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 59

August 5 - September 15, 2001

Team Two's Autumn - 1

Scooter hadn't told Jim the story of Randy and Nicole and his frustration about her getting away while he wasn't able to -- it just wasn't a story she thought she ought to tell, for whatever reason or another, and she also doubted that it was common knowledge among the customers. As it was, it was a couple days before she could get Nicole off to the side quietly, sitting on the back of a raft in the evening with a beer in her hand and ask gently about it.

"Scooter, I don't know if I was more ashamed of how I'd felt most of the way through the wedding trip, especially the first half, or ashamed to have to ask Randy to let me go again," she sighed after she'd recapped what had happened after Scooter, Team 3, and many of the hike-ins had headed up the Bass Trail. "The hell of it was that I knew he was going to feel hurt either way. I mean, I never thought he'd fly off the handle or something, but you could tell he was hurt. We worked out the deal on the sailing trip over the next couple days, and Al asked him to come do the last trip of the year, and, well, that took the sting out, but he was still hurt."

"I don't know," Scooter shook her head. "After that story you told last Christmas, I figured you'd be in handcuffs the minute you got home and might still have them on."

"I didn't think he'd do that," she sighed. "When we got home, I went and got them and asked if he'd like to lock them on me, and he just said, 'No, Nicole, the point's been made,' and that was that, and that may have hurt me more than if he'd done it."

"So he didn't handcuff you after all?"

"Not exactly," Nicole blushed. "We, well, uh, another time he handcuffed me to the bed and tickled the hell out of me, but that was just playing; it wasn't the first time. I probably got more fun out of it than he did." She shook her head and snorted, "More laughing, for sure."

"I'm not real sure if I want to give Jim that idea or not," Scooter grinned. "So, it's still a sore spot, huh?"

"Yeah," she sighed. "I'm still not sure if I'm going to have to do Mosquito Valley -- that's the Girl Scout camp -- next summer or what. But if the river trip in November and the sailing in January don't come off pretty well, I'm just going to have to tell them I can't do it and tell him why. I can't have him resenting me for that. We both like to get out and travel too much, but I'm just coming to realize that if he can't do it I shouldn't do it, either."

"That's got to be a hard decision to make," Scooter said.

"It's one of those things you have to realize you've committed yourself to when you get married," Nicole told her. "I guess I hadn't realized it when we got married, but I'm learning it the hard way now. If that means spending all summer at home, lying out on the dock working on my tan while he's busting his ass, so be it, so long as he's not jealous of me for that, too. And I don't think he would be; he has all that down time in the winter."

"Look, Nicole," Scooter said, "Crystal, Preach, Jim, and I haven't worked out what we're going to do with the Felicity Ann yet, but even if Michelle goes it's probably not going to be the party hearty it's been in the past. The boat is big enough that there'd be room for you, even if it was only for a few days."

"I appreciate the offer," she said. "I really shouldn't take off during the school year if I can help it. I caught enough crap for last spring, and it's going to be a real race for me to get to school on time after this trip is over. Maybe another year we can work it out over Christmas break or something. But I really need him to do some traveling around during his time off so it can even things out some."

"Just throwing out an idea here," Scooter said. "Jim and I haven't worked out what we're going to do over the winter yet, but I suppose we could drop by Spearfish Lake during a cold time and tell him to get off his dead ass and go snowboarding with us for a week, or something."

"That would be a blessing," Nicole said. "Just don't plan anything, or at least let him find out that you've planned anything. Drop it on him on short notice. It really pisses him off when he makes plans and then something comes up so he can't do them. Hell, I don't blame him; that kind of shit fucked up our honeymoon, of all the damn things."

"I'm not sure what we're going to do, and it might not come off anyway," she said. "But let's tell Crystal and Preach the same thing, maybe between us one of us can actually do it."

"It sure seems strange to not see you and Crystal all buddy-buddy all the time."

"We are still the best of friends, although some guys have gotten involved, so that's changed things," Scooter told her. "I'm not sure what all is going to change and know the change isn't done yet. But then, when you got married there were some changes you didn't expect, too. Nothing stays the same, Nicole, not even this Canyon. Things change, and you never know when something really unexpected is going to happen to you."

 

Scooter had reason to remember those words exactly five weeks later. They seemed prophetic and haunting to think back on them.

