal told them. "Sitting on the bow of that end raft over there, just a little afraid of this crowd of maniacs, are the rest of the boatmen for this trip, Barbie Tompkins, Andy Roney, Carl Austin and Duane MacRae. They’re all good kids, or they wouldn’t be here, but get to know them early on since we probably won’t have any of them the second half of the trip. I guess maybe you all know about the big crew shuffle that’s coming down-river, but we’ll explain it in detail later. Duane, Barbie, and Carl had rafts for the last part of the summer last year, but this is Andy’s first trip as a full boatman, although they were all at the sticks a lot last year. Does that pretty well cover everybody, Scoot?"
"Pretty good," Scooter smiled. "I’m sure we’ll get to know everybody a lot better as we get down the river. Now, we got a lot of miles to get on today, so let’s chow down and get on the water."