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 16

August 23, 1999

Flagstaff - Lee's Ferry

Al was noticeably brighter, if far from back to normal while they waited for the customer bus to pull in. As the time grew close, Scooter sat back on the nose of her raft, and, as had become traditional, lit a cigar. Crystal came over to join her for a moment, and whispered that she'd sneaked up to the phone and called Michelle, telling her briefly what had happened and that she thought Al was going to make it. "I think so, too," Scooter whispered back. "I think he's finally accepting it. He doesn't like it, but at least accepts it."

"Hell, I don't like it, either," Crystal said softly. "Damn it, Scooter! There was still so damn much that Louise could have taught us. But, yeah, I've come to accept it."

Scooter leaned back a little and took a drag on her cigar. "Yeah, I can think of lots, too," she said finally. "But I count myself lucky for what she did get a chance to teach me."

"There is that," Crystal said quietly. "I guess I'm just going to have to carry on."

"I'm sure you will, Crystal Louise," Scooter smiled. "And I plan on being right there with you."

"Thanks, Scooter," she sighed. "I don't know if you heard me, but back on the bus yesterday I told Randy I'd never have been able to make it through this summer without your help. I meant it."

"I heard you say that, and I figured you meant it," Scooter nodded. "Thank you, Crystal. There've been some hard times, but there have been some good ones, too. Getting my ass out of NOC and down here was the best thing you could have done for me, and I figure I owe you."

"Thanks for saying it," she replied. She looked up for a moment, and added. "And I guess it's time to get our game faces on, because here come da bus. I'm like Al, I'm tired of waiting, I just want to head 'em up and move 'em out."

"Where'd you get that phrase, anyway?" Scooter smirked in a normal tone of voice as she got up and started to walk up the ramp beside her friend, who grabbed a clipboard from the nose of her raft. "I'll bet I hear you say that a dozen times a day on the river."

"Louise," Crystal sighed. "She used it several times last fall. I asked her about it once, and she said it came from some TV show when she was a kid."

"Yeah," Scooter smiled. "You're carrying on all right."

The bus sighed to a stop, and the door opened. "Here we are," Scooter heard the bus driver say over the P.A. "There'll be someone outside the door to take your names. I'm going to set the baggage out. Pick it up when I unload it, and head over around the rafts."

The bus driver got off and opened the doors on the luggage compartment, and Scooter went to help him as Crystal stood at the door looking down at her clipboard, checking off names. Scooter happened to be looking up as a shortish, slender, brown-haired woman got down to the bottom step. "Name, please," Crystal said.

"Karin Chladek," Scooter heard the woman say.

Crystal snapped her head up, jaw agape, eyes wide, and gave a little cry of shock. "Mom!" she cried, "What are you doing here?"

"Getting set to run the Grand Canyon," Karin smirked. "Isn't that what we're supposed to be doing?"

"Mom, your name isn't on the list . . ." she looked down, and thumbed through a couple of pages. "That frickin' Michelle," she grumbled. "K-a-r-e-n S-l-a-d-i-k. Crap, I never noticed. I hope she got your credit card number right."

"Oh, yes," Karin smiled ruefully. "She made a point of reading it back to me."

"That bubble-gum-chomping brat," Crystal grumped. "Darn it! I know 'Chladek' isn't the easiest name to spell phonetically, but she writes my frickin' paycheck; she ought to have known better. Look, I got a ton to do. Grab your bags while I get everybody else checked in, and stand off to the side, and we can talk for a minute."

"Here, Crystal," Scooter spoke up. "I'll finish the check-in for you."

"Thanks, Scoot," Crystal said and handed her the clipboard, still obviously stunned at this turn of events. She turned to her mother and asked. "Mom, look, what's Dad going to say when he finds out you're here?"

"Pete doesn't know," Karin smiled. "He's in Japan."

"Japan?" Crystal said, amazed. "What in sin is he doing in Japan?"

