Al had decided to ride with Scooter this afternoon, mostly to get a look at Randy on the sticks – he hadn’t managed to ride with him yet. In fact, Al had only been with him for a short distance on the one trip Randy had run before, although it had been an interesting few minutes, running Horn Creek. Back then, Al had wanted to be sure Randy was up for it, while he still had a chance to change his mind about the big ones to come, but Randy had handled it well. "Sorry I’m going to have to let Randy row what seems to be becoming your raft," he told Nicole with a grin. "But I do want to see how he’s coming along from up close."
"I’m pretty sure he can still find the sticks," Scooter grinned as she plopped down on the pile of gear.
The afternoon grew warmer as they floated downstream, although puffy white cumulus clouds began to pop in the sky. The Canyon here was generally a lot more open than it had been back in Marble Canyon, and the views were longer.
Al wasn’t surprised that Randy knew how to handle the raft – really, he wasn’t bad for a beginner, and he’d known that. Although he was starting from well behind Noah in total raft experience, he had a lot of whitewater experience in kayaks, and some of it on pretty difficult water, or at least that’s what Crystal had reported.
But Al had another reason to want to ride this raft. He was not blind to the fact that Nicole had been having some difficulties with handling the fear factor. At one point, he’d gotten Crystal off to the side, where she’d quietly admitted the fact, but that Nicole seemed to be dealing with the problem, and a hike out the Tanner Trail was still an option. The next two days were going to be the toughest whitewater days of the trip, and he wanted to assess Nicole for himself, and maybe buck up her courage a little if he could.
It was a fairly long afternoon, made a bit longer by the fact that the current wasn’t as swift here as it was elsewhere. They did stop once for a brief break, but were back on the water within minutes. The only real rapids of the afternoon was Lava Canyon, not as difficult as Kwagunt, which Al had run with Noah in the morning, but Randy handled it easily, and there wasn’t any real reason for comment. He’d been watching Nicole as much as he could without seeming obvious about it, and she seemed to handle it all right, although she held on pretty tightly.
Not far below Lava Canyon, Al pointed up to a small pimple on a cliff far in the distance. "That’s Desert View Watchtower on the south rim," he said. "There’s been a lot of famous pictures of the Canyon taken there. This is about the only place on the river where we can actually be seen from the visitor areas on the south rim, so smile for the camera, folks. If anyone’s taking a panorama of the Canyon this afternoon, a few pixels or photo grains might include us."
Now the Canyon opened out into a broad area of low hills. Scooter explained that this was known as the Unkar Plains, and that it was the largest area of Anasazi occupation, eight hundred years ago. It did almost seem as if they were going through a Midwest plains river with open, rolling hills, until they looked off into the distance at the high Canyon walls. They didn’t seem that high, off in the distance, but they were actually thousands of feet high. "The Tanner Trail runs up to the rim from not far below here," Al said. "I walked it once, back when I was younger and my leg could take it more. The first part ain’t bad, but that last couple thousand feet of vertical is a doozy."
"That’s what Crystal was telling us," Randy said from the oars, obviously a little nervous himself about what was to come.
"Big stuff tomorrow," Al said nonchalantly. "You want to row some of it?"
"I’d kind of like to," Randy said. "I didn’t get to do any of it the last time."
"Think you can handle it?"
"Don’t see any reason why not," Randy said. "It’s not a whole lot worse than House Rock, I guess."
"Some of it goes on longer," Al said. "Hance is about as difficult as they come, at low water. At high water, like we’ll hit it tomorrow, it’ll be a lot easier. People say Crystal and Lava are worse, but I think on the whole, Hance is a touch worse at its worst. Since we’re on our first trip of the year for the kids, we’ll stop and look over most of them."
"Any problem with walking the bad ones?" Nicole asked uncertainly.
"Not really," Al said. "In the hard boat days, they used to carry Hance, but they had to run Sockdolager and Grapevine, mostly because you couldn’t portage a hard boat along the shore. But someone walking by themselves shouldn’t have much problem, although it’s not always easy walking."