On the fourth day out, they stopped at the Little Colorado. This was always a stop, one of the more interesting places of the Canyon, and one of the places that had a little special meaning. There was not a boatman that could not recite from memory John Wesley Powell's words that he'd written here, perhaps the most famous words written about the Canyon: "We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown . . . We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above; the waves are but puny ripples, and we but pigmies, running up and down the sands or lost among the boulders. We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise above the river, we know not."

The view from the mouth of the Little Colorado is one of the most breathtaking of all the river level views in the Canyon. The walls reach high above, spectacular in their power, and Powell's words show that he was similarly impressed. While they were eating lunch, a customer by the name of Phil Osborne leaned back on a gear pile, sandwich in hand, and looked up at the sky. "It's amazing how far from civilization we are," he commented after a moment. "No news, no headlines, no radio, no TV, just the peace and wild of this place. We're about as isolated as Powell was, and this could be 1871 just as easily as 2001. There's nothing to remind you of civilization. I mean, hell, back east if you looked up in the sky there'd be airplanes and contrails and like that. But here, you look up at the sky, and there's nothing."

"It makes it so incredibly peaceful," his wife, Becky, agreed.

Scooter happened to be sitting on the raft tube at the same time, a sandwich in her hand, as well. "I rarely notice airplanes," she said after thinking about it for a moment. "I mean, I just don't focus on them. There's a lot of sightseeing over-flights in this area, but they stay pretty high and I usually don't notice them. Maybe it's selective denial, like I want to be back in 1871 with Powell."

"He'd really be amazed to see us going down this river in rafts and having fun," Jim said, from his spot on the tube of a nearby raft. "I mean, after all the troubles and starvation they had." He looked up for a moment, and added. "I guess I'm with Scooter. It's selective denial. I rarely notice airplanes here either."

The weather continued to be absolutely gorgeous. They were well away from the grinding heat of summer; the last trip, the one where there'd been the personnel shuffle at Phantom, had its hot days but had a few pleasant ones, too. This one had just the perfect weather that the Canyon often had in September, cool enough to make a sleeping bag feel snug at night, warm enough in the afternoons that for a couple hours swimsuits were often seen.

Two days later, they hit Upper Granite Gorge. Hance and Sockdolager and Grapevine were always challenging; this wasn't the first time that Nanci had run these big ones at the oars of Kevin's raft, but she had an exceptionally clean run and got congratulations from all. Scooter's opinion that Nanci was going to be getting a raft sooner, not later, was just reinforced. They were in a very good mood, even for a trip that had an abnormally good mood, when they floated under the Kaibab Bridge, around the bend, and up toward the rocky beach near the Bright Angel Bridge.

Then Scooter got a very bad feeling when she saw a familiar young, long-haired blonde standing on the beach, a backpack on her back and a tortured expression on her face. Instantly she knew something was very wrong, or else Michelle probably wouldn't have come down here at all.

As Scooter's raft slid up onto the rocks of the beach; Michelle took hold of the grab line to drag it onto the rocks a little. "Just a minute," she said, and headed over to help the next raft with the landing. In but a few seconds, all five of the rafts were nosed into the beach, and boatmen were getting painters out to tie them down.

"Michelle!" Scooter heard Crystal's voice, obviously thinking much the same thing. "Is anything wrong?"

"Have you people heard the news?" Michelle replied in a voice loud enough that everyone could hear.

"What news?" Preach frowned.

"Last Tuesday," Michelle said uncertainly, "There were four planes hijacked. Two of them flew into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York." She took a deep breath, and went on, still unable to believe the reality of what she'd seen happen real-time on TV, then over and over again in replays. "Both the towers collapsed. There's thousands dead."

Michelle's words turned the five boatmen, twenty-four customers, and one swamper into a hubbub of gasps. "You're kidding, aren't you?" Preach's voice broke through.

"No Preach, I'm not," Michelle shook her head, and continued. "One of the other planes flew into the Pentagon, and there's hundreds dead there. The fourth, the passengers fought back, and it crashed in Pennsylvania. On TV they said they think it was heading for the Capitol."

"Oh, dear God," Preach said. It was in a tone of prayer; he wasn't called "Preach" for nothing, because even though he was a boatman, he was still a Baptist minister.

"Look," Michelle continued in a loud voice, hoping that she could be heard by everyone, "I've called the emergency contact numbers of everyone on both the trips," she told them. "Everybody I've been able to talk to says that everyone is all right." Again, she took a deep breath, and hoped that her next words weren't the bad news that she was so damn sure it was, "But, Mr. and Mrs. Osborne, I can't get an answer at your son's house. I've tried day and night; I even tried early this morning before I started down from the rim, and all I get is his answering machine."

