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

The Homestanders
Book Four of the Bradford Exiles
Wes Boyd
2005, 2011

Chapter 31

Tuesday, February 29 - Saturday, March 4, 2000

Considering how many years Jason had driven a fork truck out at General, the job was pretty automatic. It took some skill and thinking, of course, so he couldn’t let his mind wander, but in idle moments he often thought about things other than work. More and more these days his mind turned to Vicky over the course of the day; things were getting serious indeed and he wasn’t sure he minded. Some sort of long-term arrangement seemed more and more likely with every day that passed, but there just hadn’t been the right time to sit down and talk about it – or to decide on just exactly what that arrangement would involve and if he was OK with it. Things were all right for right now, and he had the luxury of not having to rush a decision on it.

So it would have been nice to say that he was thinking about Vicky as he drove home that evening, but he wasn’t. What he actually had in mind was doing a pattern-welded Damascus sword that he’d been thinking about for a while.

If done correctly, pattern welding produces a beautiful and immensely strong sword. It involves taking two knife-sized pieces of steel with different strength and flexibility characteristics and laying one on the other and heating them enough so that they’d weld to each other when beat with the hammer. Then, the single piece of metal would be heated enough to bend the whole thing in the middle, folding the length in half, and beating the two hot pieces together so they’d weld together again. It was then beaten back to the original long flat knife blade shape again. Then it was folded and welded again, and again, and again, until the two types of steel were a stack of thin layers that used their differences to produce a whole better than the parts. You could see the layers in the steel after finishing and polishing, and they imparted a strange beauty to it. Sword connoisseurs who knew their blades would pay big for such a Damascus blade, especially one finished to Jason’s standards.

The problem was that pattern welding was a heck of a lot of work, and a pain in the butt. It was a little easier with a rolling mill, but that was a machine Jason didn’t have, and he preferred to do it with the hammer in the traditional manner anyway. It took at least four hands, and there were a couple points in the process where an extra pair of hands of someone who knew what they were doing was helpful. Sergeant Morgenstern had taught him how to do it way back when, and they’d produced some beautiful and expensive pieces. Now, Jason was thinking that Kevin was far enough along to be the second pair of hands and Vicky knew enough to be the third, so it might be a good time to introduce him to it. All that work really wasn’t necessary – there was a place in India where you could order pattern-welded blanks done on a rolling mill, and those were what Jason used for most of his stock pattern-welded blades. But at minimum, Kevin should at least have experienced the process. Besides, someone who knew their blades could tell the difference between the machine-rolled Indian stuff and the real handmade thing.

One of the problems was that they were going to have to clear away a couple days when they were doing very little else, and it wasn’t always easy to get the three of them free at the same time like that. And if they were going to do it, they’d have to do it fairly soon – if they tried it in the summer, the forge and the metal would get the back shop ungodly hot, especially considering the amount of sledgehammer work involved. At least in the winter, nature’s air conditioner could help out at a time when people had their houses closed up and weren’t as likely to complain about the extra racket.

Although Kevin was coming along well with the hot-metal forging and machine work, he didn’t have Vicky’s hand at the detail finishing, but the time was coming when the two of them could equal the one of him. On occasion, Jason had entertained the notion of setting up a small shop out in the industrial part of town and getting a little more commercial about the knife making, a few years up the road when Kevin could be called a journeyman. They might possibly hire a couple more hands to train up. The problem was that that step required both Kevin and Vicky to leave Macy Controls.

It had the potential of happening. Vicky had told him the company had recently been bought out, although it stayed in business with the same name and management – but at least one big contracted job they’d had for years had been transferred to another plant owned by the parent company. No one seemed to know if Macy had been bought up just to get the contracts, but if business slowed down in the future Macy might be the one left out in the cold, along with its workers. If that happened, it was years up the road, and he’d cross the bridge when he came to it. It was a possible option for the future, nothing more.

So it was really the pattern-welded blade and the schedule to make it that Jason had rolling through his mind when he was heading home. He came around the corner and was surprised to see a familiar sight in the driveway – but one that hadn’t been there for months: Duane’s Jeep Wrangler.

