It took a while for the adrenaline to die down. They just drifted down river, getting close to their stopping point. There was one more rapids shortly below Crystal, Tuna Creek. A couple of days before, this would have seemed like a big rapids, but now, it was just a routine patch of white water, and they just followed the obvious line, a little more water splashing over the side. Below Tuna, Randy was slightly in the lead, but the two rafts were running close enough together that they could talk back and forth easily.
"As I recall," Randy said. "This is river left, right below a little tiddler of a rapid just up ahead, here."
"Yeah," Crystal told him. "Stay right, itís just around this bend."
"You stop here often?" Randy asked.
"No, it doesnít fit the usual schedule too well," Crystal said. "We did stop last trip for lunch, just to check things out. The beach has built up a little, I think, since you were here. Weíll land, and then weíll work up as high as we can. Itís going to be just barely big enough for eleven boats along the beach."
"I donít remember it as being all that big," Randy said.
"Itís not," Crystal said. "Itís gonna make last night seem like we had lots of room, with all the butts we got on this trip."
"I donít know about anyone else," Noah said, "but Iím about ready to get off the river, stretch out, and have some lunch."
"Yeah, me too," Buddha agreed.
"Oh, shit," Scooter said.
"Whatís up?" Randy asked.
"They still had the kitchen set up when we left. I donít think weíve got lunch with us. We kind of threw things on board pretty quick."
"Thatís what happens when you get in a hurry," Crystal said. "Iím pretty sure Iíve got some candy bars and granola bars in the boatmanís box."
"Yeah, I might have, too," Scooter told them. "Weíll just have to see if they stop to have lunch on the way down. Well, between the candy bars and the drag bags, we ought to be able to hold out."
"I guess I can make do," Randy said. "Yeah, that little side canyon up there, right?" He thought heíd remembered it, it was a little distinctive.
"Yeah, thatís it," Crystal said, letting out a sigh. "You know, Dad and Momís lives changed up there a couple times, and mine did, too. This is a special place."
They swept around the bend and then got a clear view of the beach. "Oh, shit," Randy said. "Someoneís there."
"No problem, go ahead and land," Crystal said. "Those are motor rigs; they wouldnít stop this early, not here. Maybe theyíre just stopping for a piss call."
"Maybe lunch," Scooter grinned. "Maybe we can cage some."
As it turned out, the motor rigs were just making a quick stop. Scooter and Crystal knew one of the boatmen, and they shot the bull for a few minutes as the passengers loaded up; a few minutes later, they were alone on the beach. "Guess we got some time to kill," Crystal told them. "Letís set up a duffel line, get our gear unloaded, and then I think maybe Iíll go take a little hike up to the water pocket and make sure no oneís trashed the place."
"I was never up there when we were here the last time," Randy said. "You have to scramble up this rock face, right?"
"Yeah, right here," Crystal said. "You can see where thereís handholds and footholds."
"Itís pretty steep," Randy said. Back in the days when they were at Northern Michigan University, Crystal had been in the rock climbing group, but it hadnít been anything heíd been particularly interested in. White water, surfing, and studying, along with hanging out with Crystal and Myleigh had been more than enough to keep him busy. He could do this face, it wasnít that bad, but he wasnít the climber that Nicole or Crystal was.
"Yes," Myleigh frowned. "I believe I can scale it, but I do not see how I could do it carrying Brown Bess."
"Youíre right," Crystal frowned. "Didnít think of that. Oh, well, weíll get her up there somehow or other."
"You could strap it to one of the pack frames," Nicole suggested. "Iím sure I wouldnít have any trouble carrying it up there like that."
"I can sling the guitar," Randy offered.
"Yeah, thatíd work," Crystal agreed. "Canít do anything about it now, till the rest of them catch up, and itíll be an hour at least. Well, we might as well get what stuff we can set up, too."
It didnít take them long. "Iíll bet we got an hour to kill, anyway," Crystal said. "Maybe more. I remember Dad saying that thereís a neat little waterfall not far up this side canyon. Iíve never been there, but we could hike up to it."
"I was there when we were here the last time," Randy offered. "Itís not real far, maybe twenty minutes or half an hour, not a lot of climbing."
