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

Pulling Even
Book Seven of the Dawnwalker Cycle
Wes Boyd
2004, 2009, 2011

Chapter 3

Tuesday, October 30, 2001

In the late spring or early fall when Nicole was teaching, Randy was often out the door well before she left for school – if nothing else, he could sometimes get a lot of work done while the office was quiet. This time of year, with the construction business heading into its annual northern winter slowdown, the need to go in early wasn't quite as imperative. He often got up as Nicole was getting around, and he headed out to the Spearfish Lake Cafe, out on Central near the state road, for a real breakfast, rather than just the toast and cereal that Nicole usually used to start her day.

The Spearfish Lake Cafe was little different from thousands of other breakfast-lunch type places around the country. There were stuffed animals and trophy heads on the knotty-pine wall, which was also dotted with calendars and sports schedules. Back in the back there was a big community table where a bunch of semi-regulars gathered to gossip and talk about items of mutual interest – often sports, but usually there were a good many other subjects that got talked about as well. It was still amazing to Randy how many construction projects were first broached over coffee, eggs, and sausage around the big table.

For instance, Josh Archer was more or less one of the regulars, if he wasn't out on a run behind a dog team or on the diesel engine of a train. A few years older than Randy, he was more or less operations manager of the local short-line railroad, and until a couple years before had been a regular competitor in the Iditarod, the annual thousand-mile dogsled race across Alaska. He and his wife Tiffany still raised and trained dogs, providing teams for Phil Wine, another local dogsled addict. A year or so before, a discussion across this table had led to Clark Construction building Josh and Tiffany a nice new house on their land a ways out of town, and a new steel dog barn not far away. Don's crew had done the house and Rod's built the barn – both had been good, solid projects for the company last summer, finished ahead of schedule and under budget, just the way Randy liked things.

This morning, Duane MacRae was with Josh. Duane had only been around a month or so; he was spending the winter working with Josh, learning how to manage and run dog teams. Duane was only a few years younger than Randy, but they led vastly different lives, and in the mood that Randy was still in from the day before, he seriously envied the younger man.

Randy knew Duane a little from college – Duane had been a freshman when Randy was a senior – but back then, Duane's life goal had been to be a ranger for the National Park Service. That had been modified a little over the years, for since Randy had left school, Duane had been a river guide for a rafting company in North Carolina, had hiked the Appalachian Trail, and now spent his summers as a raft guide on the Colorado River with Crystal. He was now picking up the skills for another outdoor adventure – the kind of thing Randy could only dream of. He'd gotten to know Duane a little better when they'd been together on half a Grand Canyon trip in the spring – the same trip where Josh and Tiffany had recruited him to be their dog handler for the winter.

Right at the moment, Duane represented what Randy felt his life could have been like if only he hadn't been sucked into working in the family business. It was hard to not resent him a little bit, but it came down to the fact that Duane had made his decisions, and they'd just led in a different direction. So, in spite of everything, Randy tried to be friendly, because the other side of that string of decisions was that Duane was a stranger in a town where he knew only a handful of people. There were some things, especially Grand Canyon things, where Randy and Nicole were probably the only people in town who knew what Duane was talking about.

"So, Duane," Randy said as he sat down at the table across from the raft guide turned musher, "I suppose you heard the news about Crystal and Preach?"

"Yeah, Karin called last night and told me," he replied. "She wanted to know if I felt like coming down to the wedding. Are you going?"

"Most likely, unless something comes up," Randy shrugged. "I've known Crystal a little too long to just blow it off. I've known Preach quite a while, too, if not quite as well."

"He's pretty cool," Duane agreed. "I've been watching Crystal and him off and on all summer, and I don't think the idea of them getting married surprises me much. It seems to me that they're hot for each other and want to do it straight, rather than just shack up like Scooter and Jim."

"Knowing Crystal as well as I do, it still sort of surprises me," Randy admitted. "I mean, Crystal marrying a minister? I mean, I know her well enough that it's the last thing I could have imagined. There was a time there that I wouldn't have been surprised to wind up marrying her, except for the fact that she's so independent that I doubted she'd ever get married at all. So, are you going to the wedding?"

"I'm sort of planning on it," Duane shrugged. "It depends on how the training is going."

