It was three more miles on to North Canyon Rapids, at mile twenty. Sitting up in the lead raft with Noah rowing, Scooter thought that it was starting to get pretty late. Got to do it pretty soon, she realized. If the GCR rafts pulled in there, she might still have a chance to get down and talk to Jim.
Darn it, she had wanted to see Jim and talk to him alone for a few minutes. They’d bantered back and forth while rigging yesterday afternoon, but it had been kind of hectic, what with their party being short one boatman – Carl had had finals in Flag the day before, and had come up on the bus with the guests that morning. The GCR crew was doing their first rig of the season with a crew that needed shaking down, so there just hadn’t been the chance. Then the GCR guys all caught a ride up to the bar in Marble Canyon, and didn’t get back until the Canyon Tours gang had turned in. Then, it was hectic this morning with Nanci showing up, and there was that GCR crew meeting. Oh, well, she could wait a week before she told him what was on her mind.
What she had pretty well made up her mind to do was to ask him if he’d like to spend the night, maybe two. She wasn’t totally sure about it, but figured that if she committed herself to doing it that she could quit worrying about it. And, while she wasn’t exactly trying to sneak it past Crystal, she’d be just as happy if Crystal weren’t aware what was coming down until it had happened. Next weekend would be the perfect time, too. It had been one of the downsides about sharing the tiny house with Crystal and Karin in Flag the last year and a half – it was a little hard to get alone with someone. Well, after this trip, Karin wouldn’t be staying at the house anymore, and Crystal would be on the river each time she was home until they broke back down into two crews in September. She’d looked Jim’s schedule over carefully – if nothing changed, and he got the time off he was supposed to get, there would be three times in the next five of her trips when they could get together at the house. By themselves. Alone. Without Crystal around.
She was still turning the question over in her mind when they swung around the bend below 19 Mile, past a couple of the good smaller places to camp, and with Noah rowing, she wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention. All of a sudden, she heard Jon pipe up, in rather a low voice, "Hey, check that out!"
Scooter snapped out of her daydreams, and looked off where Jon was pointing. There, standing on a sand bar to river right, stood a mountain sheep – well, more than one: a momma and two kids, nosing around in the sand and chewing on the shore-side tammies. "Neat," she heard Noah say, and realized that he was pulling out of the current and over into a small eddy, so everyone could have a better look.
As they sat there watching, they noticed another female sheep and another lamb, up on a ledge above the river a little. Like most wildlife in the Canyon, they weren’t very wary of people, and moving quietly, all six of the rafts were able to move in pretty close for a good look. The walls of the Canyon above the river were pretty steep, but there were talus slopes of loose, broken rock here and there that allowed the sheep to get up onto a couple of ledges higher above. Scooter pretty well had her eye on the sheep as much as anyone else, but for a moment, she glanced downstream and noticed the two GCR motor rigs pulled up into a small campsite on river left.
"Oh, piss," she said to herself, realizing what that meant. From the GCR site on river left, they had to be able to see down to the campsite at North Canyon Rapids, at least the upper one, and maybe the lower one, too, if someone got out and climbed up a little to look. The only reason the GCR rigs would have pulled in there was if both of the campsites at North Canyon were full – the site they were in was pretty small for a mob as big as they could carry on the two motor rigs. There were campsites below North Canyon, but they were a ways down. Besides, it would mean running at least two class 5 rapids in the process, and they were already pretty late. They were already too far down to make it back to the little sites back at the upper bend.
But, wait a minute . . . that really was a pretty good sand bar right here, she thought. She’d never stopped here, couldn’t remember hearing about anyone else stopping here . . . she stood up, and looked a little upstream. It was a little flatter there, not quite as steep as it was here. And, even better, it was dead water on that side of the river, maybe even a little upstream eddy to get to the flatter spot. Stop here, or chance it? Not even a good bet to push on. She pointed at the flatter area, and said to Noah, and to Crystal in the next boat, "Let’s work our way back up to that flat spot. Looks like it’s home for the night."
