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 17

Wednesday, December 5, 2001

To say that Duane's head was swimming the next day would be to put it mildly. Though he was tired from getting less sleep than usual, ached in joints that hadn't ever had a workout quite like that, and could feel the scratches from her fingernails on his back, he was not dissatisfied with the way things had turned out. The wakeup call had put him a little behind schedule in getting the dogs fed and the morning chores done, but she was right out there with him working at it. They were raft guides, after all, and used to working together, although they had only been on the same crew occasionally.

Working together made things go quickly, and there was even time to head back into the trailer and throw together a breakfast that was better than his usual cereal and instant coffee. They were just finishing up when Candice showed up, then Phil, and not too surprisingly, Josh. Even though Josh had his job with the railroad, it was the slow season, and he still spent some time each day out at the dog barn. Unlike Candice and Phil, Josh knew Michelle a little from a trip the previous spring. Duane introduced her around, then as Candice, Phil, and he got sleds rigged and dogs hooked up for the first training run of the day, Josh helped Michelle hook up a team, then took off with her on a different training trail. When the other three were getting close to the dog barn on their way back three hours later, they were joined by Josh and Michelle – except this time Michelle was on the runners, and Josh riding in the sled basket.

"Another natural," he shook his head as a verdict when they got back to the dog barn and were breaking the four teams down. "Michelle, you're too green to go on training runs by yourself, but if you're with another musher or two, and someone else is on point, you should do all right. You ought to be able to pick up the nuances quickly. Let's go have a cup of coffee before I have to head back down to the railroad."

They all trooped into the trailer, and Duane set the coffeepot going. While it was perking, Josh explained about how the training was organized. "It's all different this year from the way we used to do it," he said. "In the old days, it was just Tiff and me doing most of the training, and we pretty well knew who needed what, without talking about it much. Now, since we can't keep as close a tab on it, we had to get more organized."

He went on to explain that every day Tiffany sat down with a computer and worked out a training plan – which dogs would go on which teams, how far, what kind of trail, and so forth. If a dog was having trouble, running slow, or whatever, that had to be reported back so that Tiffany could adjust the next day's training plan. "It seems a little programmed and it is," he said. "But between the dog barn cutting back the time spent on maintenance and having things better organized, we're getting in more and better training than we ever did before."

"We about have to do it this way," Phil agreed; he was a tall, lanky guy with thinning hair and a laid-back personality. He'd explained earlier that this was pretty relaxing for him – his former job had made him a ton of money as a world-traveling tech rep, but it had been very stressful and exhausting. "I agree it isn't as much fun as the old days, but it isn't the drudgery, either."

"Yeah, it used to take six man-hours to do a feeding," Josh agreed. "We can do it in one, now. The only part about that I don't like is that we don't get the interaction with the individual dogs we used to, and I haven't made up my mind yet whether that's good or bad. That's neither here nor there; we've argued about it before and will again. It probably won't get settled until we've had more experience with the results." He glanced at his watch and continued, "I really need to be getting back to the shop. Phil, the four of you will bring the run total today to eight, with two left. Why don't you and Candice do them today, so Tiff and I can have Duane and Michelle over to dinner?"

"Might as well," Phil said. "You two figure on having dinner with Brandy and me some time."

"Hope you like pizza," Candice smirked. "Neither he nor Brandy can boil water without burning it."

"Can't be good at everything," Phil laughed. "We do our part in keeping the restaurants in this town open all winter."

"I'll let Phil and Brandy run ahead of me," Candice said. "But you can figure on coming over to have dinner with John and the boys and me some time. Maybe that'll make up for Phil ordering pizza."

Thus it was that Duane was bringing up the rear of a line of four dog teams, Michelle right in front of him, as they ran down the railroad grade to the east on top of a layer of new snow that had fallen through the night. The run down the tracks was dull; Duane had done it several times now. It all seemed to be pretty much the same thing, but it was a good way to get raw, steady miles on the dogs, and would be an easy way for Michelle to solo on a sled for the first time.

As the miles rolled mindlessly by, his thoughts understandably wandered, mostly to the night before, and to the woman on the dogsled fifty yards ahead of him. Too much of that could kill a man, he thought, but what a way to go!

It hadn't been just a quick good-night roll in the hay; it had been intense from the moment he first penetrated her dripping hot wetness. It was as different from being with Chica as it could be. Where Chica had just sort of tolerated it, Michelle really liked her sex and was good at it. He didn't really have much experience with sex, just Chica and a few brief experiences in college, but Michelle brought things out in him that he never knew. The first time had gone on a long, long time with ever-increasing tension until he exploded deep into her body while she hung on to his back with her fingernails, screaming and thrashing in an intense orgasm of her own. That hadn't been the last time, either; they caught their breath, talked a little in quiet tones, then did it again, even better if such a thing were possible. Then a third . . . she'd woken him in the middle of the night for yet another . . . and still managed an intense quickie after the alarm went off.