"I don't have any problem with him taking off for a couple days," Josh shook his head. "But when this goddamn rain quits and we get some snow, we're going to have to get our asses seriously in gear."

"No snow in the forecast for at least a few days," Randy shook his head. "You're still training on wheels, right?"

"Shit, yes," Josh snorted. "Some of the Alaskan guys have been on runners for a month or more and we're still dicking around with wheels, and you can't train worth shit on wheels in all the mud we have out on the trails. I am so ready for some snow it's not funny."

"So, are you going to go to the wedding?"

"Don't know yet," Josh shook his head. "If I had to say, I'd say we're leaning a little against it. That's Thanksgiving weekend, and there's family stuff. Besides, Tiffany doesn't want to be away from the baby that long, and I can't say as I blame her. On the other hand, neither of us wants to go through the hassles of taking a new baby to a drunken raft guide party."

"Yeah, I can see there'd be some reasons against it," Randy nodded, "Although I'll admit that one hadn't crossed my mind."

"It's not that we don't want to go," Josh protested. "After all, Crystal is a friend, too. It's just that there are too many good reasons not to take the time for it, too."

Randy shook his head. He knew going to that wedding and end-of-season party was just going to rub his nose in the fact that he was a worker bee, not an adventurer, no matter how he dreamed otherwise. On the other hand, Crystal was a friend, at one time a very close friend and fiancee in sort of a way, so there really wasn't any logical reason to avoid making the trip – at least not one as good as Josh and Tiffany had. "Yeah," he replied sympathetically, "That baby stuff does put a crimp in the fun sometimes, I guess."

"I had no idea of how much it was going to affect things," Josh shook his head. "Not that I'd do it any different, mind you. Tiffany and I had to clear away a lot of crap in our lives to have the kid, so we want to make it worth the effort. There's a whole lot more to it than raising puppies, and it takes a lot longer. You'll find out what I'm talking about soon enough."

"I suppose," Randy sighed. He and Nicole had discussed having children, but mostly they'd decided to put it off for a while yet. It probably wasn't going to be that far off in the future, probably inside of five years. "So, Duane," he said to change the subject and lever his thoughts out of that channel, "If we all wind up going, maybe we ought to share out the ride to the airport and the cost of the car rental from Phoenix, or something."

"How about 'or something'?" he suggested. "It's a bit farther from Flag, but both the flights into and out of Vegas and the car rentals are cheaper than Phoenix, more than enough to make up the cost and time of the extra miles."

"I'll take a look at it when I can get on the 'net sometime," Randy promised. "I'm figuring an out Friday, back Sunday deal. I can't really lose that much time at the shop, and if there's snow Josh won't want to let you miss that much time with the dogs."

"Another quick in and out wedding," Duane sighed. "My dad got married a year ago last summer, and I had to do a quickie like that over a break. Al drove my Jeep down to the Diamond Creek takeout, and I went straight from there to Vegas, got on a plane and wound up in Chicago still wearing river shorts and sandals. Then I had to fly back the day after the wedding with the worst hangover I've ever had and a baby crying in the seat next to me. Let me tell you, babies and a hangover from single malt Scotch just don't mix."

Josh shook his head with a grin. "I've had one or two like that over the years, but never one quite that bad. It doesn't sound like something I'd want to do for the fun of it."

"Yeah, at least somehow I'd managed to get my clothes changed," Duane shook his head. "Jeez, can you imagine how apeshit airport security would go if I tried to get on a plane in a full-out great kilt, with a dagger in my belt and a couple throwing knives in my boots?"

"Kilt?" Josh shook his head again, this time with eyes wide in surprise. "You wore a kilt?"

"My dad is into Scottish cultural stuff," Duane shrugged. "So we had to go the whole nine yards."

"My God," Josh laughed. "Duane, I can't imagine you wearing a skirt."

"'Tis not a skirt," Duane said expansively in a feigned Scottish accent. "'Kilt' is wha' happens ta' da' hoon tha' calls it a skirt. Tha's th' reason for th' dagger an' th' throwin' knives." He dropped the accent and continued. "That makes me think. Did Karin tell you about the little prank she's got lined up?"

"No, we haven't talked to her," Randy said. "Just to Crystal."

"I probably ought to let her talk to you about it," Duane grinned. "But it sounds like good payback to me."