"Letís do it," Scooter agreed. "Iíve never been there, either. Guess youíre leading this one, Randy."
"Good enough," Crystal nodded. "Suppose someone ought to stay back with the boats, though, just in case."
Jon and Tanisha looked at each other briefly, "Oh, weíll stay back," Jon offered casually. "Wouldnít mind the chance to kick back, maybe take a nap. This is going to be a long afternoon."
"Suit yourself," Crystal said smugly, understanding him perfectly. "I take it everybody else is going. Letís grab a couple daypacks, throw some snackies and cans in them, and have a little snack up there."
"Weíll make do," Tanisha smiled.
In a few minutes, the hikers were started up the side canyon, with Jon and Tanisha watching them leave. "Damn," she whispered in her husbandís ear as the last hiker went out of sight. "I didnít think that was going to happen."
"Me, either," Jon smiled. "After that mob scene last night, and tonightís probably worse . . .í
"Yeah," she replied smugly, the lust clear in her voice. "Glad we got the chance." She let out a sigh. "I donít suppose we want to stay on the beach."
"Yeah," he admitted. "Itíd be fun, but . . . maybe up in those tammies."
"Thatíll work," she grinned, untying the top to her yellow bikini. "We ought to hear anyone coming. Grab a ground cloth, would you? Iíd just as soon not get sand in my hair."
* * *
It was a fairly easy walk, fairly flat, but it wound around a lot, stepping back and forth across a tiny stream, occasionally having to walk through it as the trail wound upward. Finally, they reached a tiny, shady little glen, where a small waterfall plunged downward a few feet. There was moss and greenery on the rocks, and some shrubs, a bit of a relief after the barren rock that theyíd mostly seen for days. Daypacks were cracked open, cans and snacks passed around; it made a perfectly adequate lunch, under the circumstances.
"Neat little place," Buddha grinned, leaning back, a can in his hand.
"Yeah," Crystal grinned. "I guess Iím just as glad Mom and Dad didnít come up here that time."
"Funny about that," Buddha said. "How sometimes lives turn on little things in faraway places."
"Godís hand reaches where He wants to," Noah agreed. "I donít know the whole story, of course, but think of how many lives have been touched by that one incident, how many are continuing to be touched, and perhaps will continue to be touched down through the ages."
"I was just thinking that," Buddha agreed. "Some people call it fate, some people call it luck, some people call it the hand of God, by whatever name. You never know when a cusp is going to come along like that, but the wheel of life keeps turning. Godís hand lies heavy in a place like this; it touches people in various ways they donít expect. Keeps life interesting, for us and for Him, I suppose."
Noah frowned. Heíd picked up several mixed messages in that statement. "Iíve been wondering," he said. "Are you a Buddhist, or what?"
"No," Buddha grinned. "I messed around with eastern religions some when I was a kid, and some of it stuck. Culturally, Iím a Christian I suppose, but I guess Iím more or less a Deist. I guess some of that eastern stuff took."
"Iíve studied comparative religion a little," Noah said. "Not a lot on eastern religions, but I never heard that term."
"Isnít used much, anymore," Buddha said. "Itís a person who admits to the fact of God, but to no formal form of worship. Itís kind of a shame, since I think a lot of people feel that way but donít know how to admit it. For myself, I believe that we worship God with our lives. Some of you have heard me talking about the ocean being the mother of us all, and it is, and I suppose Iím sort of a mystic about it."
"I always figured you were a Buddhist," Scooter said. "I mean, what with the name, and all the mystic talk about the sea."
"Yeah," Crystal grinned. "For that matter, I never knew what your real name is; Iíve always called you ĎBuddhaí."
"Well, actually, it is Buddha," he grinned. "Itís not the name I was born with, but my mother never liked the name my dad hung on me, and since I was fat and bald when I was born, she called me that from day one. Mom had it legally changed after dad left."
"He will not even tell me what name he was born with," Giselle snorted. "I know, but he did not tell me."
"I didnít know that," Buddha frowned.
"Giselle," Crystal smiled. "Will you tell us?"
