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Down By the Riverside
Book Nine of the Dawnwalker Cycle
Wes Boyd
©2015, ©2016

Notice: This story contains graphic themes of Christianity, faith, salvation, redemption, and religious experience.
If you object to such material, you have been warned.

Part I: On the River

Chapter 1
Saturday, May 11, 2002

I sure hope this works, Al Buck thought as he drove past the parking area and up toward the trailhead. It’s a risk, but there aren’t many alternatives, either.

He glanced over to the right of the pickup seat at the small, slender blonde girl, wearing jeans, a flannel shirt and a wide-brimmed hat. He could see her eyes were looking out the window, taking in the new scene. He didn’t know if she’d been at this exact place before, but it was likely that she hadn’t.

It was always a risk when he turned a new boatman loose on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon for the first time. As the owner of Canyon Tours, a medium-sized rafting company that ran trips down the Canyon, he’d had to do it often enough. How many times had he done it? He wasn’t sure, and wasn’t sure he could pull it out of the records the company kept even if he wanted to, which he didn’t feel like taking the time to do. No matter how many it was, there was always the fear that this was the kid who was going to screw up big time.

Oh, in thirty years of running the company he’d made a few mistakes with new boatmen, but with good luck and maybe a little help from above there had never been a tragic screw-up. There had been a few close ones, even bad times, but at least there had been no real catastrophes. But there was a first time for everything, and the best he could do was to hope that she wasn’t the boatman who would break that record.

Al’s unease wasn’t helped by the fact that this little blonde with the chin-length hair – his stepdaughter – was absolutely the greenest boatman he’d put on the river in many years, maybe ever. A few days over a year ago she’d been on a river in a raft exactly once, and not even on this river. She’d never spent a night in a sleeping bag, had never done a lot of things her older sister was highly accomplished at doing. His impression, backed by everyone who knew her, had been that she was trouble on two legs looking for a place to happen, and even she admitted it after the fact. Taking her down the Canyon on that trip a year ago had seemed like a desperation move at the time, and he’d done it mostly because no one could think of anything else to do.

From decades of experience Al knew that the Grand Canyon could change people. He’d seen the magic happen many times over those decades, but he’d never seen it happen anywhere near as strikingly as it had with her. On that trip she’d done everything she’d been asked to do, had done it all without complaining, and always seemed ready to learn something new about the strange situation she found herself in. It had been flabbergasting to those who knew her, and that was before an even bigger change came over her at the mouth of Havasu Creek. He hadn’t been there at the time, but he’d heard the stories and seen the results.

By the end of that trip he’d had no compunctions about asking her to stay on as a helper on the river trips – “swamper” was the term used on the river by dim and distant tradition. Since he was mostly back in the office topside, he hadn’t been watching her quite as carefully as he had on that first trip, but from all reports she’d done a superior job of it, helpful, hard-working, and cheerful. Kevin Haynes, one of the boatmen on the crew, had taken her in hand and started to teach her the tricks of running a raft, and she’d proved to be a natural. She hadn’t been strong enough to brute-force a raft, and had trouble on long flats where there was a lot of rowing, but in white water she soon developed the finesse that made up for her lack of strength. That improved a lot from the combination of good food, fresh air, and plenty of exercise.

Then in August the devil came to lunch. Dan Plemmons, one of the other boatmen on the crew, had a seizure they only learned later was caused by a brain tumor. Dan had to be taken out of the Canyon on a helicopter, leaving the crew short a boatman. The crew did the only thing they could do at the time: they redistributed a lot of the gear into Dan’s raft and put this green young girl on the oars with no passengers, on only her fifth trip down the river. A couple of times they had a boatman walk back up past a major rapids to ride with her on what was now the gear boat, what they called one with equipment and no passengers, but she was on the sticks all the way.