He really hadn’t been hearing much from Duane for the last several weeks. They’d had a good phone conversation at Christmas, and a couple briefer ones since. He hated the job at McDonalds, it was boring, the management was anal retentive, and the pay sucked. He’d heard considerably less about Charlotte, who he wasn’t calling “Chica” anymore. Reading between the lines, Jason figured that the two had discovered that living together was a little less than paradise. If that was the case, maybe it was best they’d discovered it now, rather than too late like had happened with him and Jody.

He hit the garage door opener and drove the Ford into the front garage, noticing as he passed the Jeep that it was loaded with stuff. Maybe, he thought, the Park Service came through with something and he was on his way to some job somewhere.

Curious, he shut off the truck, closed the garage door, grabbed his lunch box, and headed into the house, to have Duane greet him at the back door. “Hi, stranger,” he said as he and his son went into a hug. “What brings you to this neck of the woods?”

“Long story,” Duane smiled. “Something really incredible has happened, and I’m heading off to a dream job I never considered possible.”

“Full time at some good park some place?” Jason asked as he broke the hug and set his lunch box down.

“Well, yeah, but not for the Park Service,” Duane grinned. “Rafting again, but the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.”

“That’s not exactly the Nantahala,” Jason smiled. “How’d this happen?”

“Like I said, long story,” his son grinned. “I just got in myself, it’ll take a while to tell. Why don’t you get out of your work clothes, then we can sit down and have a beer while I tell you.”

Jason wasn’t really in the mood for a beer, but wasn’t going to bypass one with his son, either. “Good idea,” he said. “Grab a couple out of the refrigerator, I’ll go change.”

A few minutes later, he was in one of his comfortable around-the-house kilts, his feet up on the footrest of his favorite recliner. “I take this to mean things are over between you and Charlotte,” he observed to get things started.

“Probably,” he said. “It’s not a done deal, but we’d both have to go out of the way to pick up the pieces, and I’m not sure I want to. But it was this new job that touched it off and I don’t think I’m sorry.”

“How’d this come about, anyway?”

“You remember Scooter, don’t you? Was my lead raftsman down on the Nanty a couple summers?”

“The gal with the cigars?” Jason grinned. “She’d be hard to forget. She was the one who got your tail lit on fire to do the trail, right?”

“That’s her,” Duane grinned. “Cool lady, I learned a lot from her. What she used to do was raft in the summer and work in the sales shop at NOC in the winter. Back when Chica and I came out of the Smokies last fall, I was looking forward to stopping off at NOC to tell her I’d almost made it, but she wasn’t there. Leon told me she’d quit back in the spring and had a job with some outfit out in Arizona, rafting the Grand Canyon. I thought that was just cool as hell. Rafting the Nanty really isn’t all that good a job, and neither is working the sales store, so for her to get to go to the Canyon was a really good deal for her. Back when I was working the Nanty, we all pretty much agreed being a guide in the Grand Canyon was about as good a deal as you could get in rafting, and if anyone ever deserved a shot at the big time it was Scooter. But the Canyon companies don’t hire people from outside much, they like to bring people up through the business themselves, so it has a reputation for being damn hard to get into. You have to know someone when one of the companies has an opening.”

“You’re telling me you knew Scooter when someone had an opening.”

“Right, but it didn’t come down like that. A couple weeks ago I was working the morning shift when the door opened, and who should come in but Scooter and a couple other girls. One of them was about my size but bigger through the shoulders, and the other one was this cute little blonde teeny-bopper. Well, I told Scooter I’d heard she was out in the Canyon and congratulated her. She said she liked it there, it’s the most awesome rafting on the planet, and the two girls with her were Grand Canyon boatmen, too. I could believe it of the bigger one, but it was hard to believe the young one had ever even been in a raft. Well, just in passing, I asked if there was a chance I could get on there. She turned to the little blonde and said, ‘Michelle, I’m going to keep this honest, you tell him.’ I found out later they’d heard through Leon I was available, but Scooter didn’t want him to know she’d talked to me. So instead Michelle told me to call out to Canyon Tours in Flagstaff, ask for Al Buck, and tell him she and Crystal told me to call.”

“Being cute, huh?” Jason grinned. “I take that to mean you called.”

“Right after I got off shift. I’d gotten no less than five turndowns on park jobs in the past week, and to have something like this come by, I wasn’t going to pass it up. Anyway, after thinking about it, I thought I recognized Crystal, and when I called Al he said she’d been through NMU, and that rang a bell. She was finishing up her last semester when I was a freshman so I didn’t know her very well, but she used to hang out with Gary and some other guy I never got to know very well, the whitewater chair before Gary.”

