Hungry as she was, Nanci still had trouble eating. The nerves were about as bad as they’d been back in Flagstaff. She’d had a little sleep the night before, a couple hours in a rest stop, when she just couldn’t keep her eyes open anymore, and she was devastatingly exhausted.
And yes, she was scared. There was a hell of a lot riding on this trip, and it was going to be hard. Worse, most of the people were strangers to her, and some of them were pretty scary – like Scooter, who had been smoking a cigar while she helped set up the tables with sandwich makings for lunch. She looked about as hard and tough as they came, and then some.
Even worse were the people who’d gotten off the bus. Crystal knew everybody, but Nanci only knew a couple of them: Randy and Myleigh. Myleigh – well, she couldn’t say that Myleigh scared her, but she did awe her, and had ever since she’d first met her. Myleigh was awesomely brilliant, and definitely on a different plane than any of hers, and at least Myleigh was friendly.
Much worse was Randy. She’d met Randy on several occasions in the past, and he scared her – the last time she’d seen him, she thought he was going to kill her, and he’d been mad enough to do it. It was just as well that her folks had told her to come home from school – she’d have been scared to be around him. Even seeing his face here had almost been enough for her to change her mind about going. At least, he’d seemed civil to her here on the boat ramp, even introduced her to his wife – but twice in the past, she’d seen him take on someone a lot bigger than he was and maim them in an instant. God, his wife must be a brave woman to live with that knowledge hanging over her all the time.
God, there were so many new people, and so many of them obviously knew each other already. She felt very much the outsider, very alone and afraid, even though Crystal introduced her around. Probably most of them knew about the trouble she’d caused in the past, and it was difficult. It just made her more nervous. How could she go through with this? But, what would happen to her if she didn’t try?
The thing that probably helped her pull everything back together was when she met a tall woman with beat-up skin – deeply tanned, but with loads of wrinkles, like she’d spent years out in the sun. "Your bruises, your black eye, they are about three days old, it must be?" she said in a funny sounding foreign accent.
"Three days tonight," she said shyly.
"Let me have a look at them," the foreign-sounding woman smiled. "If they are three days old we are past first aid, but perhaps there is something." Without comment, the woman bent over and touched one of the bruises. It hurt. "Ah, still sensitive," she said. "Have you done anything for them? Seen anyone about them?"
"N-no," Nanci said, shyly.
"Scooter," the tall, tanned woman said. "You have perhaps topical antibiotic in the first aid kit? And perhaps ibuprofen?"
"Sure thing, Giselle," the woman with the cigar said.
"I am afraid there is not much to be done," Giselle told Nanci. "But you seem to be healing well, and they should mostly be gone by the time we are off this trip. Were you otherwise injured? Cut?"
"I was bleeding from my mouth a bit," Nanci said. "But it’s cleared up now."
"Good, then," Giselle smiled as Scooter handed her a tube of ointment and a bottle of pills. "Any aches or pains elsewhere from where you were hit?"
"I hurt a lot after it happened, but it’s mostly cleared up now."
Giselle didn’t take her word for it, but gave her a careful going over, explaining in the process that she was a nurse. "A couple of places you must have been cut and not realized it," she said. "And there is minor infection, but it is clearing up. You should be fine in a few days."
"Thank you, Mrs. . . . uh, I don’t know that I caught your name."
"Varsos, but just call me Giselle," she smiled.
"Thank you, Giselle," Nanci smiled. Someone had been kind to her – and it gave her tremendous relief. Maybe Giselle didn’t know about her – or did know, and didn’t care. Maybe this would work after all. "Uh, can I ask where you’re from?"
"Florida," Giselle smiled. "You are about my accent wondering? I am originally from Quebec."
"That’s like Montreal, right?"
"I lived in Montreal for a while," she smiled. "Florida is much warmer. I have lived there nearly thirty years, now. And you?"
"Chicago, mostly," Nanci said. "But, I left there. I don’t want to go back."
"Ah, you are taken with the desert already, like I was taken with Florida?"
"It’s pretty different," she replied. "At least, it’s not Chicago."
She heard Scooter speak up. "Anyone else want a last shot at the chow? Grab it now, and we’re going to pack up and get on the river."
All of a sudden, the sandwich tasted pretty good. She hadn’t gotten all the way through it, but thought she could handle another one. "Excuse me, Giselle," she said. "I think I want to get to the food again before it goes away."
"By all means," Giselle smiled. "I will look you over again in a day or two."
Nanci got up, grabbed a slice of flatbread, threw some turkey and beef slices on it, and rolled it up. It tasted darn good, right now – but all of a sudden, raw horse meat would have tasted good. Yes, this was a bunch of strangers who seemed to be pretty good friends with each other. But, from what she could see, they seemed to be pretty friendly all around. She stood back, finishing her first sandwich and starting on the second, watching the boatmen pack up the meal and the tables. In only a few minutes, everything was loaded on the rafts.