All this was reported on the satellite telephone the party carried. Michelle Rawson, the company’s senior boatman, made a hurried hike down Havasu Creek to replace Dan for the balance of the trip. After only half a day on the river Michelle decided that the gear boat was in good hands, so she spent much of the rest of the trip working on her tan and catching up on her naps, occasionally helping out with rowing on long flats. On her return, Michelle reported that this girl had the makings of a superior boatman after she had a little more experience.

Based on the reports he had been getting Al had been coming to that conclusion himself, and in the fall he made a half-trip on that crew, mostly to see how the kid was coming along – superbly, it turned out. It still seemed a bit astonishing to think that a girl this green was well on her way to a boatman’s seat so quickly. Getting the right number of qualified boatman’s butts into the seats of rafts was often a hassle around Canyon Tours, so it seemed likely that was going to happen with her sooner or later, and probably sooner.

“Sooner” came before anyone was quite ready for it. Canyon Tours was really shorthanded this spring, and the only reason the kid hadn’t been on the trip from the beginning was that she still had finals at Northern Arizona University – another miracle of sorts, since she’d dropped out of college as a freshman years before. Her mother Karin – Al’s wife of a year – had started the trip, and would have her place taken by her younger daughter hiking down the Kaibab Trail to meet her at Phantom Ranch.

Al braked the pickup to a stop right at the trailhead – it wasn’t as if he was going to be parking there, after all. “Are you ready for this, Nanci?” he asked.

“I guess I’m as ready as I can be,” she replied as she popped the door. “Thanks for having faith in me, Al.”

“I wouldn’t be turning you loose if I thought you couldn’t handle it. I think it’s still a little soon, but after some trips in a gear boat you ought to be ready. I’ll let Crystal and Preach make that decision. They can watch you more closely than I can.”

Nanci turned and grabbed her daypack. It was dark purple and only contained a couple of canteens, a small first aid kit, and a couple of candy bars. She wasn’t a hiker and used to carrying heavy loads like her sister; her main gear for the trip was already on the raft, having been put aboard at the put-in upriver at Lee’s Ferry almost a week before. “I know there’s still a lot for me to learn, Al,” she replied as she casually swung the pack onto her shoulders. “But the Lord willing, everything will go all right.”

“There’s no reason it shouldn’t,” Al told her. “Look, take your time getting down there. You don’t have to rush. Be real careful on the steep downhill stuff. If you don’t watch your step you can find yourself going faster than your feet can carry you. That can hurt.”

“It could louse up a lot of other things too,” she agreed. “I’ll be careful, Al.”

“Good luck, Nanci,” Al replied, then added something that he would only say to a handful of his other employees, “and Godspeed to you.”

*   *   *

Perhaps a little perversely, the South Kaibab Trail goes slightly upward for a few steps before it starts its descent into the Grand Canyon. Nanci took them slowly since she was a little stiff from sitting in the pickup for the last hour and a half. The sun was barely up; they’d left Al and Mom’s house while there had only been the slightest hint of light in the northeastern sky, but it was light enough now to see where she was going.

It was cool, and the shirt she had on probably wasn’t quite warm enough, although it ought to be adequate while hiking. Things would warm up as the day progressed and she dropped nearly five thousand feet of elevation. It probably wouldn’t get real warm today, nothing like the horrible heat of midsummer down on the river, a heat that had to be experienced to be believed.

It was only a short distance before the trail crossed a small side canyon. While the view to either side was restricted, if she looked straight down the draw she could see the majesty of the open Canyon in front of her. She stopped for a moment to take in the sight; while she had spent months in the Grand Canyon last summer, and expected to do the same thing this year, it had all been down on the river. She had only rarely seen the place from a viewpoint like this.

In fact, she’d only seen it from something like this angle once before, back in elementary school when her family had made a brief vacation stop at the tourist area on the South Rim not far away. Her memory of that wasn’t real clear – they’d covered a lot of ground on that trip, and after what must have been close to fifteen years everything seemed scrambled together. How long ago that had been, and how much had changed!