“Really old home week, huh? So what happened?”

“Well, Al said he was interested when I told him my qualifications and that they’d told me to call, but he wanted to talk to the girls face to face, and unfortunately they were going to be on the road for a while yet. They were on their way back from a vacation in the Bahamas, and he had them looking for a couple competent raft guides on their way back.” He let out a sigh, and took a pull at his can of beer. “Well, anyway, a couple weeks went by, and I figured it had pretty much come to nothing. I got another half dozen turndowns from Park Service applications in that time, so I was beginning to figure it was the Nanty for me again next summer. On Friday Al called. The girls had just made it back, and from what he said I guess they told him to grab me while the grabbing was good, so I’m on my way to Arizona.”

“So what did Charlotte have to say about it?”

“The truth be told,” he said slowly, “She was relieved. It was good on the trail, Dad. We had a ball and really got along. But like I told you after you picked me up at Amicalola, sometimes people aren’t the same on the trail as they are off the trail, and I guess that’s true with us. I won’t say we were fighting or anything, but we were pulling in different directions. It wasn’t bad before the holidays, but after New Years she started in on her student teaching; she has all the prep work to do, pretty stressful, and having me around just added to the stress.” He was silent for a moment before he continued, “I guess I was looking forward to getting hired somewhere as an excuse for us to take a breather from each other, at least until the term ends. I thought maybe we might be able to regroup a little. I guess she was thinking pretty much the same thing. So over the weekend we moved her stuff back to her folks’ place and packed mine up. I had to go to work yesterday to get my check, but as soon as I got it I was out of there. I slid down to NOC, got a couple things from the store Al said I would need, told Leon what was coming down without mentioning Scooter, and started north. I didn’t feel like driving straight through and getting in way early, so I spent the night in a motel.”

“So it’s over with the two of you, right?”

“Pretty much,” he said. “We talked about getting together when the season out there is over in early November, but I don’t think it’s going to happen, and I don’t think she thinks so either. What it comes down to is that we parted friends, and I’m just as happy.”

Jason took a sip of his beer. “It’s nice it worked out that way,” he said. “I know you haven’t said much, but I had the impression it could have been going better between the two of you.”

“Like I said, it just wasn’t going anywhere, and we both knew it. We were just marking time the last month or two, anyway. But I’m just as glad it worked out that way. Back on the trail I thought about asking her to marry me, but there was some little something that told me to hold off. I’m glad it did. I guess what you told me last fall about you and Vicky wanting to be pretty sure what you were doing had a lot to do with it. So what’s happening with you and her?”

“Somewhere between about the same and moving forward,” Jason shrugged and glanced at the clock on the TV. “She should be along in, oh, less than an hour. Sometimes she cooks dinner, sometimes I do, sometimes we go out for dinner. We never make up our minds until she gets here.”

“Are the two of you living together now?”

“Not quite,” Jason smiled. “She spends most of her waking time off the job here, but that’s not quite the same thing.” But pretty close, he thought, and she’s spending enough nights here that it’s closer indeed. But I don’t think I’ll tell Duane that until I need to. He changed the subject: “So how soon do you have to be in Arizona?”

“No great rush,” he said. “Rafting season doesn’t begin for another month, but Al said that if I want to get there early there’s some chores I can do, mostly getting stuff ready for the season, I guess. I figure I’ll hang around for a few days, shift my gear around, hang with some friends a little, then point it toward Arizona. There’s a winter storm brewing out in the plains, there’s no point in driving through it even in a Jeep if I don’t have to. Al said there’s a couple other boatmen doing the same thing, I probably can crash with them, or possibly with Crystal and Scooter. If all that falls through, he said they’ve got this little rustic bunkhouse they keep for the crews on break that I could crash in if I have to, but there’s no heat.”

“You’re not going to get a place out there?”

“Oh, hell no, it’s not worth it. Al said the only reason Crystal and Scooter have a place is that Crystal’s mother is living with them. She works for the company, too. The deal is that the trips take nineteen days, including a day of rigging and loading at each end, so you only get three nights and two days off in three weeks. When I get a raft, it’s ten trips a summer, but for seven months I don’t have to spend much of anything.”

