Canyon Fires
Book 4 of the Dawnwalker Cycle

a novel by
Wes Boyd
©2004, ©2009

Chapter 21

May 4, 2001

By now, Nanci had had a week’s experience with camping in the great outdoors behind her, and it wasn’t quite as strange as it once had been. It had been strange and scary the first couple of nights, even though she knew that Crystal and her mother lived like this for weeks on end. After a week, she’d become a little more confident and comfortable with it. In the crowd up at Baseball Man, sleeping space had been at a premium, and Crystal had gone back to sleeping on the boat just for the sake of space. Without asking, Nanci had decided that she didn’t need her big sister to keep her company anymore, so she’d unrolled her sleeping bag in a little alcove in the tamarisks not far from the kitchen.

The early-to-bed, early-to-rise stuff was starting to get to her, too. The stories around the campfire the night before had been fun, and there was a lot of laughter, but a lot of it was incomprehensible, so well before it was over with she’d slipped off to her sleeping bag, at least partly with the idea of thinking about Jon and Tanisha. She could relate pretty strongly with them being out on their own with no family or friends, since she’d just come off of a long period of it, herself. That seemed so long ago, now – months, perhaps years. How different this whole thing was from what she’d known! She could never have imagined living like this, and now she was finding it was kind of fun. The hours were long, true, and there were times that it got uncomfortable or messy, but she was a little surprised to think that it wasn’t as bad as standing over a hot grill for hours on end, like she’d had to do back in that fast food place.

Jon and Tanisha – they seemed pretty different on the surface, but once she got to know them even a little, she realized they were an awful lot alike, and they were awful close. What must it be like, she wondered. She’d been with a lot of guys, lived with several, but her situation at its best was never even close to as good as Jon and Tanisha’s had been at its worst. Jon and Tanisha been awful lucky to find each other, both of them. At least they had some idea of where they were wanting to go. Nanci was beginning to realize that she envied both of them, for a lot of things, but especially for that. She, well, she didn’t have any idea of what she wanted to do. If only she’d listened to Crystal and her mother, and had not spent so much time trying to just have fun up at Northern Michigan University. If she’d knuckled down and studied, even a little – well, she’d have graduated by now, and things would have been a lot different. Maybe not better for Mom and Jon and Crystal, but different. Now, the trip was half over with, and she was no nearer having any idea of what she was going to do when she got done. Maybe she could talk to Mom and Al and see about going to this Northern Arizona University that several of the boatmen seemed to attend. That might be an idea, she thought – but what to study, what to do? She’d once sort of thought about being a teacher, but now she wasn’t so sure that was such a great idea. But, she’d spent some time talking with Noah, sometimes an hour a day, sometimes just a few minutes, and now she was starting to think about such things, not that an answer seemed any nearer. And, somewhere in there, the whisper of the rapids downstream lulled her to sleep, thoughts still churning through her mind.

One of the bad things Nancy had discovered about being near the kitchen was that the propane burners woke her up early, which was fine since she wanted to get up early, if for no more reason than to prove that she was serious about trying to do a good job. Scooter, Crystal and Al, along with Mom, had commented several times about how well she was taking to the trip and chipping in to help. She didn’t waste any time getting going, packed her gear quickly, and was soon helping to fry bacon and deal with the dishes. She wasn’t much of a coffee drinker, but it did taste good in the cool of the morning, helping her to wake up.

The days had been running warm, so during a break in the action she headed for the groover. The groover was a good place to change clothes in private, so she killed two birds with one stone. She’d been wearing the old brown one-piece swimsuit off and on for days, and it was starting to get a little grubby, but somehow she didn’t feel like wearing the bikinis from the lost and found box. It seemed pretty childish now to show off like that, but she didn’t have much other choice. Crystal had said there wouldn’t be a lot of rapids today, so maybe she could pretty much leave on the big, floppy T-shirt Michelle had also dug from the lost and found box.

