Not far ahead of the two rafts paddling along side by side, Jon and Tanisha sat on the opposite side tubes of Scooter’s raft as she gave Noah some instructions on how to handle it. It was a new experience for them; as much time as they spent around rafts and rafters, it was their first time in one on the water. "Hey, Jon," Tanisha smiled, "look back."
Jon turned his head from looking at the trace of an old road that worked its way upward along the south side of the river, the old access road to Lee’s Ferry, to look back at the five sky blue rafts that followed them. Behind them, Lee’s Ferry was slipping out of sight around a bend. "All right!" he exclaimed. "Hear any helicopters?"
"Not a whisper," she smiled back at him. "I think we made it!"
"Right!" he grinned. "They can’t catch us now!"
"You two sound like fugitives from justice," Scooter grinned from her seat on the side tube, where she was watching Noah handle the raft from the boatman’s seat in the middle. She knew about Jon and Tanisha’s concern about being called back in to work if the test went bad, but she had no idea of what the test was about. From nearly the first moment that she’d met them a year and a half before, she’d known that the two were involved in some sort of classified project, and that they just didn’t talk about it.
"Fugitives from Lambdatron," Tanisha laughed. It was a happy moment indeed – for the first time in their four years together, they were off on a long vacation. A lot of Canyon lay ahead, and they were eagerly looking forward to getting to know it for real after just hearing the superlatives for most of two years now.
"I got a feeling they’re gonna have a hell of a time getting you back to work," Scooter drawled. "Six will get you two you’ll both be ready to tell them to go to hell, you’re gonna join Canyon Tours as swampers."
"I’ve heard dumber ideas," Jon smiled. "Scooter, it’s been a real hassle getting out of there for this trip. We just about had to threaten that to get to go at all."
"Well, you’re on your way," Scooter grinned, and turned her attention to the man at the oars. "Noah, you starting to get the hang of it?"
"Yeah, I think so," the lanky young man drawled, in an accent not dissimilar to hers. "You get a lot better control with the oars, but this thing is almighty sluggish."
"Supposed to feel that way," Scooter grinned. "Back when Randy ran with us last time, he said it handled like a concrete truck on an icy road. We got a boat here that’s quite a bit bigger than those we used to run on the Nanty and the Ocoee, and several times the weight. Don’t have quite the power we had neither, even with maybe six newbies on paddles."
The raft was just about as happy going down the river sideways as it was end-wards – in fact, he knew well, that’s how they often ran in faster water when maneuvering was necessary. While the raft didn’t exactly turn on a dime, it did turn pretty easily, and running sideways, it could move across the river into a promising line easily. In the heaviest water, they did run end on, but only after getting onto a promising line in the first place. Only on the slowest of flats or in strong headwinds would it be rowed in the normal way, oarsman facing upstream.
"It’s a mite strange," Noah agreed. "Of course, except for that time I took that group down the Nanty with you, it’s been ages since I’ve been on a raft."
"It’s ’nuff different that it might be good for you," Scooter laughed. "’Course, we do run paddle trips once in a while, but on big hogs like these, it’s still pretty different."
"I don’t know, but I think I could get used to this." Noah laughed. "Did you ever imagine that we’d wind up here back when we met up at Slice ‘n’ Dice years ago?"
"Nope," Scooter grinned. "I was thinking about it while we were waiting for the bus this morning. Noah, do you realize that was six years ago?"
As Noah continued to pull at the oars, he frowned for a moment. "Gotta be," he said finally. "Lord works in mysterious ways, doesn’t he?"
"Hey," Jon said. "Noah, I remember you, now. Crystal just said she knew you from when she was working on the Ocoee, but weren’t you on that trip I was on with her?"
"The one where a kayaker pulled out in front of her, she ran over him, and he and a buddy got a little upset afterwards?" Noah grinned. "Yeah, I was in the boat right behind you when that happened."
"A little upset doesn’t begin to describe it," Jon said. "Tani, I told you about that. He and his buddy took after Crystal with knives, and she and Randy just about killed them."
"I’ve heard the story," Tanisha said. "I’ve never heard Crystal tell it, though."
"Not likely," Noah smiled. "It wasn’t exactly something she took pride in. But, yeah, I was there, and I was watching when it happened, and it happened so quick that I didn’t have time to move a muscle. I helped Pastor Jordan stabilize them afterwards, though, along with Crystal." He let out a sigh. "I guess that was another one of those ways the Lord works mysteriously. It turned out to be a lucky day for me."