"Like the wino said," Crystal grinned. "Any old port in a storm."
It was only a hundred yards or so back to the flat spot, not a lot of rowing. In a few minutes, one by one the rafts nosed into the beach. "Stay here folks, while we check this out," Scooter yelled as she hopped out the front of the raft, carrying the bow line, uncoiling it as she went, and noticed Crystal doing the same thing from the next raft, and other people doing it up the line. She noticed that the sand was a little looser than she liked, but not exceptionally so, which indicated that it was a fairly new beach, probably why this place wasn’t marked as a camp in the guidebook. There wasn’t any real good place to tie the bow lines close to shore, but there were a couple smaller tamarisks a ways up the beach, and the line proved long enough to reach them – just long enough.
"Not bad, Scoot," Crystal said, fastening her bow line to the same tamarisk Scooter was tying to. "I never noticed this place before."
"Me either," she replied. "Gonna have to remember this, though." They usually stopped along in here on their second night out, and sometimes it could get crowded. "Well, let’s get unloaded and get started on the orientation." She hustled back down to in front of where the rafts were nosed into the bank. "OK, folks, looks like this is home for the night," she told them. "No hikes out of here, but it’s so late we don’t have much time for hiking, anyway. Now, we got a lot of people here who have done this trip before, so they pretty well know the drill, but a lot of people haven’t, so I’m going to take it from the top. What we’re going to do in the next hour is pretty much how it’ll be handled every night on the trip, so I’m going to take you through it step by step and cover a few other things along the way. Karin, why don’t you take Carl, Duane, Andy, and Barbie and get started on dinner while I run through the routine."
"Fine with me," Karin said. "Where are you going to put the rocket box?"
Scooter frowned. "Up in those trees on the far side of that gully, it looks pretty good," she said. "It’ll be a bit yet before we get it set up."
"I can wait," Karin said. "But don’t make it too long."
"I’ll make it quick," Scooter said. She turned back to the group and quickly went over several details about setting up camp, using the portable toilets – rocket boxes they were usually called, or "groovers." At one time they’d been old Army ammunition boxes that, before someone had the bright idea of fitting a regular toilet seat, did a good job of leaving two grooves down your butt.
"OK, I guess we better get the groover set up or Karin is going to be down here complaining that she’s full of shit," Scooter said finally. "I guess that means she’s got dibs on it. Trey, and, uh, Nanci. Al told me he wanted you to be part of the process, so I guess I’m nominating you as a trainee swamper. Crystal will take you two and show you how to set it up, and set up the hand-wash system. Setting it up and taking it down each day is going to be you two’s responsibility, OK?"
"I guess," Nanci said uncertainly.
"So long as we don’t have to burn it like we did a couple places in the Army, it’s fine with me," Trey grinned. "That kinda stunk."
"Know how that works," Al grinned. "I used to have to do it in the Army, too."
* * *
Once the group broke up, Noah grabbed his gear and looked around for a good spot to lay out his sleeping bag. Right down the beach looked like a good spot, although several other people seemed to be eyeing the beach, as well. He walked about thirty yards through the soft sand, down to where it began to taper to a small point. It looked like this would do; it was level, and fairly soft. Home for the night, he decided. He set the gear down, opened the drybag and pulled out a ground cloth, spreading it out on the soft sand. As he did, he realized someone was watching; he looked up to see Crystal. "So how’d you like this kind of rafting?" she asked.
"Different," he smiled. "Fun, but different. I was surprised at how much I remember about reading water. The boat is more sluggish, but it turns easier."
"It is easier," Crystal grinned. "We run mixed oar and paddle trips once in a while. Scooter or I always get stuck with the paddle rafts. She and I are the only ones, besides Dad, who have much experience with them."
"What do you think about a tent for tonight?" Noah asked, eyeing the sky.
"I’m not going to bother," Crystal said. "It’s a little cloudy, but this stuff will clear off as the sun goes down. It’s less trouble to just sleep out and not mess with a tent, and I like sleeping under the stars."
