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 25

Thursday, December 27, 2001

Going through Chicago once was enough for Duane and Michelle, so even before they got to Bradford they had decided to take the longer, if more scenic route back to Spearfish Lake by going through northern Michigan and crossing the Straits of Mackinac. They'd stayed up late on Christmas night telling stories and having fun with Duane's friends and relatives. They told a lot of river stories, embellished enough to where some of them were even believed. It went late enough that they slept in on the day after Christmas to recover. What with other delays, it was after noon before they got on the road.

With that late a start, it was clear that they were not going to be back in Spearfish Lake until the wee small hours. "The heck of it is," Duane commented somewhere along the way, "Josh will come pounding on our door about an hour after we get in and want to do a hundred miles behind dog teams."

That observation was enough to make them stop in Mackinaw City about the time it got dark. They got a motel room for the night, had a decent dinner, then went back to the room to spend some time enjoying each other.

That was enough to get their clocks back somewhere near to being on schedule, so they were up before sunrise, had breakfast, and were headed across the Mackinac Bridge as the sun rose. Once they were across the bridge, it was two-lane roads all the way to Spearfish Lake, and they faced several more hours in the car. They each had a couple of large cups of coffee and were settled in for the ride once they were a few miles west along the Lake Michigan shore. "Boy, that lake looks awful cold," Michelle said as they drove along a sandy beach that would have been appealing if the weather were quite a bit warmer. "I wonder if people surf that?"

"Oh, yeah," Duane replied. "I've even surfed it. The surf usually isn't much since the wind usually isn't right to get it going good. It was a little warmer when I tried it, though."

They rode along silently for a mile or more before Michelle spoke up. "Duane," she said so quietly that he could hardly hear her over the road noise, "Would you like it if I were to skip going to Florida with the gang, and stayed here with you?"

"I'd love to have you," he replied immediately. All through the trip to Bradford, he'd been thinking that his time with Michelle was coming to an end, and he didn't want it to. He liked Michelle and they got along really well together, but given her flighty reputation, the possibility of anything working out in the long term seemed remote indeed. Against his better judgment, but with his curiosity aroused, after a moment he added, "What brought this on?"

"Oh, lots of things," Michelle told him, a little less tentatively. "I still want to do the Bahamas trip since I've already got money tied up in it. But I think I've been helping you out with the dogs quite a bit, and I've really been enjoying it."

"You've been a big help," he said, realizing instinctively that there was more to her proposal than that. "We were way behind when you showed up, and we've gone a long way toward catching up."

"Your dad and Vicky are really neat people, you know," she said, obviously foundering around for what she wanted to say – something that was really pretty strange for her. "You know, I was wrong the other day when I said that I thought you were one of the straightest people on the river. Well, you're not, Duane, and I like that. I like it a lot."

"We all have our quirks," he smiled. "It's just that I inherited most of mine, and they wouldn't work on the river very well."

"Yeah, but still," she shook her head, still struggling to find what she wanted to say. She started a couple times to say something, then stopped and started over again. Finally, she managed to say, "Duane, you remember when I was talking about being a little submissive the other night?"

"Yeah, I remember," he laughed. "I told you that you were about as submissive as Godzilla."

"I know," she sighed and went on, more sure of her ground now that the ice had been broken. "You know, I've thought about it a lot, and the more I do, the more I think I'm right. I mean, at least in some ways. Duane, you're a leader; there's no doubt about it, so maybe you don't see it. I could have been a trip leader years ago, but I don't want to be one. I'm not a leader, Duane, and I don't want to be."

"I don't know why not," he shrugged from behind the steering wheel. "You're as skilled as anyone on the river, probably more skilled in most areas."

"Not that one," she said. "I'm perfectly willing to do pretty much what I'm told to do, and within the limits they set. But I have to have someone set those limits for me. That just doesn't strike me as being a very good leader. I'm not sure it would be a good idea for me to be responsible for people if I didn't have someone set those limits for me."

