Wes Boyd's
Spearfish Lake Tales
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The Homestanders
Book Four of the Bradford Exiles
Wes Boyd
2005, 2011

Chapter 26

Monday, November 8, 1999

Under a gray, uninspiring sky, a cold wind blew through the trees knocking down golden and tan and reddish leaves. The trees around here still had a lot of leaves up, and there were even patches of green showing, but Jason could see that farther up the mountainside things were getting pretty barren. When the leaves were down, it was winter as far as he was concerned; driving south to Amicalola Falls State Park in northern Georgia had just driven him back into a last gasp of autumn.

He was getting a little stiff sitting in the truck, and Tom Clancy wasn’t holding his interest right at the moment. He kept glancing at the sign marking the trailhead, glancing up the trail the short distance he could see. On a nicer day he might have been tempted to hike up the trail a bit, but on a raw, blustery one like this, being out of the wind in the cab of the pickup seemed to be more favorable.

Still, getting out of the truck, stretching his legs, having a cigarette would be a welcome break from the tedium. When the call had come two days before, it had been impossible to pin the time down better than “sometime around midday.” It was getting on toward noon, now. It was a shame, he thought, that things had to be done on such short notice.

In any case, it had been enough time, if not way too much. He’d slept in a little the day before and spent some quality time with Vicky, who had spent the night like the previous weekend, before showering, getting set and hitting the road – south to US-30 and taking it east, then south on I-75. It would have been possible to do the trip straight through in a long day – he’d made similar trips to the vicinity in the past in that amount of time. But the timing would have been wrong, so he’d taken his time, gotten a motel south of Knoxville, had a leisurely breakfast, and gotten here in plenty of time. Now, there was nothing to do but wait, which he’d been doing for over an hour.

He just about had the cigarette finished when a hiker – no, two hikers – appeared around the bend of the East Ridge Trail, which led 8.3 miles up to the trailhead of the Appalachian Trail on the top of Springer Mountain, hidden in the distance behind the trees. The first he recognized in an instant; the second hiker was a short, slender, dark-haired girl who like her companion walked with the easy pace of an experienced walker on a long hike. He flipped the cigarette onto the pavement, and walked toward them. He could see a smile on the taller hiker’s face; then father and son fell into each other’s arms for a brief hug. “Good to see you again, Duane,” he smiled. “You have a good hike?”

“Couldn’t have been better,” the most recent successful Appalachian Trail thru-hiker grinned. “I’ll tell you what, it was a little snotty up on the ridge this morning when we started, that and the fact I knew you’d be waiting was about all that kept me from wanting to turn around and start right back up to Katahdin.”

“You wouldn’t be the first, from what I hear,” Jason grinned, pleased and proud at his son’s finally completing his long-held dream.

“Not even the first this year,” the dark-haired girl said. “We met a couple who were heading back north for a while. It’s hard to let go.”

“Yeah,” Duane sighed. “We sat up there on the ground by the plaque for a while just in tears that it was all over with, and that it’s all behind us, now.”

“Up on the trail, it’s real simple,” the girl said distantly. “You get up in the morning and walk. Things aren’t going to be that simple again.”

“I suppose,” Jason smiled at the pleasant-looking young woman, about Duane’s age. “I assume you’re finishing a thru-hike, too? Congratulations!”

“Sorry, Dad,” Duane said. “I should have made some introductions. This is Chica; she started a couple days after me at Katahdin, and we passed each other several times. We’ve been hiking together since Shenandoah.” As Duane introduced them, Jason thought that this was just a touch surprising. There had been occasional mentions in letters and phone calls that he was with another hiker, and since it hadn’t been every time it hadn’t even been clear that it was the same hiker – or that she was a girl.

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. MacRae,” the girl said politely. “Chica’s a trail name, my real name is Charlotte. Icewater and I don’t use our real names much.”

“I can understand that,” he grinned. “My real name is Jason, I don’t use MacRae much and you don’t have to.”