"Never got the chance to do it back east."
"Noah, can I ask you to come with me for a few minutes?" she asked quietly. "I got a favor to ask of you."
"Sure, Crystal," he said. "I owe you a few, anyway, not the least of which is having me on this trip. What is it?"
Crystal looked around, noticing that there were several people standing nearby. "Not here," she said. "Let’s go for a little walk."
"Fine with me," he said, standing up to follow her. She led him along a little ledge to a spot where they were fifty yards or so from the beach and a few feet above it. She found a place to sit on a little shelf, and he found one on a handy rock. "All right, Crystal," he asked, "what’s this all about?"
"I don’t know where to begin," she said. "Look, I didn’t say much about Nanci earlier. I didn’t know she was even in Arizona until we got to Flag, and then I didn’t know that she was going with us until we got to Lee’s."
"Looks like she’s had some problems," Noah said. "I mean, that black eye and the bruises sort of give it away."
"She does," Crystal said. "Look, Noah, she’s pretty much made a mess of her life. Now, she says she wants to start over. Mom and Dad and Jon and Tanisha and I are hoping that she really does, but I don’t know that there’s a lot we can do to help. We can prop her up a little, maybe, but really change . . . "
"That’s harder," Noah agreed. "I remember when I met her down on the Ocoee that time. If you don’t mind my saying so, she was kind of like a long-haired blonde Jezebel in a string bikini. She was really enjoying teasing that church group we were guiding."
"No, that’s a fair description," Crystal said glumly. "She ran pretty wild through high school. Jon and I knew about it, but we never told Mom and Pete much about it. You know how that works."
"I see a lot of it," Noah said. "Not even that much different. Kids that age, well, they want to sort of try out their limits, without realizing the consequences."
"Fits her to a T," Crystal said. "At least, it used to. She’s now realized there are consequences, and they hurt."
"I know you were pretty upset with her, the last summer we were on the Ocoee," Noah commented.
Crystal nodded. "Well, I was. Look, Noah. You know I had to go back to NMU for an extra semester. Randy and I had sort of planned on living together, well, to see if we could live together. Nanci was just convinced that she had to go to NMU, partly because she thought she could get on the cheerleading squad, partly because she couldn’t think of anything better to do, and mostly because it would be far enough away that she wouldn’t be under Mom and Pete’s noses."
"Wouldn’t be the first kid who thought that," Noah grinned.
"Not even the first in the family," Crystal laughed lightly. "I mean, I had the same idea, but I was at least a little responsible about it. But I didn’t want her to go there, partly because it would have gotten in the way of Randy and me. Mostly it was because I knew that if she went there and ran as wild as I thought she would, Mom and Pete would blame me for her getting into trouble. Pete said that if she wanted to go there, she could, since they’d let me go there, and if she did go to NMU, I was expected to set a good example. Back when they came up for the campus visit, the winter before, I told them I wasn’t going to take the blame for her."
"Yeah," he said. "I remember you telling me about that."
"They didn’t listen to me," Crystal sighed. "So, she wound up going to NMU, and so Randy and I couldn’t live together, and in the long run, I lost him. Maybe that part of it worked out all right, I don’t know. But, like I expected, she went up there and majored in guys and partying."
Crystal went through the whole sad story of how Nanci had run wild around campus, and how that running wild had led to Crystal breaking up with her family, and all that had come of it, how Nanci had to leave college after Randy tangled with Kip, her boyfriend of the moment, and what she knew of how messed up her life had been in the years since.
"This last guy was a real shitheel," Crystal summed up. "He beat her up to get money for drugs, and she ran. The only place she could think to come was here. She was on the doorstep at Canyon Tours like a drowned rat with no place to go when we pulled in this morning and, well, Jon and Mom and I just couldn’t tell her to go to hell."
"Are you still mad at her?" he asked.