Michelle was something else! While she sat on the rocket box, she kept thinking about her, and was sorry that she’d hiked out the day before, since she realized that she’d like to know her better. The two were physically sort of alike, about the same size and build, both blonde, although no one would ever take them for sisters. When she’d met Michelle back at the office, she’d thought she was a teenager, maybe in high school, so it had been a real surprise to find out that Michelle was several years older than she was, and a boatman! In fact, had been a boatman for some years – while they’d been peeling potatoes together back up at Horn Creek, Michelle had told her that she’d made her first trip as a trainee swamper at the age of fifteen! Al had mentioned that he didn’t usually start kids out that young, but that he’d known her father and mother, and they’d talked him into it. Although Michelle looked like a kid, there was a lot to her that didn’t meet the eye, like how strong she was. Nanci remembered picking up the backpack that Michelle had carried down from the rim, or at least trying to pick it up – she could barely move it! That thing had to weigh a ton. How do people get like that? It didn’t seem possible that she could ever be like that.

But, there was no time to sit and think about it for long, since she knew others would be waiting for the groover, so as soon as she could she finished up and headed back for the hand-wash station, and then back to the kitchen. Breakfast this morning was French toast, strawberries, and bacon, very good – it had been a long time since she’d eaten as well as she’d eaten in the past week.

As soon as breakfast was over with, Nanci started to pitch in with the dishwashing and packing up to get on the river. Most of the kitchen stuff had specific places they had to go in the gear boxes, so the crew always packed it first, and some things, like tables, had to be left in places where they could be easily gotten at during the day for lunch, along with the food items needed for the meal. Before long, it was time to get started loading. Most of the people on the trip joined in, except for those still up at the groover or still packing.

Tent bags and night bags went in first. The tent bags were heavy, and there was always a little grunting and groaning when one of them came along, and they had to be placed in the bottom of the raft, along with some of the other gear bags. Then, the rest of the night bags were packed aboard, along with special stuff like Myleigh’s harp, which had a specific position to ride, on Crystal’s raft, now. The boatman did the loading of his own raft, and once everything was aboard, the load was covered with a tarp and tied down.

Once the tarps were secured, people started getting on the rafts. That was always the signal for Nanci and Trey to head up to the groover and pack it up, although one or two others often came along to help, Tiffany as often as not, to tear down the hand-wash system. The rocket box would now be noticeably heavier than it had been the night before, and it was always kind of stinky until the airtight lid was sealed. There were actually several rocket boxes on the trip, although only one was used at a time; once it started getting full, another one would be broken out. Several of the boatmen had joked about how it was always the job of the junior swamper to empty and clean the rocket boxes back in Flagstaff, and that it really stank, after the shit had sat in them in the hot summer sun for days on end. "That’s what they pay you for, more than anything else," Andy had joked back before he hiked out. "The rest of it, a junior swamper is mostly along for the ride." Trey probably could have hauled the aluminum box back down to the boat on his own, but it was easier – and less gross – for the two of them to do it.

The rocket boxes were always the last thing to go aboard the last raft before the tarp was strapped down. On this day, Crystal stood up on her boatman’s box and talked to the people for a few minutes, telling them that this was going to be a pretty easy day for rapids, with only one moderately rough one about an hour out. If they wound up going where she intended there would be another one not quite as bad right at the end, and several others, mostly little stuff. "We kind of got settled into a rut with who ran with who, back on the first half of the trip. The rest of the trip, let’s try to mix it around a little," Crystal said. "Al and Karin are going to be together, of course, since they’re probably not going to be running with us all the time the rest of the trip, and Noah and Randy will swap between my raft and the gear boat. Other than that, let’s switch it around a bit each day. This is for practical purposes a four-raft trip, so there’s no reason we can’t get to know each other a little better."

So for the first time on the trip, Nanci decided to ride with someone besides Crystal. She saw Josh and Tiffany sitting by themselves in Kevin’s raft, and had learned early on that this was a pair of pretty awesome people, so she decided to make a third passenger. Jon and Tanisha, along with the new couple, Ben and Joy, were with Mike; and Myleigh, Trey, Buddha and Giselle were with Larry; Crystal had Randy and Nicole and Jeff.