“Dad,” Duane said. “We were wondering if you could give Chica a ride home. It’s up at Waynesville, North Carolina. That’s not all that far from NOC, and it’s not much farther than going back through Chattanooga, if that’s how you came in.”

“Sure, I have no problem with getting into some different country for the sake of seeing some different country. Chica, your carriage awaits.”

“Damn,” she shook her head. “It’s going to be hell to have to learn to answer to ‘Charlotte’ again.”

It was a good three hours up to Waynesville, made longer by a stop for lunch at Dahlonega – the hikers still had bodies that cried aloud for food even though the hike was over with. As they rode along, the two hikers told stories Jason sometimes didn’t understand from the context, from not having been there. A few miles up the road from Dahlonega they crossed the trail at Neel’s Gap, and he could see both hikers glancing up the trail. They’d been there; it was not new country to them, but some place he’d never been, and likely never would be. Jason had known that this hike would just add to the degree of separation he felt from his son; again, Duane’d had experiences they couldn’t really share, much though he’d like to. It was more than just mountains climbed, trails walked, sunsets seen; it was the inevitable growing apart of two lives that had once been very close and interdependent.

Another degree of separation was evident. The truck was big enough that it was no big deal to sit three wide across the front seat, although Jason quickly noted without comment that Chica, in the middle, was sitting closer to Duane than she was to him. He also noticed, and did not comment on, a certain amount of handholding going on between the two; obviously there was more going on there than they’d mentioned so far. Jason knew that Duane had never messed around with girls much as a teenager; not that he was anything but straight, but they just hadn’t been all that high on his priority list. Evidently that was changing; Jason suspected that Duane would tell him in his own good time.

The suspicion deepened as Charlotte guided him to a decent if not spectacularly large suburban-type house on the edge of the town. “Guess they’re not home yet, Icewater,” she said to Duane as the three of them piled out of the cab and went to the back of the pickup to dig her pack out from under the cap. “We’ll have to do it like we talked about.”

“I’ll give you a call tomorrow,” he told her. “It’ll probably be late; I don’t think Dad is heading straight back.”

“I’d just as soon stop up the road a ways, unless you feel like driving most of the night yourself,” Jason contributed.

“Not really,” Duane replied. “I’m pretty much running on sun time, I’ll be crashing within an hour of sunset and getting up with the birds.”

“Then I guess we’ll just have to leave it at ‘see you in a few days,’” she sighed. All of a sudden the two of them were in a kiss, and it was a serious kiss, indeed.

“Hey, Chica,” he said softly when they came up for air – but loud enough that Jason could make it out, “We’ll work something out somehow. It’ll just have to depend.”

There was another long, deep kiss while Jason was waiting behind the wheel of the truck, and a couple heartfelt “goodbyes” before they drove off. They got up the street a bit before Jason asked, “Did my eyes just see something I don’t know about?”

“Yeah, Dad,” Duane replied. “Chica and I have gotten to be pretty good friends in almost three months. There were all those rumors going around Shenandoah that there’s some geek who raped and killed a solo woman hiker, and Chica didn’t want to go through there alone. I didn’t blame her one bit, either. I kept my sheath knife on my belt through the whole area. After that, we just sort of stayed together and we, uh, got closer.”

Jason didn’t need to ask what his son meant by that; the scene in front of her parents’ house a couple minutes ago told him all he needed to know. If he had to bet it would be that the two of them had been a lot closer than Duane would be willing to admit – say, about as close as he and Vicky had been the last two Saturday nights. He knew he would be about equally reluctant to admit that to his son. “You’re telling me I just met a potential daughter-in-law?” he smiled.

“Maybe,” Duane sighed. “I don’t know. We’ve been talking it over since the Smokies. We both know people aren’t always the same people off the trail as they are on the trail, and, well, there’s limits to how far we want to go until we’ve seen the other side of the coin.”

“Good thinking,” Jason nodded.