"There is no way," she said in her French Canadien accent. "I must admit, I do not like it very much either, so I will honor his secret. Besides," she grinned, "the winters are much too cold in Montreal, and Florida wouldnít be a safe place if I were to say."
"Well," Crystal sighed, "I guess thereís no hope, then. I suppose we ought to think about heading back down."
"Can we hold on a minute?" Trey asked, pulling a waterproof Pelican case from his daypack. "Might as well get a shot or two up here."
"Whatís this?" Scooter said. "I havenít seen you with a camera before."
"Iíve taken a few shots, not a lot," Trey said, popping open the case and pulling out a Nikon body. "I mean, I figure Iím going to be down here all summer, so I can take my time. But I figured Iíd get a few of the wedding, and I might as well get a couple of this gang."
"Old Nikon, huh?" Noah noted. "You must be half serious about it."
"Oh, I play around with a little art photography," Trey said, selecting a lens and snapping it onto the body. "I picked this up in a street market when I was in Kosovo. Got a good deal on it, but Iíve felt a little guilty about it. Someone must have needed money bad."
"Trey is actually an excellent photographer," Myleigh explained. "I have a gorgeous photograph of his of the surf at Buddha and Giselleís hanging on the wall of my living room."
"With Myleigh in a bikini on a surfboard?" Crystal snickered.
"No, just the surf at sunrise," Myleigh said. "I find it quite artistic in a modernist sense."
"Iím really not much at snapshots," Trey said. "I do sort of enjoy working for a decent photo. Thatís why Iíve stuck with an old manual camera. I guess Iím a little bit of a purist."
"With marvelous results," Myleigh said. "I have been trying to coerce him into doing an exhibition at Marienthal. He did the cover for Harp Strings."
"Iím not that good," Trey protested. "Some bozo shot a picture of her for the student newspaper, and they were going to use that, but he lost the negative, so we shot a replacement."
"It was much better than the original," Myleigh protested.
"I donít know about much better," Trey said. "You did have a better expression, I think. Anyway, letís just do a casual shot of everyone over by the waterfall."
They gathered around; the photo may have looked casual, but Trey spotted each person in a position that made it look like a group hanging out, not a lineup. He shot two or three frames from different locations over the course of a couple of minutes, then said, "All right, thatíll do it. Thanks, everybody." He glanced at the scene for a moment, then added, "Myleigh, would you be up to doing a little modeling? I think that you by the waterfall would make a nice shot."
"Of course, my hero," she smiled. "I should be glad to go to the effort, even though my hair is an absolute shambles."
"Thatís why," he grinned. "I want you in the waterfall, getting wet, your hair, too."
"Oh my, weíre continuing to be artistic," she smiled.
"And in a bikini, too," Crystal snickered. "Iíll bet I know whose living room wall that photo is going on."
"Just messing around," Trey protested. "My taste runs more toward nature photography."
"Thatíll be wild, all right," Scooter snorted.
Over the next few minutes, Trey directed Myleigh carefully in several shots with the water running over her, or lying half-upright in the pool below the falls. "Ought to be a couple good ones there," he said as he started to break the camera down and put it back in the Pelican case. "The light here could be a little more dynamic. Myleigh, weíll have to try it again somewhere else sometime when weíre not quite as deep in the shadows."
"Of course, my hero," she smiled. "Perhaps we should start back down. I fear my hair is going to need some work before the wedding."
"Yeah," Crystal said, starting to throw odds and ends into her backpack. "They ought to be pulling in pretty soon, now."
Nicole had been sitting next to Randy, and started to get up, but was a little surprised to feel his hand on her arm, sending the message to stay where she was, as other people got to their feet, and started back down the narrow side canyon.
"You two coming?" Noah asked.
"Weíll be along in a few," Randy said, nodding at Noah in a way to indicate that a little one-on-one time was needed.
"Suit yourself," Noah grinned. In a minute, he was gone, and they could hear him working his way down toward the river.
"Got something on your mind?" Nicole asked, with a smile as soon as they were sure they were alone.
"A bunch," Randy said. "Mostly, I just wanted to be alone with you for a few minutes, and this looks to be the only chance weíre going to get this afternoon. Nicole, I was really, really proud of you this morning."