*   *   *

By the next morning, Nicole felt a little bit better about the situation. Just sitting around talking and cuddling with Randy the night before had cleared up a lot of his bad mood, but this wasn't the first time the issue had arisen. If nothing else had been worked out, it was clear that it wouldn't be the last unless she took some positive steps. She could tell that Randy was still depressed about the whole thing, although he wasn't obnoxious about it. It was clear that something had to be done and she was the one who was going to have to take the bull by the tail and look the situation in the face.

The quiet evening had given her some time to think, and she thought about it more over the course of the next day while teaching her classes. By the time she got home from school, she'd realized she was going to have to work on a few things while alone at home so Randy wouldn't find out about it.

Nicole had enjoyed Mosquito Valley, but it had been an irritant between Randy and her for years, so it would be well gone. The problem was she really needed one more year there to complete the program changes that she and Harmony had been working on for years, and there was no guarantee Harmony was going to be in shape to get them done. She was still getting herself put back together after a bad auto accident two years ago. On the other hand, she'd made her promise to Randy, and conceding Mosquito Valley right up front had been a good idea. That didn't necessarily mean she was a hundred percent out of it; she perhaps could get away for a few days of counselor training or something, if needed. As far as that went, if Randy really twisted her arm, she might let herself get talked into it, but he needed a good vacation without her as a show of faith before she'd be willing to set him up for it.

But, to be fair, she couldn't dump the summer camp director job on Harmony at the last minute without some warning, and perhaps given as much lead time as possible they might be able to come up with someone else. So, the first item on her list, when she got home the next day, was to make a call to southern Michigan. To her relief, Harmony took it well; her hips seemed to be healing, finally, and although she couldn't hike much, there was every indication that she'd at least be able to oversee things this year, although if Nicole could make it, she'd be welcome. That was good news; in fact, a huge relief. Nicole had been an emergency fill-in for two seasons, and didn't want to let it become a permanent thing in any case.

It was a fairly long phone call, because Harmony was a friend and there was some catching up to do, but once she was done chatting, Nicole set the phone down and thought for a moment. She wasn't above greasing the skids a little if she could, but she needed to do it in such a way that Randy wouldn't get upset at her for asking favors. Just be careful what you say, she thought as she dialed the 800 number for Canyon Tours.

She'd lost track of the schedules, but by now the season was winding down. Still, it was a little surprising to have Al pick up the phone. "So what's happening out in Flag?" she said after introducing herself.

"I guess you heard the news about Crystal and Preach," Al's voice smiled over the phone. "That's one for the books, ain't it?"

"Knowing Crystal, it does seem a little hard to believe," Nicole replied. "But then, Preach is a pretty nice guy."

"Yeah, I never quite figured I'd get me another husband-wife leader team out of them," he laughed. "You coming out for the wedding?"

"I think so," Nicole said. "I just wanted to get the time and location, and like that before I started getting tickets," she replied.

"Still kind of up in the air," Al said. "Sometime the afternoon or evening of the 24th. They were thinking maybe driving up to Lee's and doing it by the river, but if the weather is lousy, it'll be at my place. Then the reception and the wrap party are going down at the same time at my place. It's gonna be pretty informal, not like when you and Randy got married. At least they ain't gonna do it in no Methodist church. Looks like Preach's pastor friend is gonna fly in from Chattanooga to do the service."

"At least people won't be able to dump Everclear into the punch," Nicole said dryly. Her wedding had been at the Methodist Church in Spearfish Lake, which was supposed to be dry. However, some raft guides had decided to loosen things up a little with some potent grain alcohol. Which gave her a nasty idea she'd have to talk over with Randy . . . sauce for the goose, and all. "I hope Pastor Jordan knows about that."

"I'm going to try to keep it held down a little," Al said. "Some of the swampers and younger boatmen are under age, and there's that angle, too. That's not saying that half the crew may not head down to the Burro for the after party. Dunno what Crystal and Preach are going to do. Probably not head back out to the girls' house, what with Scooter and Jim there."