"You and she told me about it, like later that week," Scooter said. "She was still pretty busted up about it. How was it a lucky day for you?"
"That was where I met Pastor Jordan," Noah smiled. "He remembered me from that time, and that’s kind of how I wound up at Glen Hill Road."
"Yeah," Tanisha said. "She said you were youth pastor there, right?"
"That’s right," Noah nodded, pivoting the boat to get a look and a better idea of what was coming. As heavy as the raft was, the oars were less for power than they were for steering, trying to keep the boat where the current was strongest, letting the water do the work. "Good place, good people, and Pastor Jordan has been a real mentor and friend to me."
"You looking for a church of your own?" Tanisha asked.
"Oh, sooner or later, probably," Noah said. "I’m in no real rush. Being a youth pastor at a big place like Glen Hill Road is a bigger deal than being a pastor of some little one-horse place. But, when the Lord calls, I’ll move on."
The Canyon walls were higher now, and closer together. Tanisha knew that technically speaking, this was Marble Canyon and the actual Grand Canyon was still a couple days away; at least according to some, it didn’t start until the Little Colorado, nearly sixty miles ahead. But, she knew too that some of the most awesome sights of the trip would be in that first couple of days, where the walls were narrow and vertical, the Redwall towering high overhead. As they swept around a bend, she glanced downstream, to see the twin silver arches of Navajo Bridge in the distance. Except for a little bit down near Phantom Ranch, this would be the last that she’d see of civilization for two weeks.
Yes, this is what she’d come for. She swung over onto the load, gear in boxes and drybags piled high, both in front and in back of the boatman’s box, found a halfway comfortable spot, and tried to drink it all in. It was impossible, and they hadn’t even got to the good part yet! No wonder people like Al and Karin and Crystal and Scooter kept coming back – in ten trips, a hundred, it was too much to take in.
They drew perceptibly closer to the bridge as the current carried them along, Noah moving the raft backward and forward with oar strokes to keep it in the strongest part. Before long, the bridge was high overhead, and Tanisha lay back on the gear load, to get a better look at it high in the sky. There were actually two bridges, nearly twins; the downstream one was a little wider and much newer; the older bridge a few yards upstream was now merely used as a footbridge. She could see a handful of people looking down from the railing. They were much too far away to be able to identify anyone high overhead.
"See anyone from Lambdatron?" Jon asked, looking up himself.
"Nope," Tanisha grinned. "And, that really is their last chance."
* * *
Randy was rowing by the time they got to Navajo Bridge while Duane and Nicole sat on side tubes on either side of the raft in front of him. Randy’d been running white water for years, but he really didn’t have a lot of experience with oar rafts. What experience he had, he gotten in a very steep learning curve. On the trip a year and a half before, Crystal had let him row a lot on the upper section of the river, including all but some of the worst rapids. He’d enjoyed it – he wasn’t much of a person to just go along for the ride, and Crystal knew it. Then, Jerry’s accident happened, and he had to be medevaced out. Randy had wound up at the oars of a solo raft for the second part of the trip. He’d handled it OK – it had been fun and challenging, but he’d been just as glad that he didn’t have the responsibility of doing it on a regular basis, like the Canyon Tours boatmen.
He thought Nicole was holding up pretty well, considering, but they hadn’t come to any real rapids yet. Back in the winter, she’d come clean to him about how much she was afraid of the rapids, and she’d offered to stay home and let him go by himself. It had been tempting – but he wasn’t about to do it. The time had come for them to get out on a big trip together, and there weren’t many chances in the foreseeable future.
Randy didn’t really understand Nicole’s fear. She was, overall, a brave woman. It took more than a normal amount of courage to hike off for the summer on 2100 miles of trail, for example, and she had aced the trip. She was a competent if not highly skilled surfer, on both boards and in sea kayaks, a damn good skier and snowboarder, and not a bad climber – but she just had some damn mental hang-up he couldn’t understand about white water. He and a couple of his kayaking buddies back in Spearfish Lake had taken her out onto easy stuff in kayaks. She’d grimly given it a try, until he finally got the message and quit asking. The only reason she’d agreed to come at all was that both Crystal and he had told her that she had the option of walking around most of the bad water if she thought it necessary, and if push came to shove, he’d encourage that. But there were a few places down-river, mostly in Upper Granite Gorge before they got to Phantom, that would be very difficult to walk, and he really hadn’t gotten into that with her. He just hoped that she’d be used to rapids by the time they got to them.