“Thank you, Jesus,” she said aloud as the reflections of how much had changed washed over her. She could see that His hand had been upon her, and He certainly deserved the thanks.

It was tempting to stand there for a while, just to take in the sight and thank the Lord more profusely for His allowing her to be here, but she knew she shouldn’t waste time. She knew that all she had to do was move along steadily and it would be likely that she’d beat the party coming down the Canyon. Al had told her that it ought to take her about three hours to make the descent, but time really didn’t mean a great deal. She didn’t even wear a watch; she’d broken that habit in the Canyon last summer. The sun would be the only timepiece she would need, and that was one of many things she’d learned from Crystal and the others last summer.

She turned her eyes away from the view and back to the trail with reluctance, tempered by the knowledge that there would be other such sights to come, and started to walk down the trail again. It was steep here, descending through an ever-changing panoply of rock formations. She was not a power-hiker like her sister, and it was the first time she’d been down this trail. There was a good chance it wouldn’t be the last, since it seemed likely that she would be involved in other mid-trip crew changes before the summer was over with, or perhaps other summers. The common wisdom around Canyon Tours was that it was easier to go down the Kaibab, but take the Bright Angel Trail coming up; it was longer, but slightly less steep, although they didn’t always do it that way. At least it wasn’t an all-out rock scramble, like many hikes down in the bottom of the Canyon.

She – and Al – had hoped that there would be someone to accompany her on this hike, just because she was new to doing this, like she was still pretty new to just about everything else she would be doing this summer. At least it wouldn’t be like last summer, when everything had been new. But she wasn’t alone, for she knew the Lord was with her; this would be an excellent time to enjoy it.

How much had changed in the last year! She could never have believed a tenth of what had happened, and how much better things had become. The fact that she was even alive seemed to be something of a miracle to her. A few days over a year ago when she’d driven into the parking lot of Canyon Tours, hungry and scared, battered and broken, with her car running on fumes and only a dime in her pocket, she had been near suicide, her chosen recourse if her last, nearly forlorn hope hadn’t worked. She’d only admitted that to anyone else once, but she knew in her heart that she’d actually been looking forward a little to the relief that death would bring to the hell her life had become.

It still seemed amazing that Al and the others had taken her in and offered her hope. If she had been the one making the decision at that point, she probably wouldn’t have done it – but they had. She had a future now, something she hadn’t had before. She still wasn’t sure she knew what she wanted to do with it, but that would come in time, when the Lord opened the door for her. Right now she couldn’t ask for much better, especially considering where she’d been with her former disaster of a life.

Just as a measure of how far she had come, she felt very good about the grades she’d gotten at Northern Arizona and in her online courses – at least the ones she knew about. She wouldn’t know about all of them until she got back to Flagstaff in a couple of weeks, but so far, there was nothing less than an A. That was unbelievable by itself!

She had essentially been a failure at Northern Michigan University when she left there a little over five years before; only a couple of her grades were good enough to transfer elsewhere and they didn’t amount to much of anything. There had been too much partying, too much drinking, too many good times and nowhere near enough studying, not that she even tried the latter. She’d still been a kid then, just eighteen, with no self-discipline, resenting Crystal’s urging her to buckle down. She’d thought it was better to celebrate her new independence by having fun, and what a huge mistake that had been! Like Al had said up in the parking lot a few minutes before, back then she had been going downhill faster than her feet could carry her, and she’d wound up at the bottom of the hill in a mess she could never have imagined.

But when she’d come off the river after the last trip of the season back in November, she realized that it was time for her to start over with college, too. It was in the middle of the semester at Northern Arizona, but she’d started picking away at college credits online, then registered for the second semester at the school just across town. Assuming the grades she didn’t know about were half as good as the ones she did, after six years she would finally be a sophomore.