A mile or so farther on, they drifted around a tight bend, and Scooter glanced downstream. "Damn," she said, noticing a group of private trippers on shore there. "There’s someone in upper Tanner. They must have started farther down than we did. I was kind of planning on stopping there."
"Lower Tanner is a bigger site," Al said. "I sort of like it better, anyway."
Tanner Rapids wasn’t anything bad, no worse than Lava Canyon earlier. They swept around a broad left bend and looked ahead, to see a couple of motor rigs pulled up on the shore at lower Tanner. "Guess we don’t spend the night there, either," Scooter said. "Randy, Nicole, you got any reason to stop there?"
No one tried to look at Nicole, no one but Randy, but everyone stole a glance. She sat there quietly, a frown on her face as she looked at the shore.
"Nicole," Scooter said softly. "If we’re going to stop, we’re going to have to make up our minds pretty quick."
She shook her head. "No reason to stop on my account," she said in a soft voice, knowing she was committing herself to confronting her fears the hard way.
* * *
They ran on for another couple of miles – there were several camps in an area not far ahead, and since Scooter knew that tomorrow was going to be a long day, a couple of miles was a couple of miles. Finally, they swept around a right-hand bend, and Scooter told Randy to get over toward river left for a landing; it was really where she had wanted to go in the first place since it wasn’t far from the first of the big ones. Tanner had just been a place for Nicole and Randy to hike out, if it came to it, but it looked like Nicole was going to go through with the trip. Along the shore was a thick grove of tamarisks, but finally he could see a small open area, just big enough for the six rafts. "Up there?" he asked.
"Yeah," she said. "A nice hike out of there, too, Nicole. Not a long one, but there’s some interesting Anasazi ruins at the top of that hill in back. This is really the heart of Anasazi country, anyway. Randy, take it easy. The current rips right by the landing, but there’s just a tiny little eddy. Al, you wanna be ready with the bow line?"
"Yeah, I’ll get it," Al said, reaching for the rope at the front of the raft and getting set to leap ashore. "I’m gonna have Randy land downstream so there’ll be room for people upstream."
In a few minutes, the rafts were drawn up on shore; people were stretching their legs while the boatmen got the tarps off the load. It turned out there was a fair amount of space above the small landing, if not anything excessive. The unloading went quickly; the team had pulled together, just like it had done in the morning. Scooter designated a kitchen area, on a flat spot overlooking the rafts, and told Trey and Nanci where to set up the groover – along the shore, somewhat downstream of camp.
Noah usually tried to sleep with the group, and it seemed like many in the party were finding places to set up right close to the rafts and the kitchen, but on this evening he wanted to be away from the group a ways. There was some soul-searching and praying to be done, and some of the things that Al had said in the morning had only added to the concern. For some unclear reason, he wanted to be near the river, so he started down a little dirt path through the riverside tamarisks. Twenty or thirty yards up the path, he found a wide spot, only a few yards away from the river but somewhat above it. Since it was something of a dead end, he decided that he’d found home for the night, so he went back to the rafts for his gear.
"Gonna hike up to the ruins before we get going on dinner," Scooter told him. "You coming?"
"No," he said. "I think I’ll just sit down here and contemplate the river, or something."
"Suit yourself," she said. "The view up there is pretty good."
"Pretty good right here," he smiled.
"What’d you do?" Jon asked, with Tanisha standing in her skimpy yellow string bikini beside him. "Find a spot off by yourself?"
"Yeah, about twenty yards out," he said. "There’s a path out through the tammies that looks like it goes farther upriver, though."
"Jon, let’s go take a look," Tanisha grinned, and added to Noah, "We kind of like to be off by ourselves, too."
"It is more peaceful," Noah grinned, picking up his gear. "Especially if you want to be alone."
"Yeah," Jon grinned. "There is that."
"Come on, I’ll show you the path and where I’m staying," Noah said, picking up his night bag and camp bag. He did have a pretty good idea of why Jon and Tanisha wanted to be off by themselves, after all. He led them up the path through the tamarisks and took the side path that took him down to where he’d planned to spend the night. "Head on up that way," he told the two. "I think it comes out along the river somewhere."