"That would be a little awkward," Nicole laughed. The "girls' house" was the house that Crystal and her mother, Karin, and Scooter had rented before Al and Karin got married. After the wedding, Crystal and Scooter were on different trips, so Nanci stayed with Crystal one weekend, Scooter stayed the next weekend, and the house stayed empty for the next two weeks. At least it gave everybody a place to stash their off-river stuff. Then, Crystal started going with Preach, and Scooter with Jim. Crystal and Preach were keeping it above board, Preach stayed with the parents of Kevin, another rafter on the crew, and Nanci's sort-of boyfriend. But, on the weekends Scooter was staying there, her boyfriend Jim was with her. They were not keeping it above board and didn't mind who knew.

"Yeah, for the wedding night, anyway," Al laughed. "I guess they're gonna try to share the house for a while. They was talking before this last trip that they'd both be there some of the time over the winter, but they're going to try to be gone separately quite a bit. I guess Nanci is going to stay with us, to give them some space."

"How's she doing, anyway?" Nicole asked.

"Pretty good," Al grinned. "She really is trying hard. Kevin is giving her a lot of time on the sticks. I don't know that I'd be ready to give her a raft first thing next spring, but maybe next summer in an emergency. Never thought I'd see that happen, either. She's gonna work in the office some this winter. Karin and I have been playing with the schedule a little, and we're thinking that maybe we can give everybody a week off over the summer sometime, if she and I lead a half trip or two."

"That'd be nice," Nicole agreed. "You do run your people a little hard."

"Have to," Al said. "But it looks like we're going to be OK on boatmen next summer, and we may find ourselves running a few trips a little light."

"Light?" Nicole frowned. "I thought the schedule was packed full."

"It was, except for the last two trips," Al said. "We had several cancellations, what with the economy and the 9/11 stuff. Just as well this time. We had a real light trip scheduled for yesterday, then we heard that Mary's grandmother died, so I sent Scooter and Jim down to Phantom to take over their trip. Crystal and Preach and Kevin should do. Three rafts is big enough for that one."

"I thought you had a waiting list," she said.

"Oh we probably will have come summer," he said. "Gonna have to work a little harder at drumming up business, do some outdoor shows and stuff, that's all. Oh, well, we'll make out, we always do. Might have to throw some discounts around, we'll have to see. It just means Crystal and Preach are going to have to work a little this winter. Don't guess it's gonna be an all-winter honeymoon like they thought. They had that boat rented for a month in the Bahamas, her and Scoot and Michelle. Now I guess she and Preach are going to take it two weeks, and then Scoot and Jim and Michelle the other two. Hey, wasn't Randy supposed to be with them some time?"

How interesting! Just about the perfect solution! "Yeah, he was," she said cautiously. "The first part of the month, but he and Crystal had a talk yesterday before she headed out on the river, and he said he wasn't going to horn in on their honeymoon."

"Yeah, I can understand that," Al nodded. "I guess that's pretty much what Scooter and Jim and Michelle said, too. I guess this all got cooked up out on the river last week. Hey, I wouldn't want to speak for Scooter and them directly, but do you think Randy might like to ride along, since he was supposed to be along anyway? I know it was a share-the-expenses thing."

"Could be," Nicole smiled. Yeah, this showed signs of working. "He was pretty bummed about not being able to make the last Canyon trip and then missing out on the sailing, too."

"Well, I could put a bug in Scooter's ear when she gets off the river," Al said. "It'd have to be their call, I guess. She'll be getting off a week from Thursday, so it'll be Friday before I could talk to her."

"Yeah, you might do that," Nicole replied. "Uh, Al, if they want to do it, have Scooter call him directly, and don't mention that you and I talked about it, OK?"

"Randy was a little bummed at the news, huh?"

"Not about Crystal and Preach," Nicole said. "But he wasn't happy about losing that trip. He's pretty upset about planning vacation trips, and then most of them blowing up in his face. I'd rather this looked a little more spur of the moment."

"I can do that," he said. "Maybe hold off till you and Randy get out here, anyway."

"Sure, that'd work. Thanks, Al."

"Uh, Nicole," Al said. "Karin wants to talk to you for a moment, but before I hand the phone over I might should warn you about one thing. Scooter and Michelle, and maybe Jim a little, are just a touch, well, I can't say peeved or anything, about the fact that Crystal turned straight arrow on them. From what I hear the three of them cut a pretty wide swath down there last winter. Let's just say I suspect the three of them are going to be trying to uphold the reputation of raft guides, maybe repair it a little."

"I heard a couple of those stories," she replied. "Randy's a big boy. He can take care of himself."

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