“The thing of it is that Bradford and Waynesville are a hell of a long way apart,” Duane commented. “We’ve pretty well worked it out that we need to be with each other off the trail for a while before we start talking about taking things further, and most likely we’re talking down here. When we went through Wesser I stopped off and talked to Leon at NOC. There’s nothing much going on there this time of year, he only has a few people on in the winter and everything is full up, although there’s a couple people he thinks might be leaving soon, he’s not sure. Scooter used to rent a little travel trailer not far away, it was pretty cheap; I might be able to do that. If nothing else works out, I can probably get on rafting in the spring.”

“You’ve given up on looking for a Park Service job?”

“No, not really,” Duane said. “I figure I can send résumés and applications in from Wesser or Waynesville as easily as I can from Bradford. NOC just gives me a fall-back next spring; I know I can do that.”

“Makes sense,” Jason nodded. “But if you can’t get something at NOC until spring, then what?”

“That’s what we’re working on,” his son replied. “I think I can tell you that what we’re talking about is spending the winter living together some place. She isn’t real sure how her folks are going to take the idea. If they don’t go through the roof, we’re thinking around here somewhere, if for no more reason than I think I can stand a winter where the snow isn’t ass deep on a tall moose. The job situation isn’t the greatest, but we’ve still got a few bucks here and there, and we should be able to come up with something that’ll tide us through till spring.”

“If that falls through, you could come home, I suppose,” Jason offered, realizing instantly it would offer complications he hadn’t really contemplated.

“It’s a possibility,” Duane agreed, then let out a sigh. “But Dad, I have to ask. When I saw you and Vicky at Harper’s Ferry, well, it looked to me like things had gotten quite a bit closer between the two of you.”

“They have,” Jason admitted, now giving Duane a chance to read between the lines. “And I have to admit they’ve gotten closer yet since we saw you then.” He hadn’t really given any great deal of thought to the idea Duane would be staying around home for much more than a few days once he got done with the hike. After all, he’d been gone so much for over four years he’d gotten used to not having him around. It would make things more cumbersome, but not impossible with Vicky – which might not be all bad; the last few weeks it seemed like things had been moving forward more quickly than they had been before, perhaps more quickly than he’d wanted. Duane being around might keep them from getting out of hand, too. “But they’re not so close that I want you out of the way, either,” he added.

“You’re telling me I’m looking at a potential step-mother?” he grinned, then commented. “Good. Like I told you back at Katahdin, I think it could be good for the both of you.”

“It’s not a done deal by any means,” Jason said honestly, figuring that there was no point in beating around the bush. “In fact, the subject hasn’t even come up between us. But I can tell you that we’re both thinking about it. There are things we each have to think about. The only agreement we have is we’re not going to rush each other. If it takes another year or two or three, then that’s what it takes. There’s no reason you couldn’t spend a few months at home, even if you had Chica with you.”

“Yeah,” Duane frowned, “But there are some other things involved. I didn’t figure you’d kick very hard when I told you I was thinking about living with her, and I was right. She doesn’t know how her folks are going to take it. I’ve met them; they visited at Damascus, and they’re OK. What she’s going to do is float it by them a little gently and see what happens. She thinks it might go a little easier if we were somewhere fairly close at hand for a while, especially if I were to get a job in the Park Service next spring way out west somewhere. I mean, they’d have the chance to get used to things a little. So that argues for down in this neck of the woods, maybe not Waynesville, but Wesser or move into Asheville, or something.”

“What happens if they blow a fuse?”

“Then maybe we go somewhere else, like hop in the Jeep and see what we can do about finding a place in Florida, maybe, and some short-term jobs. Or, maybe Bradford, if you’ll take us in.”

“Sure, if it works out that way. She seems to be a nice kid.”

“She is,” he nodded. “But I’m not sure how bad I want to live in Bradford with her, where I know everybody and there’s all the rumors going around.”

“And that wouldn’t happen in Waynesville?”