Duane shook his head. "I thought a big part of your not wanting to be a trip leader was that you look so young that people won't take you seriously."

"That's not a reason, it's an excuse," she said flatly. "Yeah, I look like I'm fifteen years old mostly because I dress and act like I'm fifteen years old. Hell, thirty isn't that far off, and I don't think I want to be a thirty year old fifteen year old. It wouldn't take me much to look my age if I wanted to, but I don't want to because Al is going to start getting trip-leader ideas again. I think I'm safe for a while since he's got three solid leader teams, but sooner or later, he's going to come to me again and it's going to be harder to turn him down. I just want to be a boatman."

"Peter Principle."


"The theory that people rise to their level of incompetence. You recognize that there's a level at which you think you're incompetent, and are trying to avoid it."

"Yeah, that's it in a nutshell."

"I think the Wild Woman of the Grand Canyon is a little scared," he said solemnly, suppressing a giggle.

"No, I'm just recognizing my limitations," she replied.

There was something there that didn't make sense. "I guess I'm missing something," he frowned. "What does all this have to do with not going on the surfing trip and staying with me?"

"Oh, get real, Duane," she smirked. "I want to stay with you because I'd be staying with you. Like I said, I think I'm just a little bit submissive and I need a leader, and not just on the river. Maybe watching Crystal and Preach then Scooter and Jim have something to do with my thinking, too. Hell, to get right down to it, you're the best candidate I know of. You're good on the river, and it seems like you want to stay with it for a while. We work well together. I really like what we do for each other in bed. I know I tend to intimidate a lot of guys because of my reputation, but it doesn't seem to affect you too badly. I think we like each other a lot, and I like where you're coming from now that I've seen it. There's no guarantee we're going to be running together next season, so if we're going to work on this, we need to do it while we can. Dumping the surfing trip gives us another few weeks to work on it. Depending on when you guys think you're going to go to Alaska, maybe I can come back here for a few days after the Bahamas trip."

Duane had been feeling increasingly surrealistic all through this conversation. Yes, he'd been having a terrific time with Michelle, and he'd been sad thinking it was coming to an end all too soon. But now, she seemed to be thinking farther ahead than he had been – after all, setting up something permanently with her seemed like it was something out of a dream, and he'd never taken the dream seriously. While he'd really like to continue enjoying her company in the short term, this was Michelle, after all, and the long term needed some serious reflection. It was clear that this wasn't the time to do it; maybe out on a dogsled in the next few days would be better. To shift the subject just slightly and cover up his thoughts, he asked, "What about when I head for Alaska?"

"I guess I head back to Flag," she shrugged. "I'll help with the rigging, and we'll just have to see what happens when it happens. Maybe I'll spend my spare time working on Al to rig it around so we can run together this summer. Oh, and I probably ought to stop off and see my grandparents for a few days. It's been a while. They're all in New Mexico."

"New Mexico?"

"Yeah, Roswell. It's not a bad town, but I like Flagstaff better."

"Well, I sure don't have any objections if you want to hang out with me for a while longer," he replied. "Michelle, you're a lot of fun and we get along together. Just don't expect me to make any long-term commitments today, and if you had any idea about pulling a Scooter and Jim job at Myleigh and Trey's wedding you can get it out of your head right now. I learned from Chica, the girl I lived with for a while, that it's not wise for me to rush into things like that."

"I don't think I'm ready for that kind of commitment either," she replied thoughtfully. "Like I said, maybe the thought of Crystal and Preach and Scooter and Jim is pushing me a little. I think I'm having a little trouble getting my head around what that means for me, but right now this seems like we ought to try it out a little more."

*   *   *

The overnight stop in Mackinaw City meant that they pulled into Spearfish Lake not long after noon. "Well, back at it," Duane sighed. "Our lives now go to the dogs. I guess we better get our stuff inside and then track down Josh or Tiffany or Phil and see if we have to take teams out."

"Face it," she smiled, "We needed a few days off, and that was a lot more fun than I thought it was going to be."