"Thanks, Noah," Jon grinned. "See you at supper. I imagine it’ll be a couple hours, yet."
"Yeah," he said. "See you at supper."
At his selected little spot, he had a good view of the river, only a few feet away. He broke open his night bag, spread out his ground cloth. It was hot out there, but this was a shady spot, and there was a little breeze. Yes, this was a good place to think, to try to organize things in his mind. He spread his gear out, then found a shady spot where he could lean back against a tamarisk and look out at the barren brown hills across the river, cliffs with red, slanted striations of sediments along them.
He tried to think about his concerns, about the problems that he’d picked at for so long, but somehow, they seemed far away, and he couldn’t really concentrate on them. What he was feeling was a sense of peace sitting here by himself, just drinking things in. It was a peace . . . well, it was a peace that he hadn’t really known in some time, and perhaps that was something in itself, once he realized it. There were ramifications, he knew, but he didn’t want to think about them just then. Just enjoy the peace.
* * *
"God, I love this woman," Jon Chladek thought for perhaps the millionth time as he looked into Tanisha’s face, only inches away, her warm and sweaty body pressed up close to his. Her head was resting on his shoulder, and her hand lightly caressed his chest.
It was a good spot they’d found, close to the river, perhaps a hundred yards upstream from the camp, maybe not even that. It had a nice view of the river, but they were screened a little by some low tamarisk bushes. It was a wonderful little natural cubbyhole, just exactly what they’d been looking for. They’d taken the time to spread a sleeping bag over the top of their self-inflating air mattresses, which was a lot more preparation than they’d bothered with up in the warm little backwater of the Little Colorado earlier in the day. That had been a little daring; it had been pretty much out in the open, and there had been the risk of being discovered. They had known that the rest of the party had headed back downstream for lunch, so they figured that they’d hear the noise and bustle of another party coming upstream before they were in sight.
"That was wonderful," Tanisha said softly in his ear. "But, I’ll bet they’re going to be a while climbing that hill and getting back."
The implication was obvious. "Tanisha, you’re insatiable," he charged, a broad grin on his face.
"Yes, I am," she laughed quietly. "But you taught me."
His glance moved slightly farther away to where his hand lay on the darkness of her full breast, his white fingers lightly rubbing one of her very dark nipples. He’d known black kids in school, if not very many, there at home in Glen Ellyn, but most of them were shades of brown, compared to Tanisha, who had just about the darkest skin he’d ever seen. They made quite a pair, with his Swedish/Czech background compared to her West African. An unlikely pair though they were, they were incredibly close to each other – something else he couldn’t have imagined, either. Being so different, from such different backgrounds, it might have been difficult – but that unlikeness had led to an isolation, especially from each of their families, that just drove them deeper into each other’s arms. "I’m not so sure about that," he smiled. "I think you were the one who taught me."
"It didn’t take a lot of teaching," she grinned, her teeth shining in contrast to her beautiful ebony skin. "Just practice." Some people might have said that Tanisha really wasn’t all that pretty, but to him she was still about the most beautiful and exotic thing he’d ever seen.
"Yeah, it did," he smiled. "You know, I never figured it would work out this way, back there in Amarillo." It was one of his most intense memories. Even now, the memory of the excitement mixed with the resignation that they really only had each other in that intense moment in a nondescript motel room four years ago when he’d slipped the bikini bottom from her dark, rounded hips for the first time sent a complex of emotions through him, most of them centered around the love that he had for this woman.
"Me either," she admitted, pulling him tight, so he could feel the fullness of her breasts crushed up against him. "But, we worked at it."
