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 12

Friday, November 23, 2001

Randy had really come to dislike flying – maybe even hate it. Not that he feared it, because he didn't. But, if given the chance, he would really rather travel by almost any other mode of transportation, which included pack mule – not that he'd ever ridden a pack mule, but in his imagination it had to be better than being stuffed like a sardine into a can full of strangers. As far as he was concerned, getting a ticket was ungodly expensive and complicated, getting on a plane was a crapshoot at best, the airline treated coach class passengers like cattle on the way to slaughter, kept them in the dark about what was happening, and fed them shit if they fed them at all. It was a miracle if you left on time, and a greater miracle if you actually arrived at the destination on time – and a still greater miracle if your checked luggage arrived at the same place and time you did. Beyond that, the bastards had their hands out every time you turned around, expecting you to pay through the nose for the privilege of being treated that way. Randy had not been on a plane since the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, but the horror stories he'd heard on the news about the increased security and check-in waits made airline travel even less appealing.

Randy would have been thrilled to have been able to take the time to drive from Spearfish Lake to Flagstaff. There was much to see this time of year, or any time, and there was the feeling of actually going somewhere, rather than the disorientation at the speed of airline travel. However, given the time off allowed for this trip, there was no other option than to fly. Worse, he was going to have to fly other trips in the next few weeks, so the odds of something getting fucked up royally somewhere along the way approached near certainty.

Several days before, when decent snow had finally fallen around Spearfish Lake and looked like it might stay for a while, Duane had called while he and Phil were headed back with the dogs, to say he'd definitely be going to Crystal's wedding. He'd asked Randy to set up tickets and such for him, and Randy had agreed – it was no more work for three than for two. With that, Randy had called Josh to ask if he and Tiffany were going to go with them; Josh told him that he and Tiffany hadn't made their minds up yet and wouldn't be able to for a few days. However, the odds seemed against it, so Josh told Randy that if he and Tiffany did decide to go they'd make their own travel plans. As of breakfast on Wednesday morning, they'd still not made up their minds. It looked like they'd be staying home but kicking it around over Thanksgiving might change their minds.

In any case, Randy had already made the arrangements by then. Like anything else with the airlines, it was frustrating and incomprehensible. It turned out that Duane had been right – there was one hell of a great rate for flights to Las Vegas, but only from Chicago. Of course, flying to Chicago from Camden was a touch more expensive than flying from Chicago to Las Vegas, which made things look a lot less appealing. That set Randy to searching the hard way. It was especially frustrating as they didn't have broadband Internet at the Clark Construction office yet, so everything had to be done by dial-up, which was especially slow when dealing with the very slow airline search website. Finally, Randy just got to the point where he sent off his query, went back to work on the Blair gym materials or whatever it was he was working on, and a few minutes later checked in on the computer. If it had gone through the next of its interminable stages, he'd set up for the next stage and press on. At least it didn't take any of his attention.

After most of a day, Randy had worked it out. There were no direct flights from Camden to either Las Vegas or Phoenix, but there was a one-stop price with a plane change at Minneapolis-St. Paul to Phoenix that was a pretty decent price. Randy made a printout of that page and went back to searching. After several hours, that flight still was about the best deal, both in terms of price and time. But, since there was the plane change, which increased the odds of things going wrong, Randy decided to check on flying from Minneapolis rather than Camden. After all, it was about the same distance as Chicago and the traffic getting there was nowhere near as bad. The flight from MSP to Phoenix was considerably more expensive than the flight from Camden. Wondering what the hell that was all about, Randy went back to his printout from earlier, to discover that the Minneapolis-Phoenix leg was on the same airplane! Go figure . . .

Conceding that being stuck on a layover in Minneapolis-St. Paul was slightly less unappealing than on one in Chicago, Randy went ahead and booked that trip out of Camden, wishing he could just drive the damn trip and the whole airline industry would go straight to hell.