Being outdoor people and raft guides, they hadn't taken much stuff with them, and an armload apiece was all they had to haul into the trailer. They dropped it off in the bedroom, and Duane went out to the phone in the kitchen to call Josh or someone to see what they needed to do about working dogs. Before he got to the phone, he found a note on the kitchen table: If you guys get back at a halfway reasonable hour, call Al at Randy's. – Josh

Wondering what it was about, Duane picked up the phone and called Randy's house – he'd learned the number by now. Nicole answered the phone. "I thought you guys were going to be back late last night," she said.

"Originally we were, but we got sidetracked a little," Duane replied.

"Well, come on over to dinner tonight, about six, and you can tell us all about it."

"I can't promise; we could be out behind dog teams somewhere. But we'll be there if we can. Anyway, Josh left a note that Al wanted me to call."

Soon he was talking to his real boss. "So, how was your trip?" Al asked.

"Pretty good," Duane said. "Got a little crazy at times, but with my dad and Michelle in the same room I sort of expected that."

"Not knowing your father, that could mean almost anything," Al chuckled. "Hey, if you two aren't heading out to run some dogs, Karin and I would like to buy you a cup of coffee or something. The last time I was here, Randy's dad took me out to a place called the Spearfish Lake Cafe. You know it?"

"Yeah, I have breakfast there every now and then."

"If it's not going to screw up your day too much, maybe a half hour all right?"

"I don't see why it wouldn't be," Duane told him. "See you in a few."

As he hung up the phone, Michelle came into the kitchen. "Al wants to meet us at the Spearfish Lake Cafe in half an hour," he told her. "I wonder what that's all about?"

"It might not be anything," she shrugged. "He probably just wants to see how we're getting along."

"If that's all he wanted to know, he's find out at Randy and Nicole's this evening," Duane shook his head. "I suspect this is something else, but I can't imagine what it could be."

She looked a little confused. Spending a lot of time in the Canyon Tours office whether she wanted to or not, she knew more about what was going on in the company than the average boatman. "Beats me," she said. "I know Al was planning some changes for next summer, but I don't think it was anything too radical. Guess there's nothing to do but find out."

It took nowhere near a half hour to get to the Spearfish Lake Cafe, which was quiet at that hour of the afternoon. The cook and the waitresses were sitting around a table in the nonsmoking section smoking cigarettes and gossiping. Duane and Michelle had no more than sat down when Al and Karin walked in, well ahead of schedule themselves.

"Well, you kids look all right, except maybe for being a little pale from all that winter clothing," Al grinned. "How have you been getting along?"

"Just fine, Al," Michelle said. "This dogsledding stuff is kind of fun. I've really been having a ball, even if it's not the Canyon."

"Just tell me that you're not so hooked on it that you're not going to be back in the spring," Al smiled.

"No, when it's spring there's no snow, and it's hard to run a dog team without the white stuff," Duane wisecracked. "I'm looking forward to going to Alaska, but unless something goes way wrong I'll be back in Flag in plenty of time for the season opener."

"Good to hear that," Al smiled. "You know every year, we wrap up the fall and I think I'm in pretty good shape for boatmen for the next year, but when spring rolls around, everything is always all screwed up and I'm scratching to fill the seats."

"I thought you were more sure than usual," Michelle said, realizing that what Al said wasn't totally a wisecrack.

"Well, I was," Al said. "Then things changed on me again. Randy was saying the other night that he'd learned to not make plans too far ahead since you never know what's going to come along and screw them up. You would think I would have learned that by now. Nothing's set in concrete yet, but it looks like there are some big changes on the horizon that I didn't know were coming when you two were in Flag for the weddings."

"Oh, good grief," Michelle said. "Don't tell me that Dan quit and I'm going to be stuck in the office again."

"No, nothing like that," Al smiled. "Look, before we get into the details, I just want you to know that Crystal and Preach already know most of what I wanted to talk to you about, but Karin and I wanted to talk to you by yourselves. There are a couple different angles on it that I'd just as soon they didn't know I was thinking about just yet, OK?"