“Not bad for only seven months a year. You think you can draw unemployment for the other five?”

“Al says most of the people on the crews do,” he grinned, “So there’s that. There is a fly in the ointment; I have to qualify by their insurance rules, so I have to go as a helper for three or four trips, and that’s only a grand a trip. Al says after that the situation is tight enough and if he thinks I’m worth it I’ll get promoted to full boatman. Man, I can’t wait! The Grand Canyon, of all places! Hell, I’d pay to take that trip and I’m getting paid for it instead!”

“I hate to bring this up,” Jason said, “But what happens with the Park Service?”

“Hard to say,” he shrugged. “It was getting pretty unlikely I’d get anything this year anyway, and the pay at Canyon Tours is about the same. Next winter I can get the applications going again, but with another interesting line on the résumé. I really doubt this is the sort of thing I want to stay with forever, but it’s got to be more fun than three or four trips a day on the Nanty. More like the adventure of last summer, except I’m getting paid for it.”

“Well, good deal,” Jason smiled. “You might as well do that kind of stuff while you’re young and single, because you get to my age and you start thinking about things you’d like to have done when you were young but more interested in getting laid than you were about having those adventures.”

“I think so,” Duane nodded, upending his can of beer. “I tell you what, all the way north I kept thinking that it was just as well it didn’t work out with Charlotte, since this would be a hell of a deal to have to turn down at this point in my life.”

“That’s very true,” Jason said thoughtfully. He was getting close to retirement, after all, and the options for new adventures might be opening for him. Or, depending on Vicky, might not be – or at least, different adventures. He’d been coming to the conclusion that maybe it was time to get to making something permanent with her; they were a good match and had a lot of mutual interests – but marrying her might close doors to new adventures, too. It demanded a rethink, and sooner, not later. “You have to do this stuff while you can,” he added.

*   *   *

Jason thought Duane might hang around for a few days and he’d get to spend some time with him. He managed a little of that, not as much as he wanted, but it was clear that Duane was excited about the prospects of being a Grand Canyon boatman. It was also clear that the winter storm that did a good job of burying several plains states was the only thing that kept him from being on the road early the next morning. As it was, he managed to hold out until Saturday.

Jason knew Duane had never been in the west before; as far as that went, he’d never been there much, either. His advice to his son was to take his time and go to Flagstaff the long way, and maybe check out some of the sights on the trip since there obviously wouldn’t be much chance to look around out there in the summer. Duane told him he’d have to think about it, but it was clear he was so excited that the advice went in one ear and out the other without slowing down noticeably on the way. Jason wasn’t sure he blamed him. Subtract, oh, thirty years and give him Duane’s freedom and experience and he’d have been pounding the pavement, too.

But somehow this leave-taking was different than the several that had gone in the past. This wasn’t going to college, this wasn’t the Appalachian Trail, and this wasn’t heading south for a summer job. In some indefinable way, this was the real thing, and as he watched Duane load the Jeep Saturday morning with a really limited amount of gear, he knew in his heart this was different. While he didn’t doubt he’d see his son again – there was a large pile of stuff stashed in his room that he’d brought back from North Carolina – somehow, this time more than ever, it seemed like Duane was heading out on his own, leaving him behind feeling old and alone. Even Vicky hugging his arm in the cold, biting wind of a rare clear day as Duane got in his Jeep and drove away didn’t alleviate the feelings very much.

“I hope it works out for him,” Vicky said as they watched him drive out of sight.

“No reason it shouldn’t,” he replied as the Jeep disappeared from view. “Let’s get out of the cold.”

It felt better to be inside where it was warm. Spring wasn’t far off; April wasn’t very far away, carrying with it at least the hope of warmth, but right now he felt as cold as the day.

“What’s on tap for today?” Vicky asked as she peeled out of her jacket in the kitchen.

“Hell, I don’t know,” he sighed. “I can think of a dozen things that I could finish, but I can’t get interested in any of them.”

“It’s hard to see him go, isn’t it?” she asked, feeling the pensive mood he was in.

“Yeah, Vicky, it is,” he said slowly. “He’s heading out on another adventure, and now I just feel old and useless and alone.”

“Jason,” she said softly, “You should feel happy for him.”