Jon remembered the first summer that they’d worked in internships at Lambdatron. They worked hard that summer, eight, nine, ten hours a day, sometimes six days a week, and often took things home with them – not because it was needed, but because it was so interesting. But, they had other interesting things to do in their tiny little apartment, too. Over the course of the summer, they’d done things together they both admitted that they never could have dreamed of doing. They’d both admitted to each other that back in high school, they’d never quite been able to understand what the big deal with sex was all about. Oh, maybe it could be fun, they’d thought, but that was no big deal. But, together, they’d learned, practiced, improved . . . and it just kept getting better and better. Yes, it was a big deal, after all. It was good, memorable . . . but it showed them that there was room for improvement. Being engineering students, they both were pretty analytical and serious about what they started. Using the available texts, they’d worked on those improvements, taking them places that neither of them had imagined. They found it was an activity they both enjoyed, far more than they’d ever expected they would.
But with that came an uncomfortable discovery. Neither of them were what anyone could call physical fitness freaks – in fact, both of them had gone out of their way whenever possible to avoid anything to do with phys. ed. in school. They had discovered that they just didn’t have the stamina and endurance to do everything that they liked to do, as much as they liked to do it. Again, being logical engineering types, they set out to improve that. Running seemed like the logical answer, at least to get started – and doing it early in the morning, before the sun was up, turning summertime Phoenix into an oven, was the best time for it. It was hard getting out of bed at five in the morning, and a half a mile at a very slow pace was about the best they could manage. But, by the time a month went by, they were doing a mile, then two miles, at a much better pace – and, in the evenings, they noticed the difference. That gave them the impetus to get out of bed early the next morning.
"Look where it got us," she grinned, those unbelievably white teeth flashing at him again. "I mean, I never figured it would lead to running a marathon."
"Let’s face it," he grinned. "I never figured we’d wind up here, either."
"I still can’t believe this isn’t a dream," she laughed, moving her warm body next to his.
"Me, too," Jon smiled. "I mean, I still think of Mom as wearing a business suit and heels. I’m still having trouble visualizing Mom in blue jeans and a Canyon Tours T-shirt, humping heavy stuff around, going down the Colorado River on a trip with her boyfriend, on her way to a wedding that’s a week away from anything resembling a flush toilet, a shower, or a telephone. You think about that, and I guess it makes us seem pretty normal."
"It does seem pretty wild," she said. "And I can understand why she likes it, why Crystal and Al and Scooter and the rest like it."
"I like it," Jon told her. "I mean, back when I was in high school, I always figured Crystal was some kind of cave woman, but damn, you know, it’s catching. I still don’t think I’d care to make a life out of it like they do, but this trip is going to be just too short."
"I could stand to make a summer or two out of it," she smiled at him. "I don’t think I’d want to make a life out of it, either. After all, it would cut into our life together."
"Yeah, there is that," he whispered softly, just before reaching out with his tongue to lightly touch her earlobe.
"I’m not complaining," she said. "We went so long without a family, but I still can’t quite believe the family I married into."
"It is a little different," Jon grinned.
"It’s a lot different," Tanisha said, a little soberly. "I mean, I still can’t imagine what anyone in my family would think about me lying stark naked under a blue sky, next to the Colorado River, making love to my white husband."
"Yeah," he said. It had been one of those facts of life for him, one that went along with marrying her. They’d known it for years before they got married. "I don’t think they’d exactly react like Mom and Al and Crystal, or even Nanci."
"You know they wouldn’t," she agreed. "Your family just seems to take it in stride, without it meaning anything much," Tanisha said. "Nanci seems to be taking it far better than you thought. The fact that I’m your wife is more important to them than the fact that I’m black."
"Paranoia," Jon said. "I figure Dad would take it about like your family, and I had no idea when Nanci showed up at Flag how much she’d been in contact with Dad." He sighed. "I wonder how he’s doing."
"Yeah. Nobody’s heard anything about him in over a year, not since Crystal found us," Jon said. "Not even Nanci. I’ve tried calling him at work, but he just hangs up the phone."
"He probably wouldn’t be very happy if he knew what’s happening the day after tomorrow," she said thoughtfully.
"Probably not," he agreed. "But, you know, I’d really rather not think about that right now."
"Me, either," she said. "It could get morose, and this is too good a chance to pass up."
"Like I said, you’re insatiable," he grinned.