"One of those family things," Duane nodded. "I get it."

"Yeah, more or less," Al said. "The big thing is that I don't want them knowing I'm thinking about it and getting them off on a tangent while we're trying to work out some things. OK, just to say some things that we all know so that we're on the same page, you both know that we're restricted by our contract with the Park Service to thirty trips a year. To do thirty trips a year with three and sometimes two crews means that we have to run on into November, and it's been a while since we've come close to breaking even on a November trip. It's just too damn late in the year. But I'm not going to cut any of those trips since I'm worried that sooner or later the Park Service will take them away from us if we do."

"I knew about that," Michelle smiled. "I've heard you bitch about it for years. I thought you were going to try to rig the schedule around so we run three crews all year."

"That was the plan a month or so ago," Al said. "I had it pretty well worked out, too. Then, at Crystal's and Scooter's weddings, I got to talking with Marty Welker from GCR. Well, we kicked around a few ideas, but it wasn't a good time to talk. Besides, we'd had a few, anyway, and I don't think either of us were sure that it wasn't the booze talking. So, a few days later, we got together and talked some more. Michelle, I'm sure you know that GCR is mostly a motor-rig outfit, but they run six 12-day oar trips each year. What I get from Marty is that he's not very happy about the way the oar trips have gone the past couple years. Among other things, since they have to send boatmen out on those trips who are mainly motor-rig drivers, they're not all that good with oars. There have been, well, some incidents."

"I don't know that 'incidents' is the term I'd use," Michelle snorted. "I think I'd say 'fuck-ups,' at least from what I hear from boatman gossip."

"Yeah, that might be a better word," Al said. "Anyway, to make a long story short, Marty commented that he sure wished our people were running those trips rather than his."

"Don't tell me," Michelle said, "You bought up those six spots from GCR."

"Not quite," Al smiled. "Besides, all the details ain't worked out yet and there could be some changes. In fact, the whole deal still could fall through. The way it stands right now is that Marty's going to contract us to run those six trips. Depending on how it goes, we might eventually find ourselves either leasing or buying up those spots. The Park Service will have something to say about that, but they're not going to object to the way we have it set up right now."

"Good God, Al!" Michelle spouted. "Not only is that going to make the schedule a nightmare, it means you're going to need even more oarsmen. I don't know where you're going to get them."

"What do you think I've been wrestling with for the last month?" he snorted. "The schedule is going to be a nightmare, but Karin and I have been fiddling with it a lot. It helps that the new trips are twelve days instead of the eighteen we normally run, but we ran a fourteen-day trip last year and had plenty of time. Besides, GCR has run twelve-day oar trips for years. Anyway, we figure we can do it with four crews and still keep the dates we have scheduled, both ours and GCR's. although it's going to mean that there will be some times when we'll be launching two trips on successive days. It's going to mean when a crew gets off the river, they'll sometimes have to do an overnight burnaround because they need to be rigging up at Lee's the next day, like when Scooter came off that first trip last spring. On the other hand, it's going to mean that each crew will also get a couple longer breaks over the course of the summer, so what goes around comes around."

"Yeah, but what about crews?" Michelle protested. "Al, that's going to mean twenty full-season boatmen, and the summer college kids aren't going to be able to run the extra trips."

"Oh, yeah, it's complicated," Al nodded. "All the ducks ain't in a row yet, but they show signs of getting there. We're going to get at least a couple people from GCR as a start, but that ain't all worked out yet, either. The real problem is trip leadership. I hate like hell to break up a married couple to run separate trips, and to be honest, while Preach is a hell of a rafter, he's still too new to the Canyon to lead this year. Besides, I don't even want to think about what Mary would say if I tried to break her and Dave up."