“Oh, I am,” he replied. “I guess I just envy him. I had plans to do stuff like that when I was his age, but the I got wrapped up in work and Jody and him, and I mostly never got time to do any of it. So I missed my chance. For the most part it worked out all right, I guess, but right now I feel like I blew it.”

“Oh, Jason,” she said, searching for words. Jason didn’t often get into a pensive and negative mood, but she knew when he did it could really eat his guts out. “You didn’t blow it,” she managed to say. “You’ve been a success at a lot of the things you’ve done, including raising a real good kid in spite of all the difficulties you had. You’ve got a nice house and a lot to look forward to.” She let out a sigh. “Look, let me get us some coffee, we can go sit on the couch and you can cry on my shoulder.”

“What good will that do?”

“You can dump your troubles on me,” she said. “God knows I dumped enough of mine on you, especially after I left Augie. Now I get to repay the favor.”

Even that didn’t seem to get through to him, but she just turned to the cupboard to get a couple fresh coffee mugs. There was still coffee in the pot from earlier; she poured it for the both of them, and headed for the living room, motioning for him to follow. As he sat on the couch, she set the coffee down on the coffee table, then sat down beside him, close enough to hold his hand, close enough that he could put his arm around her if he felt like it, which apparently he didn’t.

“Jason,” she said as she snuggled up against him. “A couple years ago I felt like I was alone and useless and that I’d blown every chance I thought I’d had to be happy, and God knows I had enough reasons to think so. But Jason, that was then. Now I feel warm and happy, I feel loved, I feel like the bad days are behind me, and the best is yet to come. You’re responsible for almost all of that, Jason.”

“I know,” he said listlessly. “And I’m glad you feel that way. You were pretty bad there for a while.”

“It wasn’t the first time you set me straight,” she smiled. “And you did it by caring about me, and listening to me and my troubles. Now, what’s really eating you?”

“Pretty much what I said,” he told her. “I put a lot of time and effort and love into trying to do the best I could for Duane. But now, those days are past, the need is gone and he’s out on his own, and it’s a case of ‘what’s left?’ I guess I’m just not ready to see him go. Every time he left in the past it always seemed like it was for just a while and he’d be back, and then the good times could come again for a while.”

“You can’t expect him to stay home and keep you company forever,” she smiled, snuggling a little closer.

“I know,” he sighed. “Hell, when I was his age I was just as bad at wanting to get out and be on my own as he was. More, and even younger. Hell, I joined the Army right out of high school; it seemed like such a big adventure to be away from home like that. God, that had to have been hard on my parents, knowing I was off in Vietnam, but they never said much, just like I can’t say much to him.”

“He’s not going to be in any danger, is he?”

“Not particularly, from what I know. It’s rafting and it’s big rapids, but hell, he knows how to handle that stuff, they wouldn’t be doing commercial trips unless it was pretty safe.” He let out a sigh. “So I guess I don’t have much room for complaint. It’s just hard to say goodbye, that’s all. Things will never be the same again.”

“No, they won’t,” she smiled. “OK, I moved back home after I left Augie. I’d been gone for almost eight years, and by then Troy was out of college and getting married, and Alissa was a senior and getting close to it. The folks have never said a word, but I have to believe they’d gotten used to having the house empty and weren’t totally thrilled to have me back, especially with me moping around all the time about how I’d fucked things up.”

“Nothing was ever said that I heard, either,” he told her. “But there were times I could read between the lines.”

“Right,” she smiled. “So what I’m saying is I changed in that amount of time, and they changed, and it wasn’t all sweetness and light to have to put things back more or less the way they were. Some novelist once said ‘You can’t go home again,’ and he was right, you can’t, at least not to the way things were. Jason, you just have to face up to that and move ahead. There are plenty of good times to come, Jason. Maybe better than the past.”

“Oh, I understand that,” he said. “In fact I’ve known it for years, ever since he left for college. I’ve even more or less come to accept it, it’s just that today it’s hitting me a little hard.”

“I don’t blame you,” she smiled. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with him taking off like this. It’s just that you’re down about it, and you need something to take your mind off of it.” She rolled sideways and brought her face close to his. “In fact, I can think of something that would do the job perfectly.”

“I could stand some snugglies,” he smiled at the young woman pressing her body up against his. “But don’t you think it’s a little early?”

“It’s never too early for snugglies,” she grinned.

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To be continued . . .

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