"Noah, I was mad at her back when we were in college, so yes. I was a hell of a lot more mad at Mom and Pete for not taking the responsibility for her and shoving it off on me. Mom and I managed to work that out. Damn it, if she wants to make a change in her life, we’ll help. But none of us are in a position to put up with more of the same old shit, either."
"I can understand," Noah said. "What do you want me to do about it?"
"Just listen," Crystal said. "Like you’ve always done. You were pretty good at helping me through some bad spots, back there on the Ocoee. I probably shouldn’t have told you all this shit right now, but I had to get it off my chest. But, look. Nanci is pretty scared of me right now, of Mom, even of Jon and Tanisha. She doesn’t know what to make of all this. It’s all strange to her. If it’s OK with you, I’m going to tell Nanci that you used to be pretty good at listening to my troubles and helping me sort them out, that she can feel free to come talk to you. You don’t have any of those old axes to grind. Maybe you can grease the skids for her a little."
"I can try," Noah said. "I take it she doesn’t have any particular religious convictions?"
Crystal shrugged. "Not unless she’s picked some up in the last few years, and I doubt it. Look, I don’t care if that’s where it goes, or what, although it might not be a good idea to go that route. I don’t know that she’s ready to listen to that."
"Can’t say," Noah shook his head. "Not without talking with her. There’s more to my job than just making conversions, you know that. But, it sounds to me like Nanci is trying to be born again, at least in a real-world sense."
"Yeah, that’s about it," Crystal agreed. "She thinks she wants to go straight. We just have to reinforce that idea, and help her."
"She’s apparently trying to turn away from her old life," Noah told her. "That counts for a lot."
"Thanks, Noah," Crystal said. "I thought you could help." She let out a sigh. "There’s some other things I want to have you listen to me about, but right now, this is more important. Maybe down the river we can talk about a few of them."
"Anything important?" he asked, realizing that there was more to it than the casual way she said it.
"Important, yes. Urgent, no. Just some stuff I’ve got to sort out for myself in the next few years, and one of the reasons I suggested that you come on this trip and do the wedding is that it might give us a chance to talk about it."
"I appreciate your thinking of me," Noah told her. "Look, if we don’t get to talk about it on the river, well, Scooter said you do get back east some times. You could drop by Chattanooga, or maybe we could get together some place."
"That’s just the point," Crystal said uneasily. "I don’t think I’d be comfortable talking to you in your world anymore. At least here, you’re in my world. There’s things I can talk to you about when we’re sitting beside a river that I couldn’t tell you anywhere else."
* * *
The shadows had crept down the Canyon walls by the time dinner was ready, and darkness was gathering. Dinner was good: halibut steaks and rice, and there was plenty. They’d brought the ration for the normal twenty-five people, and with only twenty-one there was still food left over despite the long time since lunch. Scooter explained the wash lines, and they quickly went through dinner dishes; a lot of the guests pitched in to help with them.
"We like to have a fire most nights," Scooter announced. "After the first of the month, we can’t gather driftwood, but you’ll notice there ain’t a hell of a lot on this beach, anyway. So, we’ve brought bundles of wood for each night. It’s not enough for a real big fire, and we have to burn it in a fire pan we bring along and carry out all the ashes. We want a quick fire tonight, anyway."
Soon, there was a small fire blazing in the metal fire pan they’d brought with them, and everybody was gathered around. "I’ve shot the shit around a lot of campfires over the years," Scooter said. "I like to at least start things out with a little bit of order, and let the stories build from there. We also like to have a little music around a fire, and there are several guitars along, but I was thinking about one thing today. People have been running this Canyon for a hundred and thirty years, and it’s hard to come up with doing something for the first time, but I’ll bet we’re doing something for the first time on this trip. This has got to be the first trip ever made with a Celtic harp."
"I am certain someone must have done it in the past," Myleigh grinned from across the fire.
"I don’t know," Scooter said. "They’re pretty rare. When you had Blue Beauty down at Buddha and Giselle’s last winter was the first time I ever saw one. How come you brought Brown Bess, instead?"