The water had dropped quite a bit overnight, and even though they’d pushed Kevin’s raft out a bit before they started loading it, it was hard to move. Nanci had stayed on shore, taken in the bow line like Crystal had showed her how to do, and made a mighty heave with all her strength on the bow of the raft, but couldn’t move it. Finally, Josh, then Tiffany both hopped out and pushed on the bow of the raft to get it moving, then one by one they scrambled aboard the raft, while Nanci hung onto the bow line, the last to board.

"Thanks, all of you," Kevin said as he picked up the oars. "I’m not real good with names. You’re Josh and Tiffany, right? Nanci, I remember you, you’re Crystal’s sister, right?"

"Right the first time, on all counts," Josh grinned.

"Nanci," Kevin said. "You’re sort of a trainee swamper, if I remember. Have they been letting you row any?"

"Just a little," Nanci told him. "Crystal let me try it a couple of times. I’m not real good at it."

"Go ahead and let her row some, Kevin," Crystal said from her raft a few feet away. "She needs to build up some muscle anyway. Just on the flats though, and keep an eye on where she’s going. She’s still learning how to read water."

"You get tired, I can pitch in some," Josh offered. "I did it some upriver."

"I may have to take you up on it," Kevin said. "It takes a few days to get into shape, and I didn’t row much getting down here from Phantom. It’s good to be out on the river, out of that nuthouse scene we had the last couple days."

"Know what you mean," Josh agreed. "It’s always a nuthouse the first couple days out on the Iditarod, until about when you get past Rainy Pass. Then, it gets quiet and it’s just you and the dogs. You’re in a hurry, of course, but not dead tired like you get at the end of the race, so it’s a fine time."

"Oh, yeah, you’re the dogsledders," Kevin said. "That’s got to be interesting, although I don’t know how well I’d like the cold. It gets a little cold up in Flag in the winter sometimes, and it’s OK for a day or two, but I like the heat better."

"You either like the cold or you don’t," Tiffany said. "I get along OK in the summer, but all in all I prefer the winters."

It was a nice morning, even a little cool, although it promised to get hotter later. There was a light breeze blowing up the Canyon, clear blue skies overhead, with the promise of a few cumulus clouds for shade later on.

It wasn’t long before they splashed through a small rapids, the one they’d been hearing down river from camp, and a couple more in the next half hour or so. About an hour out, they pulled into shore to look at a rapids before they ran it. "Good time for a break," Crystal told them. "We usually don’t scout this one, but usually we catch it at high water when it’s not bad. We’re out of our normal schedule and hitting it at low water, when it’s a rock garden, and since we got a lot of new people on the sticks, we’d better get out and give it a look."

It was a good time to take a break; people were ready for a stretch by then. Nanci went with the boatmen and some of the others up to look at the rapids. This one didn’t look as scary as some they’d seen upriver, but Nanci could see how it would be difficult to get through. "Wouldn’t be surprised to get a little wet," Kevin said as they got back in the raft. "This is going to be a down and in, and we’d better get the drag bags in."

Nanci knew there was a rating system for the rapids, and a day or so out she’d discovered the guidebooks that several people had. She’d followed the trip pretty closely; this one was named Waltenberg. The numbers said this one would be tough, but really, she’d broken rapids down into four categories: "No problem," "Hang on," "Down and in," and, worst of all, "Get the drag bags in."

It was just as well. The rapids was shallow and rough; they scraped bottom a couple times and bounced off a couple of rocks, and Kevin had to work hard to keep the raft going where they wanted to. And, he was right; she was pretty well soaked when they got to the bottom of the rapids, and the T-shirt was clinging to her.

By now Nanci was starting to get used to the Grand Canyon. Back when she’d been a little kid, the family had taken a driving trip out west, and they’d gone to the south rim, and looked out over the huge place, with the deep canyons and the river far below, and she’d thought that it must be sort of like being at the bottom of a well, deep in the valley. But, down at the bottom, it wasn’t like that. Sure, there were walls, sometimes vertical, sometimes slanted piles of broken rock, but really it didn’t seem that high. Only now and then would they get to a place where they could see the rim in the distance, and it was obviously pretty high. The places they were going through this morning were obviously down in a valley quite a ways, but it wasn’t anything like the constricted vertical walls of Marble Canyon, the first couple of days out.