He also hadn’t told Nicole that down in Florida last winter at Buddha and Giselle’s, he’d gotten Crystal off to the side and told her about Nicole’s fears – and he’d told Crystal that if worse came to worst, he’d hike out with Nicole rather than completing the trip. Badger Canyon, coming up, was about the last good place to hike out for days, until they got to the Tanner Trail, and there was some big water coming before they got to Tanner.
Back up at Lee’s Ferry an hour or so before, Scooter had gotten him off to the side and told him that they’d pull in just below Badger, on river right, just in case, so Crystal must have told Scooter about Nicole’s problem. But, Randy knew that he’d have to make a decision on the basis of how Nicole handled Badger before he raised the notion of hiking out.
The hell of it was the surprise that Crystal had sprung on Noah and him back on the bus before they’d gotten to Flagstaff. The surprising thing was that she meant it. "Randy, I know that you often hit a slow period late in the fall, and sometimes it’s a real bear for us to come up with enough boatmen at that time of year," she told him. "If we can get you qualified, then we could call on you for a trip or even a half trip, in a pinch. Our insurance company says you have to have four qualifying trips to become a boatman, and this’ll make two for you. Two more, and you could be mine!"
"I’m afraid Brent and Nicole might have something to say about that," Randy had laughed, figuring she was joking.
"Actually, I’m quite serious," Crystal told them. "Noah, with your Ocoee experience, the insurance company only needs three qualifiers, and this’ll be one. That’ll make a heck of a line on a resumé the next time you go looking for a church."
"Yeah," Noah had laughed, "it might at that."
Randy hadn’t realized just how serious Crystal was until Scooter stuck Noah on the sticks right from the start, and Randy knew that the only reason he wasn’t on Crystal’s raft was the surprise appearance of Nanci, and the need for some mother-daughter-daughter time. It seemed likely that was where he was going to be for most of the trip. He had mixed emotions about the idea, though. Crystal was right – there were occasionally opportunities for him to get away in the early spring and late fall, and the more he thought about it, the more he realized that he’d like to be able to take her up on it. He’d really loved the Canyon the last time he’d been down, and only Nicole and the construction company looming larger in his mind had drawn him away. Without those, he’d have been happy to join her in the Canyon, and become a river bum with her.
Now, maybe he could do it, just a little. It was irritating. He could get away lots in the winter, when Nicole was teaching, but he worked heavy hours in the summer, when she was off. But there was no way he would even consider such a thing without Nicole’s enthusiastic agreement. And, he figured that depended on her having a good time, and not letting her fears get the best of her. Walking out from this trip would mean a permanent walkout for the both of them. He hoped to avoid it, but there it was. At Badger, only a few miles away, he’d have some idea of how she’d do.
* * *
"Come on Nanci, wake up!" she heard Crystal’s voice calling. It couldn’t be Crystal, her subconscious thought. Crystal can’t be here. This is just a weird dream. She was floating in some kind of boat, down in the bottom of a canyon somewhere. She opened her eyes and saw Crystal shaking her, while her mother was at the oars, rowing the boat. This can’t be real, she thought. It’s just a weird dream.
"Come on, Nanci, pull yourself together," Crystal said. "I know you want to sleep, but you’ve got to be awake for this. We can’t have you sleeping through the first real rapids."
Nanci sat up, resisting the realization that this wasn’t a weird dream, but the real thing. She was indeed sitting in the bottom of a raft, and her mother was rowing, down in the bottom of a canyon. Then, the last few days started coming back to her – Curt beating her, she grabbing her clothes and a little money, sneaking out to her car, and starting to drive with no idea of where she was going. She’d started to head back out to Glen Ellyn, even though she knew no one from her family was there, but at least it was familiar, and she might be able to find someone she used to know. Only then, did the memory of what Thelma had told her a year before come to her, and it seemed like a good idea, if the only one she could come up with. Then, the driving, the hunger, the driving . . . she remembered stopping for a couple hours the night before in a rest stop, probably in New Mexico, but she wasn’t sure, then getting back on the road when the hunger pangs kept her from sleeping. And then, meeting Crystal, then Jon, and the surprises that had come one after another. She balanced it in her mind. No, it had to be a dream, so she might as well lay back down and go back to sleep.
But no, Crystal wouldn’t let her. "Come on," she said. "I know you’re tired, and you want to sleep, but you have to hang on. It’s going to be a rough ride. Get up off the floor, get up here on the gear and sit down."