All in all, it was still a total surprise to have Michelle show up at all, and then to wind up in bed with her with little warning. Or was the romantic aura of the evening before, the nice candlelight dinner a warning that he hadn't picked up on? Though this was a part of Michelle he'd never seen before, it really wasn't out of character for her. She had a reputation for liking her good times, and overdoing them, rather than just doing them. Her liking sex and being good at it was no surprise, when looked at from that viewpoint.

Over the past couple summers he'd heard stories, more from Scooter and Crystal than from Michelle, of some intense one-night stands at ski resorts or in the Bahamas when the three had gone sailing like they would in a couple months. However, she was thoroughly professional as a guide in the summer; she had never, as far as he knew, messed around with either crew or passengers while on trips. Her reputation didn't lead to that kind of wild, and she told him flat out the night before that this was the first sex she'd had since Hawaii the winter before. As far as that went, he played the game the same way, brushing off advances on occasion from customers; his last sex had been with Chica, almost two years before.

It seemed unlikely that her showing up like this really meant anything serious. It probably was pretty much like she'd said – she'd rather be spending time with a friend than alone, doing something rather than doing nothing. A couple different times she'd referred to him as a "fuck buddy" and that was probably exactly what was happening, not that he minded. It was a little surprising that she'd picked him; they were friends, yes, but not close personal friends, just crew members who had worked together and liked each other. It seemed likely that as soon as Myleigh's wedding was over with at the end of next month, she'd hop in her car and be gone; that would be the end of it.

That was probably just as well. Fun though she had proven to be in bed, and with a viewpoint and experiences that were a lot closer to his than any of the people he knew in Spearfish Lake, ever since Chica he hadn't really been looking for a relationship. That could change, probably would change in a few years, but he wanted to get in some adventure before he settled down. That is why he'd done the AT, become a raft guide, and why he was out behind this sled right now – if he stayed with it for a couple winters, there was a good chance that the offer would be made for him to take a junior varsity team on the Iditarod sometime. What a river tale that would make!

A relationship, a wife, could louse that up in a hurry, he knew well. He remembered Al telling him, "Spouses have cost me more good boatmen than booze ever could." Just last summer, an experienced rafter, an assistant trip leader, had left the company because his girlfriend just wouldn't put up with him being on trips eighteen days running, then off three days before the next trip for seven months out of the year. Jerry's leaving was indirectly responsible for him being an assistant trip leader himself toward the end of the season.

It wasn't always that way. Scooter had married another rafter, Jim; he'd replaced Duane on Team 3 toward the middle of the summer and become an assistant trip leader in the process. Preach had left a good job as a youth pastor at a large church in Tennessee to be on the river with Crystal; while yet to be named an assistant trip leader the last Duane had heard, Preach was clearly being groomed for it. The other set of trip leaders, Dave and Mary, had similarly been rafters before getting married, and made a third leadership team. While that didn't bode well for his own chances of being an assistant or a trip leader on a permanent basis any time soon, it didn't bother him a lot; he was perfectly happy to be a boatman and let it go at that.

For that matter, he knew Michelle herself had been tagged as an assistant for a season a couple years before. In terms of seniority she should have been a trip leader, but didn't want the job – and both she and Al agreed that her youthful appearance would make people not take her seriously as a trip leader anyway. She was perfectly happy to be a boatman and let someone else take the responsibility.

But that begged the question: did it mean anything as far as he and Michelle were concerned? Dave, Mary, Scooter, Jim, Crystal, and Preach had all confronted the question of having a relationship and being in the Canyon. All of them except Preach had been Canyon junkies for years before deciding to double up; Preach, an experienced rafter on other rivers, had come to the Canyon with Crystal as part of the deal so it added up to much the same thing. Duane had never thought too far down that road, but he could see Michelle as a possibility that lay down that way.

Being realistic, though, a possibility was about all that Michelle could be. She was such an intense, enigmatic person that he couldn't see how any kind of permanent relationship could be built with her. Perhaps that was just as well – like he'd thought earlier, too much of that could kill a man.

In the long run, he thought, what happened, happened, and at the moment there was no point in making plans beyond the end of the month. After that, she would probably say it's been fun, thank him for a good time, and head on out to other things, so it was probably best to not allow himself to get too hung up on the possibilities.

If he survived that long . . .

*   *   *

"Hey, dude," Justin said, altogether too loudly for this hour of the morning, "You wanna go do breakfast?"