“It wouldn’t be as likely,” he shook his head. “It’s a bigger town and they’re not really from there, her folks are from like Cleveland, they took early retirement and moved down there while she was in college. She’s only spent a summer there, so she doesn’t really know anyone.” He shrugged and went on, “In any case, it really doesn’t matter, I guess. We decided it’d probably be best if she gets a chance to come down from the hike with them for a couple days before she floats it past them, which is fine, since I have to go home, screw around with my stuff, and get the Jeep. By then maybe we’ll have something worked out.”

“Well, whatever,” Jason shrugged. “I’ll just leave it that you’d be welcome, and I wouldn’t mind seeing more of you. If you wind up going somewhere else, I’ll understand. It isn’t as if I was expecting you to be around, anyway.”

“Good,” Duane nodded, “I was hoping you’d see it something like that. In any case, if you’re getting something going with Vicky, I wouldn’t want to get in the way.”

“You wouldn’t be in the way,” Jason said. “Vicky and I are pretty good friends and we’ve known each other for a long, long time. Part of the reason we’re taking things pretty easy is that we don’t want to screw up a good friendship if we can’t work out some of the issues we have.”

“What kind of issues?” Duane asked with curiosity.

“The big one is the age difference,” Jason said, realizing that he could talk about some things with his son that he hadn’t been able to talk about with Vicky, to use him as a sounding board. “I’m twenty years older than she is, and I’m close to retiring. Vicky wants to have kids; it’s a given with her. We haven’t even talked about it, it’s just that I know her well enough to know that it’s part of how she defines happiness, much like your mother did.”

“Makes sense,” Duane nodded. “I don’t necessarily feel that way, and Chica doesn’t seem to, either. But we talked it over in a general sense, and we know a lot of people who do. What do you think about it?”

“Duane, I have mixed feelings,” he replied. “Part of it is that I’ve done all that, and I’m not too damn sure how bad I want to start over from square one. It’d be different than it was, at least partly because I wouldn’t be scratching for every damn dime, but also because of the age difference. If Vicky and I were to have kids, I couldn’t do the same things with them I did with you, mostly because I’m so much older than I was then. I’m not sure if it’d be fair, I mean, to the kids, or to her, or to me. And then, I have to consider if I want to be tied down like that again. Unless I put it off, I’m within five years of retiring and there’s been talk of buyouts coming, so it could be I’ll be eligible in less than that. I’m not sure I’m all that ready to be tied down to a family like that.”

“On the other hand,” Duane smiled, “It’d give you more time to be a father, too, if that was what you decided. I’m guessing you’re not going to give up working, you’re going to stay at home and make knives.”

“Well, yeah,” Jason nodded. “I’m not sure how hard I want to work at it, but as a pastime I’ll stay with it as much as I want to. Even with my pension, I can’t draw social security for years yet, so I’d need something to fill in the gaps, and I’ve always figured that would do it.”

“Dad, this is one of those things I don’t know how to ask, but you’re pretty well off, aren’t you? I mean, you’re not going to be hurting?”

“I wouldn’t say I’m rich or anything, but I’m not going to be hurting. I mean, that’s another difference I’d have between you and new children. I wouldn’t be scratching to make a house payment, make car payments, keep food on the table, and diapers on the butts like I had to for a long time with you. I’ll tell you though, I thank God for the insurance package we have at General. I don’t even want to think about how much money they spent on Christine. I don’t even know, but it’s got to be close to seven figures if it’s not more than that.”

“I knew it was an awful lot of money,” Duane said.

“Even if it was a twenty-percent co-pay like they have at some places, I’d still be in hock up to my ass,” Jason replied. “As it is, yeah, there’s quite a bit of wiggle room, so my retiring as soon as I’m eligible will probably depend on other factors, like that family question again. But that raises another issue you really ought to have an input on.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m not any spring chicken,” Jason replied. “While I’m in good health for my age, well, do you know Johnny Cochrane?”

“Doesn’t ring a bell.”