"We should have a little time before dinner," she grinned. "Then, if the campfire doesn’t go too late, we can have some fun the rest of the evening."
"Sounds like a plan," he grinned back, looking toward it. "Anything in particular you’ve got in mind?"
"Oh, I’m sure we’ll come up with something," she laughed, lust in her voice.
* * *
"This Diet Pepsi reeks," Tiffany said, making a face as she sat back on the beach, not far from the kitchen. "Just once, I’d like to have a beer, but I guess I can’t."
"Yeah," Josh said, holding his own can of Diet Pepsi in his hand, and glancing over at his pregnant wife. Though he wasn’t much of a drinker, he’d sworn off alcohol for the duration, just to try to make it a little easier for her. She was wearing a conservative bikini in the late afternoon heat, and her pregnancy was showing more than a little, although she wasn’t huge yet and wouldn’t be for a while. They’d had some concerns about making the trip with her pregnant, but their doctor had told them that there wasn’t any reason to be concerned. But still, this would be their first child . . . and, well, it was unexplored country for them. "Guess this will have to do," he conceded. "You doing all right?"
"Fine," she said. "You know, it really seems strange."
"What?" he grinned. "Being pregnant?" It was really strange for him. After all, they’d known each other for so long, been friends for so long – well, this was a big step, after all that time. It wasn’t quite the same as raising puppies, after all.
"I’m getting used to it," she told him. "Ask me in about a year if I want to do it again."
"I’ll make a note," he said with a leer.
"I’m sure you will," she said dryly. "Don’t worry, I’ll be taking notes, too. No, the part that seems strange is to be out here in the wilderness when it’s so warm I’m actually a little uncomfortable in a swimsuit, instead of a bunch of layers."
"Yeah," he agreed. "And without a ton of stuff that has to be done right now, dogs that need attention, so many hassles that you can’t really enjoy it."
"That’s it," she said. "There’s absolutely nothing that has to be done in the next five minutes, other than to sit here and try to swallow more of this lousy soda. And, you know what? I sort of enjoy being a little lazy."
"You’re right," he said. "It is strange. Do you realize that we’re actually taking a vacation and enjoying it?"
"Well, it’s not quite the same thing as a big resort hotel, where you spend all your time lying on the beach," Tiffany grinned. "That’s what Jennifer suggested a year ago, and I still think it would bore me shitless. But yeah, this is the kind of vacation I can handle. Lots to see, and out in the wild. I even had fun rowing the raft some."
"Yeah, that was fun," Josh agreed. "You know, up till now we always considered our vacation the drive back from Alaska in the dog truck."
"Well, it was our vacation. A chance to kick back, relax, just talk about stuff, and only have to stop every now and then to drop the dogs."
"Some vacation," he snorted. "Drive, drive, drive, then stop for a while so the dogs can take a dump and get fed. That was sure strange, flying them up this year. But, you know, I’m not sure if I’m even going to go next year. If we have a good dog handler, I may just let Phil take him and stay home with you and little what’s their name."
"Fat chance," she snorted. "You’re going to be so tired of dirty diapers that you’re going to grab any excuse you can to get out of there."
"I don’t know," he said. "It can’t be any worse than dog crap."
"So you think," she smiled. "You forget, I pretty much raised Susan. Mom thought it would be good practice for me, when my little sister was a baby. And, you know the scary thought? She’s going to be a teenager before much longer. Josh, where did the time go?"
"Went to the dogs," he said. "Literally. That’s why we’re cutting back and changing things. It works; it’s going to buy us some time for ourselves."
"I’m not going to mind getting out with the dogs some," she said. "But I will be glad to have the scut work cut to a minimum. Have you done any more thinking about Duane?"
"He seems enthusiastic," Josh agreed. "But he doesn’t have much experience with dogs. I don’t mean race dogs, just dogs period. I hate to commit to him now, and find out that he can’t cut it."
"Well, yeah," Tiffany agreed. "But, face it, Josh. That’s the problem we’ve always had with dog handlers. I’d like to have Crystal back with us for the winter, but there’s not a prayer of getting her, now."