Justin Blair had been Trey Hartwell's roommate for two and a half years, ever since Trey had come to Marienthal College right after getting out of the Army. In that time, they'd hung out together, eaten together, watched games on TV together and had been a lot of places together. For all of the time the two spent together Trey really didn't like Justin all that much, thought him immature, loud, and obnoxious, but kept his feelings to himself. If there was anything Trey had learned in the Army, it was that such discomforts didn't last, and Justin was easier to get along with than some of the people he'd known in the Army.

After years of living in a barracks when he wasn't living in more uncomfortable places, Trey was of the opinion that dorm life was not all that bad. A year before he had been satisfied with it under the circumstances, but then, a year before, Dr. Myleigh Harris had just been another professor, and a somewhat odd and demanding one at that.

But that was a year before. In that year, he and Myleigh had become first friends, and then very close friends. Because of the professor-student relationship and some reservations each had harbored about themselves, it had taken a while for them to admit that they'd fallen in love with each other, a conclusion everyone else who knew them at all well had reached long before.

In that year, he and Myleigh had spent first a little time together, then a lot. They'd done a lot of traveling together in that time, including two trips down the Grand Canyon. They'd slept beside each other a lot in that time, sometimes in sleeping bags or separate beds, and sometimes in the same bed, even though they'd both rather impulsively decided to forego consummating their love until it could be done in the vows of wedlock. It was something strange for both of them, but something that made it even more meaningful and important to them.

Even though Trey would be graduating in a few more weeks, and Myleigh would be leaving Marienthal in the spring, they had decided it was a good idea to keep their relationship at least appearing low-key, although they wouldn't deny it, either. That meant even though Trey occasionally spent the night at Myleigh's apartment, most of the time he stayed in the dorm room with Justin. As far as Trey was concerned, Justin was much inferior to Myleigh as a roommate. Justin's scratching, farting, swearing, and general obnoxiousness had become tolerable only because there was a definite end in sight. Dr. Harris, after all, represented something far superior as a roommate in so many ways it was almost impossible to enumerate them.

"No, no breakfast now," Trey replied from his relatively comfortable place under the covers, reflecting that he expected to be considerably more comfortable at that hour in but a little over three weeks. "I think I'll try to sleep a little more."

Trey knew that was a forlorn hope at best; Justin had made so much noise in the last few minutes that there was no hope of getting back to sleep anytime soon. But, Trey figured that, if he stayed in bed, he'd have an excuse to not have to go to breakfast with his roommate and endure endless sports talk interspersed with dirty jokes and foul language. He'd learned from his intended over the course of the past year that there were far more elegant ways than swearing to get your point across. When he'd first come to Marienthal, Trey's language had been typically Army-foul; now using the language that way seemed to him only a sign of an infantile intellect. Not that Myleigh didn't swear, because sometimes she did – but when she did, it really meant something.

It took Justin longer than Trey would have liked to get his act together and head for the dining hall. Trey lay in bed for a couple minutes on the odd chance that Justin might get halfway down the hall and decide that he'd forgotten something, then he threw the covers back and got up. In seconds he had the bed made up; it was an Army habit still with him even though he'd been out for years. He headed for the bathroom – the need had been getting serious – while considering what to do next. The one thing he didn't want to do was to head for the dining hall. Often in such situations the last couple months, he'd headed over to Myleigh's apartment whether she was there or not and thrown together something for breakfast, but he decided against it this morning for no good reason. He checked the clock: there was plenty of time for him to hit a diner off-campus where the food was likely to be better than the dining hall, and maybe afterward he could stop off at that travel agency across the street.

Trey had been putting off the visit to the travel agency longer than he should, he knew. It had taken a while to figure out how to approach Myleigh properly with Blake's offer to fund their honeymoon. Even though Blake and Jennifer were good friends and had a business relationship with them, both Trey and Myleigh had been a little touchy about the offer, which smacked a little too much of charity to suit them. Typically, they'd talked it back and forth for some time before agreeing that, if it was treated as the loan Blake had offered and they paid it back, it would be reasonable and proper. They had agreed, however, that working out the details was going to be Trey's responsibility, and that he'd surprise Myleigh at least a little bit. "My hero, I trust you will find something exotic and romantic for us to enjoy," she'd said.

Still trying to keep things on the cheap side, Trey had spent some time on the Internet looking for exotic and romantic. He gave some consideration to Paris. What could be more exotic and romantic? Then he'd had the good sense to check the average January temperature in Paris in and quickly decided that somewhere warmer would be in order.