With Crystal helping her, Nanci managed to get up, still not convinced that this wasn’t a dream. It didn’t really seem like a dream, it was pretty real, not sort of hazy like dreams were. This was pretty vivid. "OK, grab hold of these straps," Crystal told her. "Hang on tight. It’s only going to be a minute, but hang on!"
"OK, Crystal," she said, still not quite comprehending what was going on. She looked at her mother, sitting at the oars, and she seemed pretty real, but her mom was looking off to one side, and all of a sudden, she realized they were drifting sideways down the river. Not far ahead, there was a low rumble, and she could look downstream and see the river drop away, with white water rearing up beyond the lip of the drop. She remembered seeing that back when she’d taken that raft trip down that river in Tennessee with Crystal, but this was different – they were paddling back then, Crystal steering from the back. Dimly, she remembered her mother telling her that she was now a boatman with Crystal. That couldn’t be real – what would her mother be doing rowing a raft down through a rapids in some canyon?
There were other rafts between them and the edge of the rapids, and she began to comprehend that they were drifting sideways, too, just like this raft. She watched the raft ahead – it was a little ways off, maybe fifty yards or more – and she could see the person at the oars take a couple of big strokes to turn the raft so it pointed endways down the river. Then, the raft nosed down, and all but disappeared over the drop, only to rise on a wave behind the drop.
"Badger Rapids," Crystal yelled. "Here we go. Hang on, Nanci!"
Nanci gripped harder on the straps in her hands, watched her mother take a couple powerful strokes at the oars – it still must have been a dream; she could imagine Crystal doing it, but her mother? – then the raft swung around. She took a deep breath as the boat slid down a slick tongue of water and dropped into the roar. Waves built in front of them and to the side. They rode smoothly over the first, only to have the next crash over the nose of the raft. It was like getting washed in the raft, back when Crystal took them down the Ocoee while she rode the nose of the raft, years ago, but except for a little spray thrown up, she stayed pretty dry. But, the spray hitting her in the face made her realize, finally, that this wasn’t a dream – she was really in a raft, going down a rapids – my God, in the Grand Canyon, she realized – and her mother was really at the oars! She held on tight as the boat bucked and twisted; it rode over the top of the wave, as well as through it, and on over the next one, not taking as much water. Her mother pivoted the boat a little and began to pull to the side, where there was some flat water, while Crystal scrambled from her place beside her up to the nose of the raft.
"Mom?" she said, a little question in her voice, still not quite daring to believe this was real, and knowing that it must be – she really wasn’t back in Chicago, in Curt’s apartment, she was really here!
"One down," her mother grinned, the happiness evident on her face. "A hundred and sixty to go."
* * *
A few minutes later, all six of the rafts were nosed into shore, with lines run up to nearby tamarisk trees to hold them there. "Good place for a break," Scooter called from up on the bank. "On normal trips, we usually stop here for the night, or across the river. That’s usually enough to let people get a feeling for what’s happening and go over stuff you need to know. But, we need to get some miles on today, so since we started early, we’ll have a leg stretch for a few minutes, then get moving again. We’ve come a little less than half of what I hope to do today."
People began to clamber off the rafts, to join the few who were already on shore with Scooter. Nicole stepped off the bow of her raft, with Randy holding her hand. It really wasn’t that big a step, but once she was on the ground, she sat down on the bow tube. "God," she whispered to Randy. "I can barely stand up."
"You’re probably a little stiff. You’ve been sitting in the same position for two or three hours without moving," he whispered back as he sat down next to her. "You doing OK?"
"I was scared shitless," she said. "Are they all like that?"
"There are worse, but not a whole hell of a lot worse," Randy told her. "Badger isn’t exactly in the top ten, but it’s in the second ten, for sure. Some of them go on for longer, or are a bit steeper."
"I made this one," she said. "I don’t know how."
Randy debated for a moment about offering her the option to walk out. It could be done from here – it would be a long walk with a fair amount of climbing, nothing technical, he’d been told. If there was anything Nicole could handle, it was a long walk. "You did just fine," he grinned, trying to be supportive. "Hell, you’ve been on roller coaster rides that were worse than that."
"Yeah, but they were dry," she said, shaking her head. "Do we have any more like that today?"
"Soap Creek, in about three miles," Randy told her. "It’s not as bad. Crystal let me row both this one and Soap Creek when I went with her the other time. The next one after that, House Rock, well, it’s about as bad as this one to ride through, but it’s trickier for the boatman, since you have to get your entry just right, but the ride is about the same."