Thus it was that Randy and Nicole pulled up at the battered old mobile home beside the Run-8 Kennels dog barn at 3:45 AM, an hour that was early even for roosters and raft guides. Josh and Tiffany had lived in the mobile home for years, but when Don Bailey's crew built their new house the year before, they'd moved the mobile home to near the dog barn to serve as a combination office and quarters for a dog handler. Duane had said at the breakfast table that it seemed pretty luxurious, considering he spent most of his year living in a sleeping bag under the stars.

In spite of being a raft guide, Duane wasn't really awake when Randy and Nicole arrived, but then, neither were they. Duane got into the back seat of Nicole's Chrysler, carrying only a small barrel bag. "No checked luggage, right?" Randy said.

"Oh shit, no," Duane yawned. "No way, I know better. Besides, I didn't have clothes for the wedding either here or in Flag, so I had Dad UPS them to Canyon Tours."

"Right, we used UPS, too," Randy said. "It's more expensive, but you're sure it's going to get there. I didn't want the airline losing something. You remember Myleigh, don't you?"

"Yeah, sure," he yawned again. "She was on that trip last spring. She's something else, isn't she?"

"Yeah, she is," Randy said. "Last year the airlines did a number on her favorite harp that you wouldn't believe. She'd have lost it for sure if Trey hadn't driven to Montgomery, Alabama from Kansas City and found it for her. I think that has something to do with why they're getting married." There was more to it than that, and Randy didn't know the whole story, but that was the gist of it.

"Fucking airlines," Duane snorted. "I'm going to UPS the stuff right back to Dad when I'm done with it. It's carry-on for me anymore if I have to fly at all."

"I knew you were a man after my own tastes," Randy said. "How about if we stop at the Short Stop out on the highway and tank up on coffee before we get moving?"

"Works for me," Duane agreed, and yawned again. "We started night training this week, and there have been nights that I haven't even gotten to bed at this hour. My internal clock is screwed up royally, and I'm afraid I may have to cork off on you now and then."

"No big deal, so long as I stay awake as far as Camden," Randy said. "At least Nicole and I got a decent night's sleep. We went to bed pretty early."

"I may fall asleep on you too," Nicole added. "I'm still a little wasted from yesterday." What she left unsaid was she had a moderate hangover, since she'd switched to screwdrivers once the wine ran out. "Did you have a good Thanksgiving, Duane? I didn't think about it but we could have had you over."

"Oh, no problem," Duane said. "Josh and Tiffany invited me over to her parents, and Phil and Brandy invited me over to Jennifer's. The timing was such that I could do them both. Boy, Blake sure puts on a heck of a feed, doesn't he?"

"We've never been there for a holiday," Randy said. "But we have other times when he gets carried away. That guy can cook, can't he?"

"I just stood back and watched. I honestly think raft guides could learn about efficiency from him. He makes it all look so damn easy."

Nicole groaned inwardly, and it wasn't from the hangover. After her day from hell just yesterday . . . Blake may have been in a class of his own as a cook, but this news was almost too much to take.

They stopped at the cluster of highway stores at the Central Avenue crossing, loaded up on coffee, and Randy continued south toward Camden, sipping at his coffee as he went. Soon, he heard snoring from the back seat, and then Nicole joined in. He finished his coffee while they were well short of the airport, and since Nicole wasn't using hers he swiped it and polished it off despite the cream and sugar. It was enough to get him to the airport.

The check-in was about as bad as Randy had expected. Since the tickets had been bought and paid for, getting the boarding passes was the work of an instant, which was about the only thing that went quickly. The Camden Airport was still getting used to the new security procedures, and getting through them was slow, in spite of the early morning hour. They still had quite a bit of time to kill, and decided to spend some of it getting breakfast. That may have been a mistake; it cost Randy about three times what it would have cost him at the Spearfish Lake Cafe, for a meal that was neither a third the size nor a third the quality. It was to be expected from the airlines; they knew that when they had you over a barrel they could really stick it to you, and they did.