"It ought to be all right," Phil Osborne said uncertainly. "You said this happened in New York and Washington. He's in Boston."

"I know," Michelle said sadly, as Preach headed in the direction of the Osbornes, suspecting what was coming. "But that was where two of the planes flew out of."

"Oh, God," Phil said quietly, as Becky let out a half-sigh, half-sob and held his arm in a death grip. They each felt a hand resting lightly on their shoulders, the hands of a minister turned Grand Canyon boatman.

"Crystal," Preach said softly. "The satphone."

"Right," Crystal said, his words breaking her out of the stunned shock that Michelle's words had brought to the party, that now stood and sat silently around the boats, sorrowed at the news, sorrowed at the uncertainty that the Osbornes were facing. The group had been together six days, and they had all become fairly close friends in that time. Two rafts down, Kevin took Nanci by the hand. Both bowed their heads in prayer -- softly, but not silently, repeating the ancient words, "Our Father, who art in Heaven . . ." and soon most of the rest of the party joined in.

Crystal wasn't listening to the prayer, for by the middle of it she was digging furiously in the boatman's box of her raft, the place she normally sat to row. Even though Scooter was leading this trip, they just hadn't gotten around to moving what she was looking for. The drybox was full of stuff, some needed every day, some only for emergencies, and what she was looking for was down at the bottom of the box. In only seconds, she pulled out a medium-sized blue drybag, unsnapped the parachute clips that held it closed, and pulled out a waterproof military-surplus ammunition box; from that, she pulled a plastic case, inside of which was a strange-looking telephone.

This was only the fourth time in three years that a Canyon Tours satellite telephone had been used. In the spring, Team 1 had to use the very expensive service to call for a helicopter to pick up a woman with a broken arm; then in the summer Crystal had to call one for Dan after his seizure. She'd used it a couple days later to report that Michelle had made it down Havasu Creek to the river, but really to find out how Dan was doing. In but a minute, the satphone was sitting on the boatman's box of Preach's raft, with Mr. Osborne dialing the number of his daughter-in-law's parents from memory.

And, in another minute, the news was just as bad as everyone feared. The Osborne's oldest son had been on the plane that had crashed into the south tower, and Preach was holding onto the grieving father and mother as both cried on each other; with his tears joining them -- and the rest of the party joining in as well.

"We need to get home," Mr. Osborne said finally. "There's no way we can stay here, now."

"I understand," Scooter said. "Let's work on getting something set up to get you home."

"Michelle," Preach said. "I think I'd better go with them. Can you run for a couple days? I'll meet you at the Bass Trail."

"Yeah," Michelle said with obvious relief. "So long as I can do a quickie up to Phantom Ranch first. This really would be something better for you to do anyway."

"All right," Crystal said, reaching for the satphone again. "I'll call for a chopper to get them out of here."

"Uh, Crystal," Michelle replied. "That's not going to work. Everything's been grounded for days. The only things flying over North America are jet fighters on patrol."

"You mean we can't even get home?" Becky sobbed.

"It's a long walk up to the rim," Preach said flatly. "But once we get there, I'll drive you home."

"But . . . that's Connecticut," Phil said.

"So, I'll drive you to Connecticut," Preach said. "Michelle, we'll probably change at Havasu if I can make it back in time. If not, you'll have to run the rest of the trip. Let me have your car keys so we can get back to Flag and get my car. I'll leave yours at the office, and tell your parents what's up."

"That's a long climb," Scooter warned. "I think they can make it. Phil, Becky, Preach, take it real easy and don't take a thing more than you need. We'll ship your stuff to you when we get off the river. Preach, take plenty of water, stop and rest. Take some flashlights in case you get caught out after dark."

"Figured that," he replied.

It took a little while to get around, but at least the Osbornes had the advantage of having something to do to get ready, and everybody in the party pitched in to help where they could. In just a few minutes, Scooter, Crystal, and Preach were walking across the Bright Angel Bridge, along with Mr. and Mrs. Osborne. At the far side of the bridge, Crystal stopped them and said. "Look folks," she said. "I'm really really sorry this had to happen, but Preach will take good care of you and get you home safe, and we'll be praying for you. When you're ready, give us a call and we'll see that you get to do the whole trip, OK? Next year, or five years or whenever, you go to the head of the line."