"OK, a few things about the trip," Scooter yelled, holding her cigar while standing on top of a boatman’s box on a raft. "We’re leaving a little early, as you all know, and we want to get some extra miles on. Usually, we only run a few miles, just to let you get used to being on the river, but on the tight schedule we’ve got, we’re going to have to push it a little, especially with this wind right now. The first day or two we’re going to be talking about things we have to do to make the trip go smoother, but we’ll keep it short for now and go over more of it as we go along. First, your boatman is in charge of your boat. Listen to them. They know what they’re doing. You may not. As boatmen, we’re here to give you a good trip, but also a safe trip. There’s an accident every now and then, but it’s hardly ever that anyone gets hurt. In nearly forty years, Canyon Tours has never had a death on the river, and we aren’t going to start now. Major rule: when you’re on the river in a raft, you willwear your PFD, at all times. If I catch someone on the river without a PFD, you’re not going to like what I say. It’s not just our rule, it’s the Park Service’s, the insurance company’s, and it’s the law. Period. End of discussion. Most of the time it doesn’t matter where you ride on the raft, on the gear, or the side tubes or wherever, but the bow does get a little wet . . . "
She went on for another couple of minutes, talking about a few more things, like hanging on in rapids, what to do if you got thrown out of the boat in rapids, making sure loose gear was tied down all the time, and things like that, before she said, "OK, folks, let’s load up and beat it on out of here. Normally, we’d assign you to rafts at least for the first day or two, but I ain’t gonna worry about it this trip since with this group we pretty much don’t need the icebreaker. Just mix it up some, no more than four to a raft, but don’t leave any of the boatmen solo. We’ll switch around as we go down-river. It’s gonna be blowing upstream, so those of you who can row, I’m sure your boatman will appreciate a break once in a while, even if we have to jump around rafts in midstream. The only thing is that I want to have Barbie, Andy, Duane and Carl rowing all the serious rapids, since this is a qualifier for them. That means that Randy, Noah, if you row rapids, you’ll have to be with Crystal or me. I ain’t gonna worry about that much today, since we’re only gonna have Badger, Soap Creek, and maybe House Rock. Noah, why don’t you plan on riding with me, and I can break you in on oar boats? Randy, why don’t you and Nicole ride with Duane? He strained his back a little unloading, and he may need a break on the oars."
"You ride with Mom and me," Crystal told Nanci. "At least, this leg. We can talk a little."
"Sounds good to me," Nanci said, a little wonderingly. She remembered the last time she’d been in a raft with Crystal and her mother. It had been down on the Ocoee, with Crystal running the raft – it had been a wild ride, and her mother had been the one enjoying it the most. Nanci mostly remembered being pretty scared – and then more scared when the raft had run over that kayaker – and more scared yet when the kayaker and a buddy attacked Crystal and Randy with knives – and had gotten flattened in seconds. My God, was this going to be two weeks like that? But, there was no turning back now – as Crystal had taken her car up to long-term parking, and the bus had headed for Flagstaff.
Her gear bag had already been loaded aboard one raft and tied down; her mom was already on the raft, sitting on a white box in the middle, so Nanci climbed aboard, wondering about what was happening; most of it still seemed like Greek to her. From what she could figure out, it seemed like this was going to be some kind of camping trip. Nanci knew that Crystal pretty well lived in a sleeping bag, camping and like that, but she’d never once done it, hadn’t even gone to Girl Scout Camp like Crystal had done – it hadn’t seemed cool. Now, there was that to be scared of, too – but Crystal had done it for years, even her mom did it now, lots, apparently. It couldn’t be as bad as going back to Chicago.
Crystal called from behind her. "Nanci, find a place to sit down. Right where you’re at will be fine." She dropped down and sat on a gear bag, and she heard Crystal say, "Ready, Mom?"
"Any time you are," her mother said. She felt a lurch, and glanced over her shoulder, to see Crystal giving a huge heave on the front of the raft, then leap aboard.
"On our way again," Crystal grinned as she sat down on the front of the raft.
"About time, too," Karin said. "The part I like least about this is waiting around on the ramp when we’re already rigged. I just want to get out and go."
Nanci remembered Crystal sitting at the back of the raft with a paddle to steer, when she’d run the Ocoee with her that time. She figured that was what would be happening again. Now, she was surprised to see her mother grab the grips of a pair of large, heavy oars and start to row while Crystal sat back and watched. "Mom, you’re driving?" she asked in amazement.
"You’ve been told that things aren’t what they used to be," her mother grinned. "This is something else."
"Like daughter, like mother," Crystal laughed. "Nanci, your mother has become a Canyon Tours boatman, too."