For whatever reason, the flight to Minneapolis-St. Paul left on time and got there on time; it was quick enough that Nicole and Duane barely got to sleep before they woke up; Randy only got about a chapter read of the W.E.B. Griffin book he'd brought along to kill time. They hustled on over to check in for the flight to Phoenix; now they had time to kill again. Somehow, both Nicole and Duane managed to fall asleep sitting up in the hard, uncomfortable seats in the terminal. With that for inspiration Randy was tempted to join them but didn't want to risk missing the flight, so he managed to work through several more chapters of the book before they were finally called for boarding.

Since it was pretty clear that Duane was going to be sleeping most of the way to Phoenix – for which Randy couldn't blame him – and Nicole seemed likely to do it too, Randy wound up in the window seat. For whatever reason that was never made clear, they sat on the ramp for a long time, and were a half hour or so behind schedule before they finally got under way. At least, if they were late on this leg it would be tolerable.

One of the few things Randy could say that he liked about flying was looking out the window. Although the wing blocked his view to some extent, he enjoyed looking out this time, too. It was daylight, now, and once they got a ways away from the airport it was clear underneath them. They flew right over the high country west of Denver, Randy guessed; things were pretty covered with snow but it was still interesting to look down and see the landscape. At one point he could pick out I-70, where he'd been once, on his way back from his first Canyon trip a few years before. The scenery had been spectacular, and the fall foliage had been just coming on, which added to the sights. He'd made a mental note to spend some more time in the high country, preferably with Nicole, but the chance had never come up. Maybe someday . . .

The half-hour-late start meant they were about half an hour late arriving in Phoenix, but it was still early in the day. Picking up the pre-arranged rental car was more messing around than Randy had hoped for, but soon they were heading north up I-17 toward Flagstaff. Randy and Nicole had never been this way before, and it turned out that Duane hadn't, either; but the high country and the scenery surrounding them rather surprised them in spite of everything. It was shortly after noon when they checked into the motel out at the interchange that Randy had reserved, then headed over to the Canyon Tours office. At least this time, Randy could find the way; he'd been there before.

They headed inside to find Dan sitting behind the desk. Randy had run with him on his first trip a couple years before, and Nicole had reported when she returned from her raft trip the previous summer that he'd had to be helicoptered out of the Canyon after collapsing with a brain tumor. Duane knew a lot more about it than Randy did, and was the first to speak: "Dan, how are you doing? I haven't heard much of anything since I left for the winter."

"I'm pretty well recovered," Dan said. "But I don't think they're going to let me run again. At least it looks that way. Al and Karin are training me to run the office, but it looks like my river days are about over."

"Shit, that's a bummer," Duane said. "But I'll bet Michelle is happy that she doesn't get stuck in the office."

"Oh, I'm sure she is, but she's too kind to rub my nose in it," Dan shook his head. "Actually, it's not all that bad. At least, I'm getting paid through the winter, and since the doctors won't let me drink, I'm actually saving a little bit of money. Are you planning on being back in the spring?"

"First of April or so, maybe a little after, it sorta depends," Duane told him. "I'm pretty much going to be in Alaska in March, so that keeps me out until then. I take it Al is going to be short boatmen, as usual."

"As far as I know," Dan said, "Especially with me not able to help out. Al has hinted a couple times that there might be some changes in the wind, but as far as I know there's nothing solid at this point. I'm sure he's going to need everyone who can come back, though."

"Well, that's good to hear," Duane sighed.

"Yeah, there's always the river," Dan said. "Randy, Nicole, you're looking good. I guess I haven't seen either one of you since Al and Karin's wedding last spring."

"I missed you when I ran again in the late summer," Nicole told him. "You were in the hospital by then."

"Yeah, it was a while longer than I wanted to be," he sighed. "It would have been longer yet, if Jeff and his wife hadn't taken me in. I'm still living with them."