"You mean, in the rapids?"
"Of course," he said. "When we ran Granite, I thought maybe youíd taken a different tranquilizer, one that didnít knock you on your ass like yesterday. But then when we got down to Crystal, I realized you were doing it on sheer guts."
"Randy, itís still not a fun thing for me," she said. "But after I shamed you yesterday, I couldnít do it again today. I mostly gritted my teeth and tried to look like I was having fun."
"Thatís sort of what it looked like to me," he replied softly. "Thatís why Iím proud of you. You may have made it through on guts, but youíve got them to do it with. But, you know, thatís not all I was thinking of. Nicole, I know how you felt when we ran Crystal, because I had a pretty good dose of it, myself. This run today wasnít as good as my last one, mostly because I was congratulating myself on a good run before it was over with. Thatís why we got spun around and went down the last part backwards."
"But you caught it," she said.
"I know," he said. "I was trying to make it go as easy as I could for you, and it got away from me. Iím sorry about that, Nicole."
"For trying to make it easy?" she said. "I honestly thought you were showing off. I figured when you did that the worst was over with."
"It just came out looking like it," he said. "Look, I can run this stuff, I can handle it, but Iíll tell you what, a rapids like that is intimidating. You get Crystal off to the side, or Scooter, or Al, I think theyíd tell you the same thing. The trick is to go ahead and do it, knowing that youíve got the fear. Thatís why Iím proud of you. It tells me I made the right choice."
"The right choice?"
"In marrying you," he told her. "Look, weíve been over this before. Crystal and Myleigh were my good friends, still are. For years, we were very close, you know that. I probably got close to marrying Crystal, and Myleigh, well, if a couple things had been a little different, it could have happened. Letís face it, sheís cute, sheís intelligent, sheís fascinating and talented. But, since you and I have been married, Iíve come to realize that the things I like most about Myleigh are the things that would drive me up the wall in the long run. Same with Crystal. Itís fun to come down here and do this stuff with her, but a lifetime of it? No, it wouldnít have worked. You and I are a good fit, Nicole, and I think we always knew it. Iím just sorry I got sidetracked with them back in college."
"Donít be," she said. "Thereís been some good things come out of it, and this trip is one of them. We both did some growing up in those years that we needed to do. I think Iím doing some of it on this trip, too. But, youíre right. As good friends as we are, both Crystal and Myleigh intimidate me a little, too, in their own ways. Iím glad it worked out the way it did. I just wish I wasnít such a scaredy cat about white water."
"Things change," Randy told her. "Over time, you can see it. Iíve known them longer than you have. You know whatís really amazing? To see Myleigh out there whooping and hollering in the rapids, having a good time."
"She does seem to enjoy it," Nicole grinned.
"Iíd never have believed it when I first met her," Randy said. "She was literally scared of her own shadow. Do you know how long Buddha and Giselle and Crystal and I worked on Myleigh to get her out on a surfboard? It was years before Buddha finally got her out in some baby slop. Then she discovered she could do it, and she took to it like a duck to water. Sheís still afraid of some things, but mostly theyíre things that itís good to be afraid of. Like today, she really wasnít all that afraid, because she reasoned that Scooter and I knew what we were doing, and she took it on faith. I was more afraid of running Crystal than she was."
"Itís not simple, is it?" she said. "I donít mean the rapids, I mean dealing with the fear."
"No, itís not. Mostly, itís take a deep breath, and do it. Like I said, youíre doing fine. Itís not wrong to be afraid, but youíre learning to keep it in perspective. Thatís why Iím proud of you, and why I love you more than ever."
She turned to him, and took him in her arms. "Iím proud of you, and I love you, too," she said, just before their lips touched. The kiss went on for a long, long time. "Hey, lover," she said, when she came up for air. "I have to say that Iím just a little disappointed in you."
"Howís that?" he said softly.
"When you said weíd stay back so we could be alone, I thought you had something else in mind besides a pep talk, like celebrating being alive below Crystal."
"I told you I had a bunch of things on my mind," he laughed lightly as she felt the strings of her bikini top being untied. "We better make the best of the opportunity."