But it really was a desert. Here and there the rock slopes were slanted enough that they could hold something that resembled soil, and there was vegetation to be seen, scrubby plants and bushes and cactus, all a washed-out green. She recognized some of the plants; she knew what the tamarisks were by now, and there were several kinds of cactus, although the only kind she could put a name on was the barrel cactus, after her mother had pointed it out to her. Back upriver, she’d learned to notice the funny-looking Utah agave. At its base, it had a small ball-like pack of sharp leaves, but a single thick stalk extends high above, sometimes ten feet. It was always interesting to see where these grew – more than once she’d noticed them high on the rim of a cliff, the distinctive stalk silhouetted noticeably against the sky, but she didn’t see them often, now, she realized, and happened to mention it to Kevin, who told her they were getting out of the Utah agave country now.

The air was dry; in a mile her soaked T-shirt was dry again. They ran through another couple small rapids, nothing bad enough to soak them down. "It’s fairly quiet for the next few miles," Kevin said. "Nanci, you want to try rowing it?"

"Yeah, I guess," she said. By now, she’d found out about letting the current carry her along, moving sideways back and forth to catch the current. It wasn’t easy – the heavy raft was pretty sluggish, but it was fun to do something, rather than just sit there and watch the Canyon go by. She wound up sitting up on the boatman’s box for an hour or more, guiding the raft, sometimes with a little instruction by Kevin.

After a while, Mom and Al pulled up alongside them for a moment – Mom was at the oars. "How’s she doing?" Al asked.

"Not bad for a beginner," Kevin told him. "Guess it must run in the family."

"Could be," Al grinned. "Have fun, kids. We’re going to drop back and explore a couple side canyons we rarely stop at. I’ve never even stopped at one of them. You kids have a good time at Elves’ Chasm."

"Going to give it a pass?" Kevin asked.

"Yeah, we stop there every trip," Karin told him. "We’ll see you later."

They drifted onward for quite a while. Nanci was aware that the Canyon was passing, but she was really paying more attention to keeping the raft in fast water, so she wasn’t real aware of how far they’d come. She was a little surprised to hear Kevin say, "Guess I’d better take it now, Nanci. This landing is a little tricky. Get a couple loops out of the bow line and be ready to hop up on shore when I drive the nose in. Then tie us off as quick as you can while I try to hold us up there."

It turned out that it wasn’t a beach at all, just a rock slope, with a rapids just downstream. Crystal’s raft was the first to land, with Randy at the oars. She leaped out, tied the raft off quickly, and scrambled fast past them, as Kevin hit the shore fairly hard. Nanci got out of the raft as quick as she could, found a fairly large rock to wrap the line around, took a couple turns around it and tied it off like Crystal had showed her back up the river. Crystal caught the bow line of Noah’s raft – it was clearly a tricky landing for him being the only one in the boat. In a couple minutes, all five of the rafts were snubbed up to shore, and people were scrambling out.

"This is Elves’ Chasm," Crystal told the group. "It’s kind of a neat place, sort of a Vasey’s Paradise without the poison ivy. There’s some neat stuff right around here, some waterfalls and pools, a nice view, and a fairly big waterfall not far up. Up above that there’s a neat rock arch, called Royal Arch, but it’s kind of a scramble to get there. I figure Nicole and I will go up there at least, and any one else who wants to go is welcome. If you don’t like the looks of the rock scramble, you’re welcome to stay in the lower section. We’re going to be here for a while, though."

"It’s a neat scene," Kevin told Nanci.

"I better not go," Nanci said. "My sandals just aren’t up for much rock scrambling. I’ve had to skip some of the hikes because of them."

"We need one of the boatmen to stay with the boats," Crystal said. "Kevin, you want to stay this time?"

"Might as well," he said. "I can poke around the lower section a bit."