"Company business. Look, Crystal. It's very simple. He's going to have to accept that I'm here with you. If he doesn't I refuse to be concerned about it anymore."

"You mean . . .?"

"Very likely," Karin said flatly. "I've about had it with his unnecessary anger and the way he's treated you. This is put-up or shut-up time for him."

Scooter could hear the conversation well, even though she was still busy with the check-in. "Oh, Mom," Crystal shook her head. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Karin counseled. "It's been that way for some time. It's just coming to a head, and now it gets settled, one way or the other."

"Look, Mom, I got a lot to do . . . " She raised her head and looked around. There was an older couple with several small bags, and they were having trouble with them. She raised her voice. "Randy!" she shouted. "Help these folks with their bags."

"Randy's here?" Karin asked, showing a little shock herself.

"Yeah, Mom," her daughter said. "He's a customer, signed up at the last minute, just like you, I guess. We're a little shorthanded this trip, and he's been helping out."

"Crystal, is there something going on with you two?"

"No, Mom," Crystal said, sounding a little exasperated. "I asked him to come last winter, and he got a chance that he didn't think he'd get till it happened. He's getting set to get married, but not to me. Nicole, a girl I walked with on the AT for a while. I think I told you about her. He came up with us from Flagstaff, and he bent my ear half the way about the house they're building and the furniture they're buying. I'm just a little jealous of her, but I don't want him to know."

"I'm sorry," Karin shook her head. "I guess I thought maybe there was something."

"Once, there was," she said, sounding angry now. "But you and Dad loused it up. We'd been planning on living together in Marquette my last semester. It was my one chance to see if I could live like that with him, or maybe with anyone. Myleigh and I had talked about it lots. Then, you had to go and jam Nanci down my throat!"

"Crystal, I had no idea." Karin said. "I thought perhaps you were living with him in Spearfish Lake last winter."

"Wouldn't have worked," she said, sounding even more angry. "It was too late then, he was hooked up with Nicole. We couldn't have done it anyway. It's a small town, and the Clarks are important people. He can't have the gossip going around. He and I would have been pretty anonymous in Marquette, and we'd have been leaving soon, anyway. So, I lost my chance to find out if I could live like a normal person. No, I spent last winter living in a pickup camper surrounded by a hundred and twenty howling huskies."

"Crystal, I, we had no idea . . ."

"I know, Mom. I was trying to keep from hurting you. But if you think I sound bitter about it, it's because I am. Randy's a hell of a guy, and we were pretty close before you and Dad and Nanci wrecked it. Now, we're just friends."

"Crystal, I'm sorry," Karin said. "I wish I could make it better, but I can't. I am trying to heal some of the damage."

"I know, Mom," she said exasperatedly. "Look, we gotta talk some time, but not now. I got too much to do. Here, I'll grab your bags; we gotta get down to the group."

Scooter tagged along behind as Crystal grabbed both of her mother's duffle bags in one hand, and walked down to the group clustered around the rafts, nuzzled up on the river bank. She set the bags down, hopped up onto a raft, and climbed up on top of the boatman's box. "Yo, folks, listen up," she yelled.

The crowd became silent and turned their attention toward her. "My name is Crystal Chladek," she said in a clear voice that carried to the edge of the crowd. "I'm your trip leader on this little expedition." Scooter caught the look of surprise on Karin's face at that announcement, and could see from the grin on her face that Crystal had seen it too.

"I'll warn you right now, if you call me 'Chris,' I'll look over my shoulder to see who you're talking to," Crystal continued, sounding bright and chipper, with no hint of the anger and bitterness in her voice of a few seconds ago. She went through the introduction that the crew had become familiar with, but this time with a few variations. "Now, we're going to be together for over two weeks, and I'm sure we're all going to get to know each other a lot better by the time we get to Diamond Wash, but let's get started with some introductions. First, I have to say I had a heck of a surprise when one of you got off the bus, so I'm going to start off with the person most responsible for me being here in the first place. She ran this river twenty-five years ago, and gave me the bug and the love for it. My mother, Karin Chladek. Stick up your hand, Mom. It was twenty-five years, wasn't it?"