The main problem was that Trey figured there was a limit to how far he could trust the Internet on such things. Some place with an exotic, overdone website might prove to be truly virtual, a bust on the ground; alternately, something plain and simple might well prove to be everything he wanted. What he really needed was to find someone who really knew about such places, had been there, rather than just able to read the brochures and websites – after all, Trey could do that for himself. The logical thing to do was to talk to a travel agent and see if he could find someone who might know more about such things than he could find out for himself.

In any case, it felt to Trey like it had all the favorable attributes of a plan. Go get some breakfast, check out the travel agent, go to class, then head over to Myleigh's apartment in time to make a light lunch for the both of them. If he wanted to avoid Justin – which he did – he could do it at Myleigh's while she went to class again.

It took a few minutes to get around. Once he was about ready to go, he grabbed a largish backpack, stuffed it with odds and ends, mostly summer-weight clothes, then topped it off with the textbooks he'd need for class or study. He'd been slowly moving out of the dorm room a backpack at a time for weeks now – his stuff in the dorm room, never a lot, had thinned out considerably, and as soon as the term ended he intended to be out of there with a minimum of hassle. This was not unlike Trey; he planned ahead for such things.

The diner he was heading to was a few blocks off campus, but due to the poor parking around Marienthal he decided to hike it rather than drive. Besides, he could use the exercise. It took perhaps twenty minutes to get there; he really wasn't looking at the time. In any case it wasn't a bad morning for a walk – a little cold, but this was December, after all, and it would be worse in Spearfish Lake.

Breakfast was good – he had a warm spot for little independently owned places like this one, places that offered a little more personality and better food than most. He managed to get a few minutes with the books before the travel agency opened at nine.

In a way, the travel agency was like the diner – not a chain, but a small independent place where Trey figured he'd get a little more personalized service. The owners proved to be a pair of women in their thirties, he would have guessed. Neither seemed to be very busy, but that was perhaps because they were just unlocking the doors and booting up computers as he got there. "Cold enough for you today?" one of the women asked as Trey walked up to the counter.

"Oh, it's not too bad," Trey smiled. "It's going to get worse before it gets better."

"I suppose you're right," the woman replied. "I see you're a student. Are you looking for a flight home?"

"Not exactly," Trey replied. Probably the backpack gave him away as a student. He didn't think he looked much like the normal college student. "I'm graduating at the end of the term, and getting married the end of the month. I'm looking for a place to take a honeymoon."

"Someplace cheap and romantic, I presume?"

"Romantic, for sure. We don't need a luxury resort, but I'm not squeezing every dime till Roosevelt screams."

The woman picked up a note pad. "I'm surprised you don't have your fiancee with you."

"She told me to set it up and surprise her. I think I know her pretty well, and she trusts me."

"Do you have any particulars in what you're looking for?"

"Warm and tropical, with a nice beach," Trey replied. He'd actually given the issue quite a bit of consideration. "The big thing is that I don't want some huge resort hotel in some crowded city with lots of distractions around. Some place small and cozy and personal would be real nice, a place where we can spend some quiet time and focus on each other. I'm not looking for luxurious, but I am looking for comfortable." He paused for a moment wondering how to say what he wanted to say, then added, "It would be nice, if it were a place not considered super family friendly, so we don't have all kinds of small children running around raising hell. My girl and I have had some busy times the last few months, and we're going to be facing more of them, so we just need a place where we can sit back and relax. Do you think you can help me?"

The woman frowned, then said, "I can probably find something, but not right off the top of my head. If you hadn't said no big resort hotel and like that, it would be easy. The Yucatan is quite popular this time of year, places like Cancun, Cozumel, and the Maya Riviera. There are some other alternatives, some a little more rustic, some a little farther away, but the Yucatan is nice. They know how to handle visitors there and appreciate them. We send a lot of people that way. The kind of small, quiet place you're talking about is going to be a little harder. I guess the first place I'd start looking would be the Maya Riviera; I know there are some places like that around there. Is there anything else you're looking for that would help narrow it down some more?"

"Some surf being available, either at the place or close, would be nice," Trey responded. "My girl and I are both recreational surfers. We're not particularly good at it, but we enjoy it. That's not a got to, though. Snorkeling or something would be nice, too, but again, not absolutely required."

"Well, at least if you're going to make it tough you're going to make it interesting for us," the woman laughed. "Frankly, we're going to have to do some research. If you can give us a little time we may be able to come up with a better answer for you."

"You're the experts," Trey smiled. "That's why I came to you; I don't know what I'm doing in the first place."

"I wish a lot more people felt like you do," the woman said. "A lot of people decide they're going to Cancun and just look on the Internet for the best hotel rates without considering some of the other aspects. We'll do our best for you. Could you drop by again later this afternoon or in the morning?"

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To be continued . . .

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