As it turned out, most of the party decided to try the hike up to the arch, except for Jon and Tanisha, who decided to stay in the lower section, and Kevin and Nanci. Since they were going to be a while, Jon and Tanisha and Nanci poked around in the lower section of the place some. It turned out to be a side stream that falls down the rocks in pools and falls big and little, with verdant vegetation, and quite pretty, a green break in the continual earth tones and browns of the canyon. Along with the others the three of them scrambled up the stream partway to the big waterfall, but when the climbing got too steep they called it good enough, and settled for spending some time exploring the gardenlike profusion of small waterfalls tumbling down over rocks through green vegetation and delicate flowers. "This is beautiful," Tanisha said. "One of the nicer spots I’ve seen on the river."

*   *   *

Jon and Tanisha were fun to talk to, but they made Nanci feel just a little uncomfortable, too. Back upriver, both her mother and Crystal had joked around that you hardly ever saw one without the other, but as the trip had gone on Nanci had come to realize that it was no joke. After their talk the day before, Nanci thought she could understand a little about why the two were so close. Over the past few years, she had lived with several different guys, but she couldn’t imagine two people being as close as these two were! How could people get that way, live that way? It was something she couldn’t understand.

After a while, she started to get thirsty. That was another thing, how much liquid you went through. She knew it was pretty warm by now, but not really uncomfortable, and her mother and Crystal had told her to not skimp on drinking water and pop and stuff. She knew that there was a lot of beer along on the trip, and almost everyone had a can or two or three of it every day, but people rarely ever got drunk. Nanci had stayed away from the beer; drinking had gotten her into trouble in the past, and the last thing she wanted to do on this trip was to let it get her into trouble here. While things seemed to be going pretty good – much better than she could have expected a week ago – it was as clear to her as ever that whatever happened to her after she got off this trip was going to depend on what happened on it, so there was no point in getting into that trouble.

She worked her way back down the rocks to the river. Thinking about getting something to drink sort of made her realize that she was getting to the point where she ought to be heading downstream, and with most of the party on the hike this was a better time than normal. She looked at the rafts clustered along the bank, and saw Kevin up near the most-upstream one, sitting in the shade of a rock, reading something.

That was still more than a little embarrassing, having to go when there were people around. There had been a time several days before when she’d really had to go when people were out scouting big rapids, and there hadn’t been much choice but to go down to the river and ask people to turn their backs. Now, though, she was getting a little more used to it. "Hey Kevin," she said, loud enough for him to hear. "I gotta use the river, OK?"

"Go for it," he smiled, swinging to the side, so he was looking more-or-less upstream, but mostly keeping his eyes on what he was reading.

It was still hard to just drop her pants out in the open like that, and it was a little more cumbersome in that she was wearing a string bikini bottom under her shorts, so she took the shorts off entirely, untied one side of the bikini, squatted down next to the water by the downstream raft and did her business, then stood up and turned downstream to put everything back together.

She turned around, and noticed that Kevin still more or less had his back to her. "Thanks, Kevin," she called. "All clear."

"No problem," he said, turning back to sit on his butt.

Nanci walked up to their raft, climbed out on it and pulled in a drag bag. "You want anything?" she asked.

"Some kind of soda would be nice," he told her. "I don’t care what."

She pulled a couple cans out of the drag bag and let it slide back into the water, then got off the raft and went up to where he was sitting in the shade. "You get a choice," she said. "7-Up or Dr. Pepper."

"Whichever," he smiled. "It’s wet, that’s what counts. I’ll take what you don’t want."

"I don’t care, either," she said, handing him the Dr. Pepper.

She didn’t know Kevin well, hadn’t really talked with him much until this morning. He seemed to be a nice enough guy, if not what she would have thought of as a cute guy. There had been a time that she would have been tempted to flirt with him a little, just to see if she could get a rise out of him, but that was something else that had been left back in Chicago, too. Flirting with guys had gotten her in more trouble than drinking had, though it was hard not to, even though she still didn’t feel like it. It was sort of how she’d learned to deal with guys and it was hard to turn off. She was mostly tempted to say, "No problem," and head back up to Jon and Tanisha, but there was no point in not trying to be a little friendly. "What are you reading?" she asked.

"The Bible," he said. "I try to read a little of it each day."

