Wes Boyd's
Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online

River Rat
Book 5 of the Dawnwalker Cycle
Wes Boyd
2005, 2010

Chapter 15

August 22, 1999

Flagstaff - Lee's Ferry

Crystal and Scooter showed up at the office early on Sunday morning -- without some of the regular crew it was going to be more confusion than normal to get loaded. Michelle and Jeff showed up a few minutes later, then Norma and Barbie, making good on their promise to help with the loading, and a few minutes behind them came Dan and Jerry, not surprisingly exhibiting some hangover. There was no sign of Al, but Crystal and Michelle decided to get the loading pretty well under way before she and Jeff went over to get him, so when they got him there, they could load him up and head for Lee's without a chance for a second thought.

Jeff and Jerry were helping wrestle with the winch on the trailer when Scooter happened to look up and see a red pickup truck pull in. She didn't think much about it, other than it might be the drive-in customer. She looked back at the troublesome winch, and all of a sudden heard Crystal's voice yell out, "By God, it is you! I saw the name Randy Clark on the manifest, and thought, 'Naw, it couldn't be.'"

Scooter looked up to see Randy walking over to meet Crystal. She'd only met him on three occasions, each briefly; he was a little guy, much smaller than Crystal, but well muscled, a little dark, with a neatly-trimmed Van Dyke. "Afraid it is," he grinned.

"I didn't think you were going to be able to make it," Crystal smiled, throwing a big hug around him.

"Well, I didn't either, till noon Wednesday. Then everything happened at once. I figured I'd better get out of there before Brent changed his mind."

"How's Nicole? Did she get up Katahdin OK?"

"She's just as pretty as ever. She and Jackpine finished last Friday. I picked 'em up Saturday, and we raced back to Spearfish Lake so she could start teaching Monday."

"Full time? In Spearfish Lake? Randy, that's wonderful!"

"I think so," he said. "They start on the house tomorrow, and we've been talking furniture."

"Hey, look," she said excitedly. "I want to hear all about this, but I've got a shit load to do in the next hour or so. But, we'll have plenty of time for the dirty details."

"Anything I can do to help?"

"Sure, we're a little short on hands this trip. Not even one swamper. Throw your stuff on the crew bus there, and I'll get you going."

Scooter thought about walking over to say hello, but she heard Jeff say, "Fuck, I'm going to have to tear this thing down. Scooter, you better go tell Michelle that you and her are gonna have to pick up Al."

Reasoning that there would be two and a half weeks to say hello to Randy, Scooter didn't argue. They hopped in Michelle's little car and drove over to his house. Apparently the reality of him going hadn't sunk in, since his gear seemed about half packed. "Al, you gotta get ready to go," Michelle told him. "Let's get you packed up."

When they finally got back to Canyon Tours, the loading seemed pretty well complete. "Al," Michelle told him, "You can ride on the bus, or with Jimmie in the pickup. It might be a little quieter to ride in the pickup." And, she didn't say, the view of the rafts on tow might seem a little more real to him.

"Fine with me," he said. They got out of the car, and in only a couple minutes they had his gear in the pickup and him sitting in the right seat.

Scooter and Michelle hustled over to the bus, where Crystal was waiting. "I don't know about this, Crystal," Scooter told her, "He seems more out of it than yesterday."

"Warn your dad," Crystal told Michelle. "But we might as well take him to Lee's; maybe the river will snap him out of it a little."

"That's about the only hope," Michelle nodded. "Crystal, good luck and hang in there. Give me a call from Phantom to tell me how it's going."

"You take it easy with that shoulder," Crystal grinned as Scooter got on the bus and found a seat toward the back. Crystal was right behind her, and walked back with her, but sat down with Randy. "I'm always glad to have packing morning over with," Scooter heard her explain. "It's really a hassle, and you can't leave anything behind, or else you're going to have to do without it. Every trip, I think about the story Mike told about Josh leaving the dogsleds behind." She stood up and looked around, obviously counting noses. "OK, I think we got everybody," she said loud enough for the whole bus to hear. "Everybody got everything?" There was a moment of silence, and she continued, "OK, Jeff, head 'em up and move 'em out."

As she sat back down, and the bus started to move, Randy sounded a little puzzled. "Crystal, you act like you're running this show," he observed.

"I am," she grinned. "I'm the trip leader."

"Trip leader? This is news!"

Scooter heard her let out a big sigh. "Randy, a hell of a lot has happened this summer. I know I haven't told you much in my cards, but I didn't want it getting back to Mom. I didn't want her to slip up around Dad and get in trouble, and I figured it was the safest way.