"Oh, I did not dare to risk Blue Beauty upon these rushing waters," Myleigh said. "Especially after her near-tragedy of last winter. She means much too much to me to risk her in these primitive conditions. So I decided to bring another, less cherished instrument I acquired recently – which I call Brown Bess. I think she will serve adequately for an amateur such as I."
"Amateur, my foot," Tiffany piped up from across the fire. "She won’t admit it, but she’s probably the world’s greatest jazz harpist."
"Oh, no, no, no," Myleigh protested. "I cannot claim those honors, dear Tiffany. There is a woman out of Boston who is far more talented than I. She’s a professionally trained musician, rather than an amateur like myself. I’ve played with her and learned much from her." She smiled and went on. "However, I will gladly claim the honor of second greatest, since to my knowledge, there are only the two of us playing, at least quasi-professionally."
"Most of you know Myleigh," Scooter said to the group. "But for those of you who don’t, I hope you like Jenny Easton music, because you’re going to hear a lot of it on this trip."
"Jenny Easton?" Nanci frowned. "I’ve heard the name. She does country, doesn’t she?"
"We hear a lot of her down in east Tennessee," Noah said. "I kind of like the direction her music has taken recently."
"You’ve heard the albums, At Home, Back Porch, or Saturday Night then, I take it?" Buddha grinned. "With Jenny Easton and the Boreal String Band?"
"I was listening to Saturday Night on the car CD on the way to the airport," Noah said.
"You should enjoy this trip, then," Buddha grinned widely. "We’ve got a third of the Boreal String Band on this trip."
"You, obviously," Noah said a little wide-eyed to Myleigh, remembering that campfire from years ago. "And Randy?"
"Yeah," Randy said, turning to him and grinning. "I’m not really up to par with the others, but I can fill in on bass guitar."
"You play your part, and quite well," Myleigh admonished, and explained to Noah. "Since everyone has day jobs, except Jennifer and Blake, we do not tour or play dates, but we have had moderate success with some albums. But perhaps it would be best if I quit talking about it and we played something."
* * *
Crystal let go with another yawn. It was getting late, and she more or less tried to live on sun time. She’d have to be awake right around first light, and this had been a bitch of a long day with some surprise stressors added.
Most of the rest of the camp had gone down for the night, or were well on the way; she could still detect a little movement here and there down the beach, where the largest part of the party had spread their sleeping bags. Jon and Tanisha were up on the ledge behind the camp, and Crystal had little doubt what that meant, not that it was unexpected in the slightest. Mom and Dad were up on a little rise, just downriver, and she figured she knew what that meant, too.
Considering that Nanci had never camped out once for the night, not ever, Crystal offered early on to skip her normal place down on the raft, and spend the night next to her up in the edge of the tammies. But, after having slept most of the day, Nanci wasn’t quite ready to crash yet, so she sat up by the fire, and Crystal sat with her, joined only by Noah, who was showing some yawns, too.
There were still just a few flickers of flame in the fire pan; the fire had gone quickly. Randy and Myleigh only played a few songs, promising to save a better performance for some time when everyone wasn’t quite so tired.
Crystal knew that the two wouldn’t be bearing the brunt of the evening entertainment; there were several guitars along, including hers and Noah’s. Al and Buddha played some, too; Buddha was pretty good, while Al was like her, really only doing accompanying chords to familiar campfire songs. Noah – well, Crystal hadn’t heard him play in some years, but he used to be pretty good, too. They probably wouldn’t get much of a chance to get everybody’s act together before the wedding with the kind of miles they were going to have to put on, but give everybody a lazy afternoon and a chance to work on something everybody knew and the Boreal String Band might just have a run for its money.