Oh, boy, Duane thought. Here it comes. He's going to hit on Michelle to be a trip leader again, and after that discussion we had earlier, she's going to turn him down. It was obvious as hell that he was setting her up to guilt trip her with the talk of breaking up married couples, and the fur was going to fly. Well, there was one other alternative: Al could lead the fourth trip himself, probably with Karin along as a rower on most trips.

"So anyway," Al continued, "With Dan not available either, that begs the question. Michelle, I'm pretty sure I know what your answer is going to be, but with your seniority I have to ask it: are you up for being the trip leader on the fourth team this summer?"

"Al, we've had this discussion several times before," Michelle told him. "All those reasons I've already given you as to why I don't want to do it are still valid."

"Actually, I pretty much agree with you, but I had to ask," Al said as Duane held his breath. Could it actually be? "So that begs the next question," Al smiled. "Are you up for being assistant trip leader if Duane is the leader? Duane has the kind of experience Crystal and Scooter had when they were made trip leaders, and he'd have your experience to back him up."

"Sure, Al," she smiled. "I could get along with that."

"So, Duane," Al grinned. "The question comes down to you."

Son of a bitch! He'd never expected this! He'd been pretty sure he was just going to be a boatman, and had pretty well made up his mind he'd turn down an assistant spot if it meant being between Crystal and Preach, which had been the only real option since Jim was already an assistant trip leader. Al had told him the summer before that he was pretty likely to be the next in line to be raised to trip leader, but he'd figured that with three solid husband-wife leader teams the chance was going to be a long time coming, if it ever did. "Sure, Al," he said, trying to keep himself from showing excitement. "I think it'd work out pretty well."

"Good," Al said. "You are now the leader of Team Four. The 'four' doesn't necessarily mean you're going to be the fourth to launch, because there are some other considerations. In fact, Karin and I were talking about changing the team names from numbers to colors, but that ain't neither here nor there. I don't know when your first launch will be, but it will be after you're back from Alaska. I don't know about crew yet, either, other than Michelle. That changes from day to day and probably will keep changing until you get the oars wet. For that matter, I don't know about rafts yet, either. We'll get to use the five oar boats from GCR; four of them are all right, but one of them is pretty ratty, and I hope we don't have to use it. They're a little smaller than ours, so I'm planning on sharing them out among the teams. Everything else is kind of up in the air, but there's time to work it all out."

"Whatever you decide, Al," Duane replied, a bit dazed by the news.

"Al, I've got a question," Michelle asked. "Is this just for one year, or what?"

"Good question, Michelle, and I don't know the answer. For the moment our arrangement with GCR is only for one year, and that's not totally settled yet, either. At this point, I'm hoping that Marty, the Park Service, and I will be able to work out something for future years, but there's no guarantee of that. If everything falls through, the two of you will be back to being boatmen, but just among us, I don't think you'll be just boatmen for long."

"Al?" Michelle asked.

"Just between us, it wouldn't surprise me if things get shaken up again in a year or two," Al said. "After all, I've got me three young husband-wife leader teams, so that's three chances that a baby or two could come into the picture. Now, as far as I know, no one is pregnant yet, but it could happen. At one time I didn't think it was likely to happen with Dave and Mary, but now I'm not quite so sure. Scooter and Jim, well, somehow in my mind the words 'Scooter' and 'mother' don't go well with each other. Crystal and Preach, though, I have a gut feeling that they have a family in mind. When that happens, I want to get her into the office, and maybe him, too. It doesn't have to be right away, but Karin and I would like to do some other things besides rafting in the next few years. I figure that in a few years, probably no more than five, I'm going to be sitting down to negotiate a deal for them to buy me out so Karin and I can retire."

Duane shook his head. "I can't imagine Crystal not being on the river."

"I can," Karin said. "Especially if there are one or more babies involved. Now, this isn't just a prospective grandmother talking, either. In spite of that tomboy exterior she's always presented, I think there's a mommy there, too."

"God," Michelle said, "That's really scary to think about."

"You know," Al drawled, "I knew your mother back before she started going with your dad, and she always swore up and down that she wasn't cut out to be a mother. Well, guess what?"

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