Randy remembered Jeff, the company's elderly bus driver and handyman, who'd been all but shanghaied into taking the second half of the wedding trip last spring. Al had more than once referred to him as the glue that really held the company together. "Taking you in was nice of them," Randy said.

"Yeah, I really needed it at the time," Dan said. "It almost feels like I have a home again. Anyway, Randy, I'm to tell you Scooter, Jim, Crystal, Preach, Dave, and Mary are all pretty much planning on hanging around the house today, so Scooter said to come on over when you get here and you can get the shit about your sailing trip ironed out before things get crazy. Michelle is around town somewhere. Do you know where the house is?"

"Here in Flag somewhere is all I know," Randy replied.

"Why don't I run you over there?" Duane said. "Then I can take the rental car and do some odds and ends."

"That ought to work," Randy said, then asked, "Dan, did UPS leave any packages here for us?"

"Two for you guys, one for Duane," Dan reported. "They all came in during the week. One of those you guys sent weighs a ton; it must have cost you a bunch to ship."

"Yeah, but it ought to be worth it," Randy replied with a smile. "Duane, we might as well get them in the car while we're thinking about it."

*   *   *

It was actually a bit on the boring side today, Scooter thought, hoping that Randy and Nicole would show up soon. She was actually a little bit nervous, knowing what was to come and not daring to talk about it. Tomorrow would be a big step and it would change a lot of things.

The house was on the crowded side right now, what with Dave and Mary staying there, along with Crystal, Jim and herself. Preach was usually there during the day, although he'd been spending the nights at Kevin's house. It had been rare that the house had been this crowded, but these were people who had been used to living in each others' pockets, and everybody got along.

To most people, Scooter appeared rather butch. She had a figure that sort of resembled a fire plug – a fire plug that smoked cigars, although not as many as the legends about her claimed. Actually, they were cigarillos, the junior version, and she might go through half a dozen in a two-and-a-half-week trip, although it had become traditional for her to have one going when she met new customers up at the put-in at Lee's Ferry. It sort of started things off the right way, she felt. Scooter was loud and coarse, tough but highly competent, and once you became a friend, you were a friend for life.

There was some lackadaisical packing going on since tonight was the last night Crystal would be staying here for a while. Assuming the hangovers from tomorrow night weren't too bad, Scooter and Jim would be taking off on Sunday, along with Dave and Mary. Dave and Mary usually wintered in a rented house at a small Mexican seaside town along the Sea of Cortez. Since they didn't have a car, they usually took a bus down there, but this time Jim and Scooter were going to drive them down. They planned to stay a few days to do some surfing and hanging out – and see if maybe they might want to winter there in the future. This had only been worked out in the last few days, after they'd gotten off the last trip of the season.

With the exception of the meeting with Randy – and Nicole – there really wasn't a lot else to be done in the house before the end-of-season wrap party and the wedding were held, and when many people hit the road. Scooter was getting anxious to get on with it, so it was a relief to see a rental car pull up outside and Randy, Marlin, and Icewater get out.

Scooter, Crystal, Nicole, and Duane all shared something special – they'd all done end-to-end hikes on the Appalachian Trail, although at different times – two years ago last summer for Duane, and nearly ten for Scooter. One of the traditions of the Appalachian Trail is that the "thru-hikers" often take "trail names." Scooter had stuck with hers, and by now most people had forgotten or didn't even know that her real name – which she hated – was Rhonda. With that in mind, she called her fellow thru-hikers by their trail names as often as not. Crystal's was "Diamond;" Scooter had started the walk with her the year Diamond did the trail, but her bad knees had forced her to drop out, not for the first time. Nicole's trail name was "Marlin," which also served as a camp name at the Girl Scout Camp she'd worked at for several summers. Duane's was "Icewater," derived from his surfing on Lake Superior, which Crystal and Randy had also done years earlier. Duane often used his trail name on the river, but somehow Diamond had never stuck as Crystal's raft guide persona, but being named for one of the bigger rapids on the river made up for it.