I know you and Myleigh and her talk back and forth a lot. I've been trip leader since the middle of June. This is the third one I've led. Well, actually, two and a half."

"What happened?" he asked casually.

"Oh, shit, long story," she told him. "You remember me telling you about Louise, Al's wife, back last winter?"

"The gal you were named after, has run the Canyon for years?"

Over the next couple minutes, Scooter heard Crystal give a quick summary of that trip back in June, finding out about Louise, then Al hiking up to the rim, watching his wife die in the hospital, and being wiped out ever since. "He's the guy in the photo you sent me, right?" Randy asked.

"Yeah," she admitted. "That was taken early on that trip when Louise died."

"Hope it's OK, but I sent those photos on to your mom."

"It's OK," Crystal replied. "She deserves to know something. Anyway, Al hasn't run since. He was on this trip and off it for weeks, Michelle told me, but he's back in the truck and he better go or else we're going to be short a boatman."

"And you're still leading?"

"Yeah, he doesn't want to put up with the hassles," she said. "I think we've convinced him that he needs to get back down into the Canyon, maybe it'll heal him a little. God, I hope so. He's the neatest guy, Randy. What a bitch of a thing to have to happen to him."

"Yeah," he said, hunting for words. "I'd have liked to have met her."

"It's a damn shame," she said. "It's a little goofy how I wound up assistant trip leader." She gave a brief summary of the team getting shuffled around back before the first trip. Crystal told him that he was the first person on her mind to call for extra crewmen, but, as she said, "I knew I'd never get you out of your damn construction company." Scooter knew Randy had a lot of kayaking experience but didn't think he knew much about rafts, so figured Crystal was just being nice -- or had subconsciously been considering it as a last attempt at driving Nicole off. She only half listened as Crystal explained that she'd thought about Noah Whittaker, her long-time friend back in Ocoee days, but he was now a youth pastor at a big church and didn't think he should try to break away. Crystal had tried but failed to find Gary, another former Ocoee boatman she'd worked with -- it was something that Scooter hadn't heard before, although she knew both of the Ocoee boatmen.

"That left one possibility, but the best one of the bunch," Crystal continued. "I called her up, told her to get her ass out from behind that counter at NOC and get on some real water." She raised her voice. "Hey, Scoot!"

She got up and turned around in her seat, and watched Randy's face light up with recognition. "Scooter!" he smiled. "What a sight for sore eyes! I didn't recognize you since you've cut your hair and turned into a blonde!"

"Randy, you're looking good," she replied. "I guess I haven't seen you since you took Crystal and me to Amicola Falls to start her AT hike."

"Must be," Randy beamed. "Crystal was just telling me how she made an honest woman out of you."

"Aw, I was bored shitless with sitting around NOC and running the damn Nanty," she laughed. "I never even thought of this damn ditch till Crystal called, but I got here as fast as Greyhound could carry me. Best move I ever made, especially since I can't hike much, anymore."

"Knees still bothering you, huh?"

"Yeah, I can go a few miles and climb pretty good, but I just can't take it all day, day after day."

"Tell you what, Randy," Crystal grinned. "It was the best move I ever made, too. See, while Scooter and I are really pretty shy on Canyon experience, either one of us has more raft and outdoor experience than the rest of the yahoos on this crew combined, or the other crews, pretty much, for that matter. And, we're both OLTA, of course, and that counts for more here than I ever dreamed. Between us, we've gotten through the summer. She got bumped up to boatman when I got bumped up to trip leader, and now she's the trainee trip leader for next year. There's still a hell of a lot for us to learn. We can handle the rafting and tripping part OK, but we're both pretty weak on interpreting the local color and history of the Canyon for the passengers."

"Yeah," Scooter grinned. "But, we fake it pretty good. Glad you're going with us, Randy. Crystal has told me a lot about you over the years. We'll have some good times."

"I hope so," Randy grinned.

"Hey, I can see you want to get some catching up in," Scooter smiled. "Glad to hear Nicole made it. I think I met her real briefly down at NOC back in March. Catch you on the river."

Scooter leaned back in her seat, and basically tried to tune out the conversation behind her -- much of it was about people she didn't know -- but she picked the name 'Myleigh' out of the discussion, Crystal's old college roommate. She'd met Myleigh once, briefly, a memorable woman; Crystal had often talked about her and some of the things they'd done with Randy. She spent some time looking out the window, just enjoying the view of the red rock Navajo desert country they were going through, nearly a different world from the forested hills of North Carolina she'd spent much of the last few years in, so far away now.