"Mom?" Nanci asked, eyes wide as her mother pivoted the raft, took a couple strokes to catch the strength of the current, and began to ride it downstream. This didn’t seem real! Her mental picture of her mother involved a business suit and high heels; "casual clothes" back then didn’t even involve jeans, although heavy housecleaning did. Now, here she was in jeans and a T-shirt, wearing a straw cowboy hat and sunglasses, heavily tanned – and obviously more muscular than she remembered, although that hadn’t been clear back at the landing. She was working those oars seriously. "I don’t believe it," she said, shaking her head. "I mean, I think of you as a bookkeeper at Heller-Aller."
"That’s a long time ago," her mother grinned. "I’m fully qualified as a boatman, at least as far as the insurance company is concerned. Actually, I’m not all that experienced, but I’m working on it. This is my tenth trip, and I’ve rowed well over half of the last five or six or so."
"Dad doesn’t let Mom run unless he or I are with her," Crystal said. "At least, not up till now. If we get pushed into it, we may have to let her make a trip without us this summer, but we’ll want to have some strong young swamper with her. Mom has a hell of an eye in the rapids, but she just doesn’t have the stamina for a long pull on the flats, especially in wind like this, which is mostly what we’re going to have today. She and I’ll be changing off for most of it."
"I’m working on it," her mother said. "When you get to be my age, it’s not as easy to build up the muscle and stamina that you can when you’re a kid. I could probably row a full trip this year, if we get into a pinch, but we’d really rather that didn’t happen."
"You could get away with it if you didn’t get a pot load of wind," Crystal said. "And, I think we’re going to have all the wind we want this afternoon."
* * *
"Gonna be a long pull," Duane said as the other rafts began to move away from the launch. "Randy, you want to get on the sticks now?"
As she settled into place, Nicole looked up at the tall young boatman and saw he was walking a little tenderly. It was clear that Randy was going to be rowing some of the time. She sort of hoped that Randy would say no, at least for now. Right now she wanted him close to her. As much as she and psychologist friend Carole had talked about her fears, this was the moment that she’d have to really deal with them. Come on, she told herself, this is no big deal, just a river. There’s no reason to be afraid; these people have done it a lot. When they got to some of the big rapids down-river, yes, there might be a reason to have some fear, but this was nothing.
"I better not," Randy said. "I don’t know if Scooter is counting Paria as a rapids or not. If you have trouble, I’ll take over for you below there."
"Fine with me," Duane said. "You want to give us a shove off?"
"Yeah, sure," Randy grinned. He hopped back over the front of the raft, untied the bow line, coiled it up, grabbed the grip line, and gave a pretty good shove, then scrambled back over the tube to settle down next to Nicole on a gear bag. Duane set the oars and backed the raft out into the current. "Well, that’s it," he said. "We’re off to see the wizard at last."
"Yeah, it’s gonna be good to be back between the walls again," Duane grinned. "It’s wonderland down here. Scooter says you rowed a trip a couple years ago, after Jerry got hurt that time."
"Only part of it," Randy grinned. "I didn’t do the Roaring Twenties, and some of the stuff down by Hance."
"You ran Crystal and Lava, then?"
"Both of them," Randy grinned. "I had Crystal with me in Crystal, but she made me run Lava solo. That was a thrill."
"It always is for me," Duane grinned. "Scooter said a sneak route opened up in Crystal last winter. You can run right down the right side and not get over a six."
"I thought six was as difficult as rapids got," Nicole said with a frown. Though she didn’t like white water, from hanging around Randy she knew more about it than she had any need to.
"They use a goofball system here," Randy said. "What he said is that it’s no worse than a three anywhere else. Turn around and take a look behind you. Except for Navajo Bridge in a few miles, and Phantom, that’s the last sign of we’re going to see of civilization until the end of the trip."
"That’ll be . . . different," Nicole said uncertainly. Back on some of her hiking trips, especially on the AT, she’d been away from "civilization" for days at a time – but that was all in forest country. Except for a few scrubby trees near the landing, there was nothing here that could be called a forest. It was all rock, desert rock, as far away from the woodlands that she’d been used to as she could imagine. Oh, God, I don’t want to do this, she thought, but I guess I’m stuck with it, now. But damn it, I have to do it, and at least act like I’m enjoying it some. I know Randy didn’t say he had any problem with me working Mosquito Valley again this summer, but I know better.
"Nervous?" he whispered in her ear, hopefully so low that Duane couldn’t hear it.
"Yeah, a little," she admitted. "You know why." On Carole’s advice, she’d pretty well come clean to him about her fears about the trip, but had said she was willing to give it a try so they could at least get in one trip somewhere together this year. It was clear that opportunity wasn’t going to come up very often, and it was just too good of a deal to pass up.
"We’ll have a good time," he whispered. "It’s not going to be that bad."
"I know," she said. "But still . . . "
"Just sit back and look at the scenery," he advised. "It’s pretty good, although nothing like we’ll get into down-river."