Randy, Marlin, and Icewater didn't even make it to the front door before Scooter had it open. "God, it's good to see you guys!" she said expansively. "You're all looking good. Come on in; we'll get this show on the road."

As soon as Randy was inside, Crystal had him in a big hug, in spite of Preach and Marlin standing right there. She gave him a kiss on the lips and said, "God, Randy, I'm so sorry I screwed up. I guess I was just so excited about everything, and then the news about Myleigh, that I didn't get everything across to you right. You're not pissed at me, are you?"

"No Crystal," he said soothingly, with his arms around her. "I could never be pissed with you. I will admit to being pissed at the world in general for a while until Scooter called and set me straight."

"Yeah, well, it had to be done," Scooter said with a smile, trying to not reveal that there had been a couple of rather heated sessions after Crystal and Preach had come off the river a week after she'd called Randy. "I'll call Michelle; she's on her cell somewhere, and get her over here so we can get down to business."

It took Scooter a few minutes to get hold of Michelle, who said she'd be over in a little while. The house was really tiny and there were people sitting on the floor for the next while. Randy and Nicole took most of the time talking with Dave and Mary, getting to know them a little. Well, mostly talking with Mary, anyway – Dave had a bad stutter and usually wasn't very talkative, while Mary more than made up for it. She was about Randy's height, which is to say not very tall, but had long red hair in a braid that fell well below her waist. She also had a face that was a minefield of acne, and big, goofy-looking glasses. Their crew always seemed to float along on a cloud of good karma, although Mary had a temper and could use it if she needed to.

Before long, Michelle showed up. Randy didn't know her well – he'd only met her a couple times, and then briefly, but the legends he'd heard told about her were a lot larger than she was. She was in fact a relatively small girl, again about Randy's size but with a toothpick teenybopper's body that somehow made him think of a rather cute blonde Meagan with longer hair. She was chewing bubble gum and somehow always seemed like she should have been wearing her junior high cheerleaders outfit. The appearance belied the reality, though. Randy had been told, but could hardly believe, that she was older than he was, the senior Canyon Tours boatman other than Al himself. She was supposed to be strong as a mule, able to drink three boatmen under the table at a time, and knew almost every dirty song ever written, among other legendary attributes. The boatmen who knew her swore it was all true, and Randy had seen just enough of her talents to realize there was at least a kernel of fact to the legends.

"Hi, Randy, Nicole," she said as she found a spot on the floor. "Sorry I'm late, but I was like washing my hair. Got to look good for the wedding, you know."

"You'd look good any time," Randy replied as a compliment.

"I keep telling you guys," Crystal snorted, "That this isn't going to be anything special. Just a bunch of raft guides up at Lee's."

"Yeah," Michelle protested, "But my hair was like looking pretty shitty, anyway."

"Your hair on your worst day never looks as bad as mine on my best," Scooter said pointedly. "But no big deal. Randy, I almost hate to tell you this, but the last few days we've worked out most of the details on the sailing trip, but we at least need to bring you up to speed and see if there's anything you can't handle."

"I figured that would happen," Randy said. "I told you to just go ahead and set it up." Randy knew – or at least had been told – that Scooter was far and away the best sailor of any of them. This was at least partly due to her spending a number of summers in junior high and high school working on her uncle's skipjack oyster boat on Chesapeake Bay. The stories he'd heard from Crystal said that Scooter was a better sailor than many they met in the Bahamas, and right from the beginning Crystal and Michelle had considered Scooter to be the skipper of their little bunch.