She let out a long sigh. "Damn it, Randy, I want to do this with you. I know that wasn’t that bad. Hell, I saw meek little Myleigh going down behind us with a huge grin on her face. I mean, my God, if she can do it, why can’t I do it? I guess I don’t have a lot of choice but to hang in there and try to make the best of it."
"You don’t have to tough it out for my sake," he said quietly, making up his mind. "This is supposed to be fun, and it’s not going to be fun if you’re scared shitless every inch of the way. I don’t want to have to put you through this. If you want, we can walk out that side canyon. It’s about three miles out to the road, and three or four miles of road walking down to Marble Canyon. Crystal left her car at Lee’s. I can get her keys and get us back to Flagstaff."
"God, I really don’t want to do that," Nicole told him, tears running down her face. "What would you think of me? What would all these people think? Randy, we’ve got a lot of friends here, how could I ever face them again?"
"Just making the offer," Randy said gently. "Look, if you want to try to tough it out, there are a couple other places where we could walk out. We wouldn’t have Crystal’s car available, and the climb would be a lot worse, but it wouldn’t be anything we can’t handle."
"No, God damn it," Nicole said. "I said I’d do this and I’m going to do it. Maybe after enough of these goddamn rapids, they won’t scare me quite as damn much."
"Nicole, I love you," he said. "I want you to enjoy this trip. I’ll get with Crystal tomorrow, and we can stop and let you walk a rapids if you think you need to. I don’t think Scooter plans on getting into the Roaring Twenties today, and there are two or three there about as bad as this one. After that, well, it’s a long way before we hit anything as bad, just piddly little stuff like Paria, maybe a little worse. You didn’t have any trouble with that, did you?"
"No," she shook her head. "We went through it and I hardly noticed it was there."
"Good," he said. "Once we get through the Twenties, you should be able to just sit back and enjoy the scenery. The next couple days has some of the prettiest stuff in the Canyon. We do get to the next chance to walk out, the Tanner Trail, before we get to the real big stuff, and maybe you’ll be a little more used to it by then."
"I don’t want to shame you by asking you to let me walk out," she said sorrowfully.
"We can cross that bridge when we come to it," he said gently. "Look, maybe you ought to get up and walk around for a bit, get the circulation going in your legs, before we get back on the river."
"Yeah, I guess you’re right," she said, drying her eyes with the sleeve of her T-shirt.
"I need to take a little walk upriver," he said. "Maybe you ought to take the chance to head down-river."
"Down-river?" she frowned. "Oh, you mean . . . "
"Yeah, use the facilities nature provided. You must not have been paying attention. If you have to take a leak, use the river. The men go upriver, the women down, just like their pants."
"You know, now that you mention it, I guess I heard that," she smiled. "That surprises me a little."
"How’s that?" he said, glad to see her brighten a little.
"I thought I pissed my pants when we went over that damn rapid, but I guess I didn’t."
"Good girl," he laughed as she got up. "See, it wasn’t as bad as you thought, was it?"
"I guess not," she said grimly as she started to climb up the rocky sand of the beach.
Randy did have to use the facilities nature provided himself, and he got up and started to walk up the river. Well, he’d made the offer. He didn’t want to lose out on this trip, but he would if he had to for her sake. The issue was far from over with, he was sure.
As he walked up the beach, Crystal came over to join him. "Staying with it, huh?" she said.
"Yeah," Randy sighed. "She’s not a happy camper. She’s got pride, she’s one of you OLTA grads, so she wants to tough it out."
"Anything I can do to help?" Crystal asked.
"I don’t know," Randy said. "I don’t want to see her just tough it out for my sake. I want her to enjoy this."
"I’ll try to get her off to the side and work my way around to it," Crystal said. "She’s got her pride, though. She might not be willing to tell me."
"That’s true," Randy agreed. "I’m going to have to bear the brunt of it, but if you’ll help, we might get her through."
"Sorry, Randy," Crystal said.
"No need to be," he said. "It’s my problem and hers, that’s all."
"No, that’s not what I was talking about," she said. "I guess if things had worked out between you and me, this wouldn’t have been a problem."
"Yeah, but that’s all water down the river, isn’t it?" he said. "They weren’t going to work out, unless either you or I made changes we weren’t willing to make. You get right down to it, this is a minor problem by comparison."
"Yeah, I guess," Crystal said sadly. "Look, if you need someone to talk to, well, you know."
"I know," Randy said. "We’ll make it somehow."