They bounced through a small riffle, nothing to match the roaring water that Nicole knew was to come, but still, it was the first fast water. The nose of the raft rode upward on the standing wave, then dropped down into the trough behind it. A thin blast of spray came up over the blunt nose of the raft, and a few drops carried by the strong wind sprayed on her, even though she and Randy were sitting in the back of the raft, where it was drier. That was just a warm-up, she knew; there would be worse. Lots worse. Now, the walls began to climb, but the river flowed wide, flat, and steady. For better or worse, they were on their way.
Another raft came up alongside of them. Nicole didn’t remember all the boatman’s names, but she remembered that the girl was Barbie. Tiffany and Josh were riding with her, along with Al, who had said he pretty much planned on riding with the new guides as much as he could. "Hey, Nicole!" Tiffany called. "Isn’t this something?"
"Pretty neat," she replied, without a lot of feeling. "Doesn’t it look strange to you, without snow all over everything?"
"I can’t believe it," Tiffany laughed. "I’m not going to be seeing a dog for two weeks. I was just a little girl the last time that happened."
"The best part," Josh grinned, "is that neither of us has to feed a dog for two weeks."
"Now, that’s a vacation," Randy grinned. "But I think the best part is that you don’t have to see a dog’s hind end for two weeks."
"There is that," Josh grinned. "But in the last few years, we’ve always had a break from that for a few months, starting about this time."
"How’s the back holding out, Duane?" Al asked.
"Seems to be OK," the young man at the oars replied.
"Don’t overdo it," Al suggested. "Let Randy at the sticks as much as he wants. You don’t want to screw things up first thing, and then hurt for the rest of the trip."
"I’m good for a bit yet," Duane grinned. "You guys have something to do with dogs, I take it?" he asked Josh and Tiffany.
"A little bit," Tiffany laughed. "We’ve messed around with them for a few years."
"Duane, I guess you missed the introduction," Randy grinned. "For them, ‘a little bit’ involves half a dozen trips across Alaska apiece behind dog teams."
"The Iditarod?" Duane frowned. "I was off at the restrooms when the introductions got started."
"Josh and Tiffany Archer," Josh said.
"No shit?" Duane said, wide-eyed. "God, I’ve always thought that would be the neatest thing to do."
"We’re always looking for a dog handler," Josh smiled. "Crystal did it for us one winter, and that’s the best way to get started."
"That was you guys?" Duane smiled. "I’ve heard the story."
"Come on, Josh," Al grinned. "Don’t be stealing my boatmen away from me at the start of the season. Duane, if you remember that story Crystal told, remember how much time she had to spend cleaning up dog shit. That’s gotta be worse than groover duty."
"I guess I heard you quit doing the race," Duane said.
"It’s a hell of a lot of work," Tiffany said. "In the last year, it started to get to be too much for us."
"It’s hard to make a life out of just running that one race," Josh said. "All the time we were doing it, I spent seven to eight months a year running on a railroad, usually ten to twelve hours a day, usually five days a week and sometimes six, and Tiffany worked with me as a brakeman for a couple summers, too. We’d already been doing dogsled tours during the training phases, and after we got done with the first Iditarod, we decided to expand the tripping business. Then we decided to open an outfitting store, with kayaks and canoes, backpacking gear, bicycles, and like that. That ate up even more time. It got to the point where we were just sleeping or working at one thing or another, and something had to give. We had to do something to ease the time pressure."
It was more than that, Randy knew, although he wouldn’t say anything to Josh or anyone else about it. Blake had told him in strict confidence that he and Jennifer had pretty much laid down the law – if Josh and Tiffany didn’t get rid of some of the time pressures that were eating them alive, Jennifer would quit sponsoring them. One day back after New Years, he and Blake had been sharing a cup of coffee and some conversation, when the subject of this trip came up. Randy had told Blake that he’d been talking to Crystal, and she had told him that she was thinking about inviting Josh and Tiffany if they could get free. Blake suggested that it would be wonderful if Crystal were to invite them and they were to go. He and Jennifer felt the two needed to learn how to take a vacation, and the previous spring he and Jennifer had offered them a week in Hawaii, just to get them away. Josh and Tiffany both said that even if they could find the time, they’d still go nuts in three days of doing nothing. And, to that, Blake added that he and Jennifer would be willing to pick up the expense so long as Josh and Tiffany didn’t know about it. It had taken a little bit of juggling and several people sworn to secrecy, but now they were headed down the river on what Randy knew was the first real vacation they’d ever had.
They drifted down the river as the canyon walls towered far above. Slowly, they began to close on Karin. As they drew close, they could see that Nanci had flopped over, her head on the tube, sound asleep. "The place overwhelmed her already?" Al grinned.
"She just checked out on us," Crystal grinned. "She’s pretty tired. I don’t blame her."