After a couple hours they pulled into the parking lot at Lee's Ferry. "Randy, we got a lot of work to do," Scooter heard Crystal say as the bus pulled to a stop. "You're a customer, you don't have to help, but I'll appreciate it if you pitch in."

"You know I will, Crystal." he smiled. "Guess I'm back to being a beast of burden."

"We call them swampers," she laughed. "But it's the same thing."

The rigging went better than it had any right to, at least partly because both Norma and Barbie had come along to help out. Randy was a big help, too, mostly by carrying large and heavy objects. Scooter soon realized he didn't know much about rafts, but he knew quite a bit about the outdoors in general and rivers and kayaking in particular. It seemed likely that Randy was going to spend a lot of time at the sticks of Crystal's raft this trip.

Being down along the river at Lee's Ferry appeared to perk Al up as much as anything Scooter had seen since he started up the Bright Angel Trail toward the Rim three trips ago. He certainly wasn't all the way back to normal, but was making himself useful and showing his experience, even if he was quiet and withdrawn. Scooter was damn glad she wasn't going to have to be the one to make the call about whether to let Al go, or to make a desperation call to Michelle's father, and she didn't envy Crystal having to make the choice, either.

It was getting toward dark when they wrapped up the rigging, at least as much as they could get done that evening. Scooter had always wondered about that; it seemed to her that they ought to be able to pack up Sunday afternoon, and then leave early for the river on Monday and get rigged before the customer bus arrived. She'd raised the question with Michelle once, over a beer at the Burro, and Michelle said it would work all right most of the time, but if something went wrong there wasn't any time to spare. She told of a trip years before when a raft had three air bladders blow out as it was being loaded -- no one could figure out why, but they suspected a kid with a knife back up in the parking lot behind the office. It took half a day to get an uninflated spare raft up to Lee's, and even longer to get it rigged. The crew had worked with flashlights and in truck headlights until late to get it set up, and still had to load it in the morning, barely finishing before the customer bus pulled in.

But nothing untoward like that happened this time, and as the sun was going down most of the crew was headed up to the bar in Marble Canyon for their departure dinner. There was one difference; Norma and Barbie told Jimmie to go with the group for once, they'd take pity on him and stay behind to watch the rafts. Al still seemed pretty withdrawn over dinner and didn't drink, but he at least ate pretty well. Maybe this was working, Scooter thought. Crystal is going to have to make up her mind in the morning.

A couple hours later, the crew bus and the truck and trailer were headed back for Flagstaff, with Norma and Barbie rather sad to be aboard and heading to college the next day, rather than down the river again. There were only six of them left, Randy and the five boatmen, which included Al.

Since things seemed pretty well under control after the rigging, they'd agreed to sleep in a little, the last chance they'd have for two and a half weeks. It was probably getting on toward nine in the morning before they finished up breakfast and cleaned the gear and packed it. It was still an hour or so before the customer bus was due, and since nothing had been said, Scooter figured that Crystal had pretty well made up her mind. She noticed Crystal and Al having a short discussion; then Crystal went over to Randy and had a brief discussion with him before he walked over to the rest rooms.

"Scooter," she heard Al say softly, "Would you and Jerry and Dan come with Crystal and me?" She got to her feet, and followed along quietly as the whole group headed down to the river not far from the rafts and gathered around.

"There ought to be some sort of ceremony for this," Al said softly, "But I can't think of anything, other than to say that since you were boatmen on Louise's last trip, I'm glad you're here." He reached into his pocket, and pulled out a small jar. "These are Louise's ashes," he said, in obvious sorrow. "I'd like each of us to scatter a little of them on the river. It's . . . it's one of the last things that Louise told me she wanted, so at least a part of her can be in the river and the Canyon forever."

"Al," Crystal replied softly, "I can think of no greater honor."

Nothing was said for the next couple minutes. Al took the lid off of the jar, and gently scattered some of the ashes into the light breeze that blew out onto the river, then handed the jar to Crystal, who did the same. When Crystal handed the jar over, Scooter could see that her eyes were running with tears, and her own eyes were hot, too. She took the jar, spilled a little of the ashes out of it onto the water, silently offered a prayer, and handed it on to Dan, who let out some more of the ashes. He passed the jar on to Jerry, who added his bit. There were still some left, and he handed it back to Al, who just shook his head a little, stared out at the river for a moment, then upended the jar, finishing the job. "Thank you," Al said finally. "Thank you all for everything you've done for me, especially keeping things going."

He took a long look out over the Colorado River, Louise's final resting place. "You know," he said, sounding a bit more casual, "Over two hundred trips and this is still the hardest time for me, waiting for the customer bus to get in. I just want to get on the river and go."

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To be continued . . .

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