"Well, the last time I talked to you, we didn't know what boat we were taking, who was going, when, or anything like that," Scooter explained. "We've pretty well got everything worked out, now. We, that means the bunch of us, have the Felicity Ann booked for Sunday, January 20 through Saturday, February 16. Al has Crystal and Preach scheduled to do a big outdoor show January 20 through the following Saturday, so the six of us will have the boat from the 20th through around February 2, while Preach and Crystal get it the rest of the time. We may have a day or two of overlap around that weekend, since we haven't quite worked out the changeover. If it means the whole crew is there for a night or two, no big deal. The Felicity Ann supposedly sleeps eight, and it might have to for a night or two. We've found in the past that it's plenty big for the three of us, and with two couples going this time it should still be big enough if we cut each other a little slack. We thought about chartering the Norah Sue, which is quite a bit bigger, a 42-footer, but it's a little big for just Crystal and Preach and would be more expensive for all of us. Besides, the three of us who have been on her before, know the Felicity Ann, and she's a damn good boat. Still with us so far?"

"Yeah," he replied. "Those dates actually work pretty good for me. You're saying fly down on the 19th and back on the third?"

"Something like that," Scooter replied. "Dave, Mary, Jim, maybe Michelle and I plan to fly in the 18th. We've found it works better to stock up on food and stuff right there, even if it's a little more expensive. We don't need a lot of food, anyway, since we'll probably be eating out a good chunk of the time. That means we can hit the water as soon as you and maybe Michelle get there. Like I said, the hand-over to Crystal and Preach is a little loose, but we've got plenty of time to nail it down. Anyway, bring what you need, but don't bring too much. It's usually pretty warm, so heavy on the shorts and swimsuits and sun block. Bring at least a little warm stuff; it occasionally gets chilly at night. Don't even think about bringing a surfboard, they're a bitch to handle on a boat that size. There's not a lot of surf, and if we want to try it someplace we'll just have to deal with rentals. Bring snorkeling gear if you've got it; there's places the water is just unbelievable."

It turned out that most of the details had already been worked out – of course, it helped that Scooter, Crystal, and Michelle had done the same trip the last two years, last year in the same boat. Scooter asked him for a check for his share of the boat rental, which was smaller than he had expected considering the earlier plan, mostly because Crystal and Preach were sharing a larger part of the charge for their two weeks, and Dave and Mary would be along. Randy would be responsible for his flights down and back, and would be asked to chip in for food on the boat as needed, plus other odds and ends.

"Well," he said as Scooter wound it up, "That was simpler than I thought it would be."

"Yeah, it was," Scooter said. "We didn't really need you out here for working this out. We could have done it all on the phone easy enough, but since you're here, we figured we might as well. Now, I don't know if you have plans for the rest of the day, but we figured we'd go out for dinner in a couple hours, then go hang around the Burro in case there's some people from other companies who want to stop by. After that, we'll come back here, shoot the shit a while, and hang it up early, since tomorrow is going to be a long day. You're welcome to join us for all of it, part of it, or none of it."

"We'll see," Randy shrugged. "Me, I'd just as soon hang out with you guys, but I don't know about Nicole. Duane has gone somewhere with the car, and I don't know what time he'll be back."

"Well, you're welcome however it works," Scooter said. "I guess that wraps up the business part of this meeting."

"Not quite," Michelle said, standing up and looking straight at Nicole. "There's something I need to tell you Nicole, and I want to tell you in front of everyone. We're going to be on that boat for two weeks. Dave and Mary are a couple, Scooter and Jim are a couple, and people are going to be pushing Randy and me together. Now, I like my fun, I like to be outrageous, and I especially like to get people going, and I'm sure there will be some of that. But Nicole, Randy is yours. I like to fuck around, but I don't fuck married guys, at least if I know they're married. I want you to be able to call up anyone who's been on this trip and be able to have them tell you that while Randy and I may have screwed around some, we didn't screw each other, and that's that. I can keep my panties on if I have to. Is that OK with you, Nicole? Because if it isn't, I can still pull out of this trip, no matter how much I want to go."

"I really wasn't worried about Randy," Nicole smiled. "In fact, when we were talking a year ago about him going with you last year, I wasn't worried about it then, either. You guys just go ahead and party like you were raft guides."

"We are raft guides," Michelle smirked. "Even Randy, though we can't get him to admit it. We have a reputation to maintain."

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To be continued . . .

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