“Maybe not. He was from Hawthorne, but I might have told a story or two on him. He worked with me for years driving fork trucks, too. He died last summer. Cancer, it went through him like a shot. He didn’t have more than a month’s notice. If you’ve got to have cancer it was at least lucky it was quick, though it gave him time to clean up a few loose ends, but still, shit, he was only forty-two. You get to my age and you start seeing people younger than you checking out more than you want to even hear about, much less see it happen. Anyway, if something were to happen to me in the near future, you’d receive a pretty good inheritance. But let’s face it, you’re to an age where you can care for yourself. If I were to die and leave small children, I’d have to do my best to make sure they were taken care of first.”

“I’d expect you to,” Duane nodded. “That’s the sort of person you are.”

“Right, but to me it doesn’t seem fair to you.”

“Near term, it’s not an issue,” Duane replied. “In fact, if something like that were to happen I’d have to consider it at least partly my responsibility to help out where I could. That’s something you and Mom taught me.”

“Well, tried to teach you, anyway.”

“Dad, I don’t know how to say this,” Duane said. “I’ve worried for a long time that you have a tendency to get wrapped up with your knives and get lonely. Or maybe it’s the other way around, you get lonely and you get wrapped up with your knives. It wasn’t so bad in high school when I was around, but I get the impression that it’s gotten worse since I’ve been in college. The last thing I’d want to see you do is retire and spend all your damn time with them.”

“I’m not that bad. I’m fairly sociable, and getting more so recently.”

“And who hasn’t made a move to get married again ever since Mom died? I mean, at least until recently? Vicky’s been good for you, Dad. I could see it at Harper’s Ferry. You have that look at each other that gives you away.” He sighed and continued. “I can’t describe it, but you and Vicky looked at each other then like I wish Chica and I looked at each other.”

“You’re telling me it’s not all that close between the two of you?”

“I don’t know,” he sighed. “We like each other; we have some things in common; we think it makes a lot of good sense. But, well, there are reservations, like both of us have our own things we want to do, they might not involve the other one as much, and we’re not sure how far we’re going to be willing to bend. Chica is going to do practice teaching next spring, and then hopefully get a job teaching somewhere. The way school tenure works means she’d pretty much be stuck with staying in one place. I still want to get into the Park Service, and that means moving around. We haven’t worked that out, but we have until spring to sort it out.”

“I see,” Jason nodded with understanding. “You’re probably wise in wanting to live together while you work out some of these things. That way, you get to have your cake and eat it, too. Just don’t let yourself get committed until you’re sure you want to be.”

“You mean, like kids, right?”

“Especially, but also in general. You can get yourself pretty messed up with house payments and stuff like that, too.” He let out a sigh, and continued. “Anyway, if you’re facing that kind of an issue, you’ll understand why Vicky and I have pretty much agreed that we want to be fairly sure about what we’re doing before we go ahead and commit to it.”

“Yeah, Dad, I really do. But I still think you’d be good for her and she’d be good for you.”

“I think so too,” he said. “But let’s face it, we’re both a little gun-shy. I mean, our combined track record with marriage is pretty lousy. She had one that was particularly bad. Jody and I were nowhere near as bad.”

“I knew Vicky’s wasn’t good, but nothing about the details.”

“I know some of the details, and ‘wasn’t good’ doesn’t even start to cover it,” Jason nodded. “In fact, it’s a real good example of the trouble you can get into without thinking about it enough beforehand. At least you and Charlotte seem to be thinking about it. She’s a cute kid, seems to have her head screwed on pretty good from what little I saw of her and what you’re saying about her, but believe me, I don’t blame you for being careful.”

“And I guess I can’t blame you,” Duane nodded. “I guess we are in the same boat, pretty much. But Dad, one thing: Don’t let your age difference be what stands in the way. It really isn’t that big a deal. And don’t let kids stop you. If you do decide to have kids, you’re going to be in a much better position to do a good job and have fun doing it than you were with me. I mean, more financially stable, more time to put into being a parent. I think you did a hell of a job with me considering all the shit you had to put up with, but still, wouldn’t it have been nice to not have to put up with the bad in the first place?”

“You know,” Jason replied. “You might just have a point there. I hadn’t looked at it quite that way.”

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To be continued . . .

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