"Yes, it was," Karin smiled.

"It's going to be interesting to see what your impressions are," Crystal said with a big smile. "The other person I want to introduce is a long-time friend who's running this river for the first time, but we've been around a few blocks and down a few rivers before, Randy Clark."

Randy stuck up his hand briefly, and grinned as Crystal continued. "Now, I want to mention him right at the beginning, because you've seen him humping heavy objects around since you got here. He's not a member of the crew, just a customer, like you are, but he's the kind of guy who's always ready to pitch in when there's work to be done. Now, we got a little problem, folks. Usually in the summer we have several extra hands on these trips just to help out with the lifting and carrying. Most of them are college students, and they're all back in school now, so I'm going to have to ask each one of you to lend a hand now and then. It's not going to be a big deal if we all work together, and it'll help you feel more like you're a part of the trip, rather than just along for the ride. We're still going to have a lot of fun and see the most awesome countryside on earth, bar none. Is that all right with everybody?"

"Sure thing," a voice came from the crowd, and there were several assenting voices.

"Thought so," Crystal smiled. "I knew you were a good bunch. OK, the next person I want to introduce is our assistant trip leader, Scooter Whitsell." Scooter stuck up her hand. "I'll let you in on a secret," Crystal grinned. "Her real name is Rhonda, but she doesn't answer to it either, unless you use it three or four times, and maybe hit her with something. So, stick with Scooter. Now, I know you're thinking, what are a couple of kids like us doing running this trip, women at that? Well, Scooter and I may be young, but we've been running around the outside in general and rivers in particular for a long, long time. We both got an early start. Almost everything I've done, Scooter has done more of."

"Almost," Scooter grinned in a loud voice; they'd done this routine before. "I never worked a fishing boat in Alaska like you did."

"No, but you made up for it by working an oyster boat on Chesapeake Bay when you were in high school, a Skipjack, no less." Crystal grinned. "I guess that'll have to be some campfire stories somewhere down the river. Now, I'll be the first to say we haven't done it all, but Scooter will agree with me that we share a common goal -- we are going to do it all."

That drew a laugh; the crowd was loosening up a little.

"OK, let's get to the other boatmen," Crystal continued. "The next boatman I'm going to introduce has done it all, at least as far as the Canyon is concerned. He came along at the last minute to fill in for a boatman who had to go back to college, and the reason he's not the trip leader is that he learned a long time ago that it's less work and more fun to be a boatman than a trip leader. And, he can make it stick, since he owns Canyon Tours -- Al Buck."

Al stuck up his hand sheepishly; he was sitting down on a raft, half lost in the crowd. "Now, like I said," Crystal explained, "Al owns this outfit, but he doesn't want to be trip leader, so we're not going to let him. If you have a problem, come to me or Scooter, not him. If we think we have to, we'll take it to him, but let him lay back and be as lazy as he is, OK?"

She paused for a moment, and went on. "I talked about women trip leaders a few minutes ago," she continued. "The person who just about invented commercial rafting on this river was a woman, Georgie White. She goes back a long time before my time, but not before Al's. From everything I ever heard, she was a one of a kind, a real character. So, if we're all good little kiddies and we eat all our spinach, maybe Uncle Al will sit us down around a campfire down the river somewhere and tell us some Georgie White stories."

Crystal went on to introduce the other boatmen, each one with some laud to their experience and a disparaging dig for laughter, then followed up the boatmen's introductions by asking the crowd to give their names. Everybody was getting a little more comfortable by now. Crystal would never make a stand-up comedian, but she had people loose, Scooter thought, thinking that there was no sign of the anger of a few minutes before or the sorrow and tears and solemnity of an hour or so before.