She yawned again. Myleigh had surprised her, with Trey, especially. They’d been just casual friends when she’d seen the two of them at Christmas, down at Buddha and Giselle’s, but after that kiss up at Lee’s earlier, it was clear that more was going on. There hadn’t been much more of that, none of the holding hands or casual kisses you might see among some not-quite couples, but Crystal knew that Myleigh usually avoided that kind of display. Back when she and Myleigh and Randy had their goofball little triangle, she’d only rarely seen Myleigh do any of that kind of thing with him, in public, or when it was just the three of them. And that meant exactly nothing, she knew, because she’d never done it much with Randy like that, either, although there had been times they’d made up for it when it was just the two of them, and she always figured Myleigh had, too.
Oh, well. It really wasn’t worth thinking about, as tired as she was, even though Myleigh was something pretty special to her. They’d been the best of friends for years at college, but then, Myleigh had gone on to grad school while Crystal had gone roaming after she had to leave the house. They’d sort of drifted apart, built different lives, and if they got together once a year it was doing pretty good. This trip would be their longest time together since they’d graduated, and she’d looked forward to renewing the old ties. But today, it just hadn’t worked. There’d been too much to do; they’d put in a big day, and then Nanci showing up right in the middle of everything had put a lot of stuff to the side. Things had slowed down a little while dinner was under way, and since there were several butts in the kitchen, Crystal had gone looking for Myleigh with the idea of having a few minutes of one on one – but she was nowhere to be found. Finally, when they called "dinner," she’d wandered down off the hill, from up around where Mom and Dad had their bags, carrying Brown Bess in her case. Probably getting in some practice, she thought; she knew that Myleigh rarely went a day without getting in at least a few minutes on the harp, and she probably wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of camp a little.
Once again, she yawned. This was ridiculous. Nanci looked like she could go for a while, and Noah was with her, although they hadn’t been talking about anything important. Through her exhaustion, the idea crossed her mind that maybe Noah was waiting for her to go away, so he could get down to business with Nanci, then get some sleep himself. "All right, you two," she said. "I’m bagging it. Nanci, you’ve got a flashlight, you ought to be able to find your sleeping bag. Don’t make too much noise."
"Yeah, good night, Crystal," Nanci said.
"You probably shouldn’t stay up real long, either of you," she said. "We’re going to want to get rolling early, and if you’re going to be the trainee swamper, you probably ought to plan on getting up to wake up the roosters like the rest of the crew."
"Make sure you get me up," Nanci said.
"Don’t worry, I will," Crystal said as she got to her feet, and headed for the sleeping bag. "The deal is that the first person in the crew to get up after first light gets the rest of the crew up. See you in the morning."
Up at her sleeping bag, Crystal spent just a little time getting ready for the next day. Since everybody was in pretty close and there were no tents, she did her normal routine of getting her underwear changed in the dark. She’d already laid out the bikini she wanted for the next day, and it would probably have to go three days unless it got wet right around bedtime. Changing and getting ready in the dark was well practiced, and she soon slid into her sleeping bag. Jeez, what a day, she thought. Glad it’s over with.
Out of the corner of her eye, she glanced down at the dim glow of the fire. She could hear Nanci and Noah talking in low tones, but she couldn’t make out the words. They’d been pretty quiet toward each other around the fire, so it was clear that she should have left sooner. Ninny, you weren’t thinking, she thought.
Usually, Crystal went to sleep like turning out a light, and she did this evening, but Nanci bustling around with the flashlight next to her woke her up after a time. She glanced up at the stars, and could tell from how they’d moved that an hour or so had to have passed. "Crashing finally?" she mumbled quietly, to avoid bothering anyone who might be nearby.
"Yeah," Nanci whispered. "You know, that Noah, he’s a pretty neat guy to talk to."
"I know," Crystal said, waking up enough to be coherent. "He used to be a good person to go to when I had problems, years ago."
"We talked about some of that a little," Nanci reported. "Thanks, Crystal."
"No problem," Crystal said sleepily.
Nanci was silent for a moment, then whispered. "Crystal, this time last night, I was driving across Texas or New Mexico or some damn place, and I figured there was an even chance that I’d be dead by tonight. I was even looking forward to it, a little." She sighed, and went on. "I sure never figured I’d be here. Like I said, thanks, Crystal."