"Yeah, she did make that one winter go pretty well," he agreed. "And, she didn’t know jack diddly about dogs when she started. I suppose it’s worth a try. I mean, he can’t do much more than fall on his ass, and even if all he can do is feed and clean up and like that, it’s still going to be some time saved." He looked out across the river for a moment, then back at his stocky brunette wife sitting beside him. "We really need to be giving him an answer before he climbs out with Scooter for the summer."
"If it’s going to be Duane, he’s going to have to make arrangements to be gone all fall. We’re going to need him right after summer season here, since I doubt I’m going to be much help after about Labor Day."
"I’m beginning to think, what the hell, why not."
"Yeah," she agreed. "Me, too. If he doesn’t work out, well, maybe we can find some high school kid to help with the feeding some."
"There is a good side to it, you know? If we’re not up to our butts in mutts all the time, we might be able to have the chance to get out and do something like this for ourselves again."
"I think I’d like that," she said. "You know what we really ought to do? Jennifer and Blake were so hot for us to get out and take a vacation, but do you have any idea how long it’s been since they’ve been on one? Their idea of a vacation is a road trip with a bunch of music dates, some tapings, road shows, and like that. They need a vacation. We ought to drag them out here on one. We could probably get Myleigh and Randy to help work on Blake and her with us."
"Yeah," he grinned thoughtfully, then broke out laughing. "Scooter thought it was a big deal to have Myleigh playing up at Redwall Cavern," he laughed. "Think about what stories would be going up and down the river if Jenny Easton played there. I have this vision of those guys on the motor rig watching Jenny and Blake hop out of a Canyon Tours raft with their guitars, going up the hill, and starting to belt out Fever."
"Good idea," she grinned. "We’ll have to work on them when we get back."
"What’s so funny?" Karin asked from a few feet away.
"Oh, just some folks we’d like to ask to come the next time we do one of these," Tiffany grinned.
"Got you hooked, huh?" Karin grinned. "We always like repeat business."
"I think we’ll be back," Josh agreed. "This trip has been pretty cool so far."
"Trust me," Karin said. "It gets better. Hey, if you don’t mind, we need some help pitching in with supper. Most of the crew is still up the hill."
"Sure thing," Josh said, getting to his feet. "Did Duane go with them?"
"Duane, no. He’s heating water," Karin replied.
"Good," Tiffany smiled, getting up to help herself. "I think we’re going to steal one of your boatmen. Not till fall, though, when he’d be leaving anyway."
"That’s a relief," Karin said. "Going to go to the dogs, huh?"
* * *
Dinner was spaghetti, and it was good – but then, all the dinners were good. It was starting to get dark by the time it was eaten, and the dishes were washed and the chores for the night were done. As things wound down, Scooter set the fire pan up on a little stretch of beach between the kitchen and the rafts, and got another fire going. In a few minutes, most of the party had gathered around, and there were guitars and a harp in evidence. "I’d say we had a pretty good day," she said as the flames began to build. We came a little farther than I intended, which is good. We’ve got a big day tomorrow, a lot of ground to cover, and we do have to meet Team 1 down at Phantom before the day gets too shot in the butt. So, let’s figure on getting up and getting moving early again in the morning. If we can do as well tomorrow as we did this morning, we ought to be fine. But, I’d say we probably ought to not go too late tonight, so it won’t be too hard to get around in the morning."
"Probably a good idea," Al agreed. "Let’s face it, we’re going to have a couple big and confusing days, when there’s going to be a lot happening, and we’re going to lose some of the intimacy we’ve had so far. But once we get through those couple days, we should be able to get back into a small-group atmosphere again pretty easily. At least, I hope so. It usually doesn’t happen like this."
"Well, no," Scooter grinned. "It’s not every trip that the boss gets married."
"As far as I’m concerned, I hope it’s the last one," Al said. "But, we have a good group here. This isn’t much like a normal customer trip; it’s more like a private party with a lot of friends. That’s been kind of nice."
"I think so," Scooter agreed. "It gives the trip a flavor that they don’t usually have."