"OK, a few things about the trip. It's already late today, but it always is when we get started, so we're only going to run a few miles, just to let you get used to being on the river. First, your boatman is in charge of your boat. Listen to them. They know what they're doing. You may not. As boatmen, we're here to give you a good trip, but also a safe trip. There's an accident every now and then, but it's hardly ever that anyone gets hurt. In nearly forty years, Canyon Tours has never had a death on the river, and we aren't going to start now. Major rule: when you're on the river in a raft, you will wear your PFD, at all times. If I catch someone on the river without a PFD, you're not going to like what I say, and I'll warn you, I'm a black belt. It's not just our rule, it's the insurance company's rule, it's a Grand Canyon National Park rule, and it's the law. Period. End of discussion . . ." She continued on for a while, going over a number of points to be covered in the introduction; there would be more later, but they tried to not overwhelm people right at the beginning.

Finally, she said, "OK, I'm sure everybody is tired of hearing me talk. I'm even tired of talking. I'm going to assign each of you to a raft and a boatman. We'll probably do some switching around as we go down the river, but let's stay like this for a couple days, until we get used to being out there. Each boatman will help you get your life jacket fit right, help you load your gear into drybags, and otherwise get you set to get started."

She went down through the list, name by name. Scooter wasn't surprised when Randy wound up in Crystal's raft, but was a little surprised that Karin's name wasn't on that list. She knew there was a lot of bitterness between Crystal and her mother, and she'd seen a hint of it up by the bus. Was there more bitterness there than she'd detected? Perhaps Crystal just didn't want to have to risk talking about family matters in front of others, she thought.

With the exception of Randy, Scooter could see that Crystal mostly assigned people to rafts by the order they were listed on the manifest. Karin wound up on Al's raft. Scooter couldn't help but wonder about that a little -- Al and Louise had both been on the river when Crystal's mother had made her trip years ago. Did they know each other, remember each other? Hard to say; Scooter didn't pick up any hint of recognition. And then there wasn't time to think about it; she had five people she had to help get packed and loaded.

But then, she wasn't exceptionally surprised to hear Al say, "Hello, Karin. It's good to see you again. I was real surprised to see you, and even more surprised to find out you're Crystal's mom."

Helpless to avoid snooping, Scooter listened hard to hear the conversation. "It's good to see you," she heard Karin say. "I'm surprised you remembered me."

"You'd be hard to forget. But, let's not talk about that, now. I have to complement you on Crystal. She's quite a girl. Even with all the raft experience she had before she came here, she took to this river like nobody I've ever seen."

"She doesn't do things halfway," Karin grinned. "When she sets out to do something, she means it."

"She does indeed," Al agreed. "Well, we better get started before Crystal gets out her whip. OK, folks," he said, turning to the other passengers, "Crystal went through the names pretty fast so let's go over them again. I'm Al Buck, and I was on that trip Crystal was talking about with Karin, here, twenty-five years ago. There is an awful lot of water that's gone down the river since then. Can you introduce yourselves?"

Al sounded pretty bright and chipper, Scooter thought. Maybe he's putting on an act for the customers, but maybe it'll stick. "OK, folks," she said to the people gathered around her raft. "I'm Scooter Whitsell. Al over there has way more time in a raft than anyone else in the company, but there's a girl up in Flagstaff I've had a few discussions with over who's number two. She says I am, and I say she is. We get along on that basis. We better go around names again so I've got everyone."

The next few minutes were busy. Scooter got out some big river drybags, and helped everyone load their gear into them and pack them on the boat, tying them down tightly, then helped them fit PFDs. It took a while, but after half an hour or so they were ready to go.

Finally, Crystal called out, "Is everybody ready?"

The boatmen all answered affirmatively. "OK," she replied. "Scooter, you take point, I'll take sweep this time. Let's head 'em up and move 'em out."

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