"Thanks, Crystal," Mr. Osborne said somberly. "We'll just have to see. But thanks for letting Preach come with us."

"Keep him as long as you need him, just point him back in this direction when you get through with him," Crystal grinned. She turned to him, put her arms around him, and the two shared a serious kiss. "Take care, Preach," she smiled. "Take it easy, and take as long as they need you. See you when you get back."

"I'll be back," he smiled, holding on tight.

Scooter and Crystal stood and watched the three walk slowly on up the trail. "What a shit of a thing to have happen to a pair of nice people like that," Scooter said softly.

"Thank God Preach was along," Crystal said, and she wasn't swearing, either. "There wasn't anybody on the trip, or in the company, for that matter, who would be half as good at what they're going to need to get them through the next few days."

"It doesn't seem very important now," Scooter said, "But the rest of the trip is going to be a downer, there's no avoiding it."

"I'm really going to miss Preach," Crystal sighed. "But it's clear he has to do what he has to do."

Finally, the three turned a corner, and were out of sight. Feeling really depressed, the two sighed and walked slowly back down to the boats.

In the process of getting Preach and the Osbornes ready for the hike up the Bright Angel Trail, lunch had been broken out, so sandwiches could be made for the three to carry up with them. Now, the rest of the party stood around, listlessly chewing on sandwiches and whatnot, still stunned at the news that Michelle had brought with her and the way that tragedy had struck into the midst of their happy trip. The only person missing was Michelle herself; she'd lit out at a dead run for the canteen at Phantom Ranch as soon as the decision was made. Scooter was pretty sure she knew why: to clean the canteen out of bubble gum. She was still a serious addict.

Even though she was a big, active person who burned a lot of food, Crystal didn't feel much like eating, either. "Look," she said to Scooter, but loudly enough that everyone around could hear, "The Park Service won't let us stay here, but what do you say when Michelle gets back, we run down to like Horn Creek, or maybe Granite, then pack it in for the day? There's not really a thing we can do down here about what happened except for what we've already done, but I don't think anyone wants to run more than necessary."

"Works for me," Scooter agreed, and there were assenting nods from the other boatmen and most of the customers.

A few minutes later things were pretty well picked up and loaded when Michelle came back, carrying a plastic bag. "Michelle," Scooter asked. "Do you know more about what happened last Tuesday?"

"Lots," Michelle told them. "There was nothing else on TV for days. I brought a couple copies of the paper. What I told you was pretty much the bottom line, though."

"Good," Scooter said. "We threw a sandwich together for you. We're going to run to the first camp we can get into, and then maybe you can fill everyone in."

"Sure, Scooter," she said. "I'll tell you what, I've been hearing nothing else for five days, and trying to call everybody, I'm just glad to be away from it."

"Yeah," Scooter grunted. "Maybe we are the lucky ones, after all. OK people, let's be about it."

"Works for me," Michelle said, standing in front of what had been Preach's raft, where two customers were already sitting. They were an older couple, perhaps in their sixties, and were no less shaken than anyone else by the events of the last hour.

Michelle grabbed Preach's discarded life jacket, pulled it on, and snugged it up tightly -- she was a lot smaller than he was. "Hi!" she said to the customers, popping a big wad of Double Bubble in the process. "Sorry we didn't get introduced, but I'm Michelle."

"You're a boatman?" the woman said, wide-eyed. "A teenager like you?"

"More or less," Michelle grinned. "At least if I can remember which end of the oar goes into the water."

"Michelle, I know you had to skip school to come down here today," Scooter laughed -- it was good to laugh after this downer, and she could see what Michelle was up to. They'd done this routine before. She grinned and continued. "What's coach going to say when you miss cheerleading practice?"

"Oh, she'll get mad, she always does," Michelle laughed. "But you know me; I'll do anything to get out of algebra."

The woman looked at Scooter. "I don't believe this!" she said. "Are you sure this is all right? I mean, a teenager?"

"She's pulling your leg," Crystal laughed. "The actual fact of the matter is that Michelle is a freak of nature. She's actually my age, and my Dad is the only boatman in the company with more experience on the river than she has. She and Mom trade off running the office and running the river."

"You're kidding!" the woman said.

"No, she's not," Scooter laughed from the next raft. "Crystal left out the fact that she's strong as a mule, has a black belt in karate, and can drink any two boatmen on the river combined under the table. Meet Michelle, legend-in-her-own-time, Rawson, the wild woman of the Canyon."


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