Oh, yes, Nanci thought. This was the guy Crystal said was late every time they set up on Sunday because he had to go to church. That actually relaxed her a little; she wouldn’t be as tempted to flirt with him. "One of the good parts?" she asked.

"Not really," he replied. "Well, it’s all good, but some parts are better than others, and this is one that isn’t. The book of Numbers. It’s really pretty dull. Now, a good preacher can take a line like ‘This the enrollment of the Levites, by their clans; of Gershon, the clan of the Gershonites; of Kohath, the clan of the Kothathites; of Merari, the clan of the Merarites,’ turn it into a sermon, but I don’t think like that."

"Were you thinking about being a minister, like Noah?" she asked.

"Thought about it for a while," he admitted. "But I decided I didn’t want to do it. It takes a special desire to do it, and I really don’t have it. It’s a tough job, tougher than it looks."

"Why do you think that?" she asked, curious at the thought.

"Most of the time, the way I see it, you’re dealing with other people’s troubles," he said. "All too often people don’t turn to God until whatever they’re trying to deal with gets too big for them to handle. A minister is supposed to help them turn to God, but it’s hard to not pick up some of those troubles, as well. I, well, I guess I figure I’d have trouble handling too much of that."

"It’s gotta be hard," Nanci agreed. "I mean, a doctor has to feel good about helping sick people, but he must get tired of seeing sick people, too."

"That’s it, exactly," Kevin laughed. "I mean, when someone is dying of cancer, they don’t turn to history teachers."

"I thought about being a history teacher, once," Nanci said. "But college didn’t work out too well for me."

"Gonna be another year off for me," he told her. "I skipped the fall semester last year so I could run the fall trips as a boatman, rather than as a swamper. I just needed the break from school, and the money didn’t hurt too bad, either."

"You like being a boatman?"

"Yeah, I do," he said. "I don’t think it’s something I’d like to do full time for the rest of my life, like Al or your sister, but I may do it for a while. Crystal didn’t say much about you yesterday. You got any plans?"

"Not really," Nanci sighed. "I’m sort of trying to figure that out. Crystal said I had a little boyfriend trouble. The truth is that I had a lot of it."

"I was wondering," he commented. "I thought you looked like you’d been worked over some."

"It must still show," she said. "It’s been a few days since I’ve been near a mirror, and I was wondering."

"Not real bad, now" he told her.

"It was pretty bad when we started on the trip," she sighed, wanting to get away from the subject. "You’re from Flagstaff, right?"

"Yeah, I still live at home with my folks," he admitted. "It would have been fun to live on campus, but it’s pretty expensive. It’s just as well. I can help out around home, and still be involved with the church when I’m at home."

"You take your church pretty seriously, then?"

"Well, fairly seriously," he nodded. "It’s not the centerpiece of my life, like it is with some people, but yeah, it is fairly important to me."

"Our family were never church people," Nanci said. "And I’ve never known many. I don’t really know what it must be like."

"Well, it’s sort of like a community," Kevin said. "I’ve even heard people say it’s sort of like a tribe, but people are joined together by their faith in Jesus."

She settled down on a nearby rock in the shade. "What kind of things do you do?" she wondered. She’d wanted to be friendly, and yes, this was turning into a friendly discussion. "I know it sounds kind of dumb of me, but like I said our family was never religious, and I never quite understood what it was all about."

"It can be fairly complicated," he told her. "But, you get down to the basics, it gets pretty simple. The bottom line is that all of us are sinners, Nanci. You, me, Crystal, Noah, everybody."

"I don’t know. I’ve got to have been a worse sinner than you," she frowned.

"Don’t be so sure," he said. "Everybody sins, Nanci. There are a lot of things that God considers sins that we might not realize, unless we stop and think about it. In the eyes of the Lord, we’re all equally sinners . . . "

When Crystal made it back to the boat, hot and sweaty after a long but pretty hike, she was just a little bit perturbed to notice Nanci in an animated conversation with Kevin. Damn, back to flirting, she thought. But then, she got closer, and discovered that the topic of the discussion was sin and salvation. If that’s a flirt, she thought, then Nanci has sure changed her technique . . .

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