A lot of the Canyon Tours boatmen were college students, especially at Northern Arizona but sometimes from elsewhere. They couldn’t work during the fall trips and were often a close call on the early spring ones, which sometimes made a hassle for Al, but he’d told her that he’d be thrilled if she did both semesters next year. She intended to pile on the classes next winter, too, both in classrooms and online. Last winter had been just about the busiest she’d ever been, between all the college work, working out to build her strength up to be the best boatman she could be this summer, and studying the Bible alone and with others in what time she could manage. It was nothing she could have imagined five years ago, or for that matter, a little over a year ago.

Maybe it was pushing a little too hard, but she felt like she had some catching up to do. She’d essentially wasted four years, and worse than that. She was now twenty-three, and not in any way like the kid she’d been five years before. Back when she’d been at Northern Michigan University she’d had the hazy idea of wanting to become a teacher, mostly because just about the only people she’d seen working at that point in her life had been teachers, but she was now pretty sure she didn’t want to do that. Beyond that, she didn’t have many ideas, other than probably being a boatman for the next few summers. However, unlike her sister, she didn’t think that she wanted to spend the rest of her life doing it.

She wasn’t terribly worried about the prospects. The Lord, she was sure, would make His wishes clear in His own good time; what she needed to do was to be ready for whatever it was, whenever it happened. He had already brought her so far from what she had been that she was sure there was more out there for her, whatever it might be.

The trail was smooth and well maintained, fitting for one of the two best trails in the Canyon. Before long, the views that had teased her from the top of the rim became more common and broader. After spending a summer in the Grand Canyon she was still not immune to the glory of the place, and it was sometimes hard to keep moving, rather than just stand there and drink in the grandeur of the place. After a while – it didn’t seem very long since she’d been reflecting on how different her life had been compared to the bad days in Chicago – the trail wound around a point, and a broad view of the eastern Canyon opened before her. Here she stopped again, if only for a minute or so. It was almost too much to try to take in at once. She realized she could have stood there mesmerized for hours, but she still had to meet the rafts at the bottom of the Canyon.

It was difficult to tear herself away from the sight, but she managed to do it, moving on down the trail. By now she was aware that the large cup of take-out coffee she and Al had picked up in Flagstaff was yearning to be free. Fortunately not too much further on there was a composting toilet, so she made a brief if relieving stop. It was close to the last chance she would have for that degree of comfort; once on the river, she’d have to drain her bladder directly into the water. She’d learned how to do that with a minimum of embarrassment on her first trip just a year ago, but it had made her appreciate flush toilets.

Back on the trail after only what might have been a minute or so of break, she found that the descent of the trail had become more gradual, which meant that the walking had become easier. With no watch and only a minimum of trail signs, she knew she was moving right along but had no real idea of how fast. That was fine with her; so long as she beat the rafts to the landing she would be happy. As early as it was, she doubted that they were even on the river yet. Since she didn’t know where they’d stopped the night before, it seemed likely that they would have several miles to run.

It was still pretty early, which was good since the part of the trail she had been told would be the toughest was still ahead of her. It was early enough that she hadn’t seen anyone else on the trail this morning, not even back up at the rim. It made her feel a little alone out there, not that she minded; the Grand Canyon is a good place to be alone, to be able to contemplate the glory of God.

While she respected the peace of the Canyon, the urge to sing came upon her – it would help the miles pass, she thought without using the words. Nanci knew that she wasn’t a great singer and never would be, but occasionally she liked to sing to herself, no matter how bad it was. She knew a lot of songs, and in the past year she’d learned some hymns. The Methodist church she attended in Flagstaff along with Preach, Crystal, and Kevin did not have the most lively of hymn singing, according to Preach. He had said more than once that they could take almost anything and turn it into a dirge.

Nanci was not one to disagree. Her sister-in-law Tanisha had grown up in a black church in St. Louis. While Tanisha no longer had anything to do with that church, she still enjoyed the serious, enthusiastic gospel music she’d known for many years. What’s more Tanisha could really sing that stuff; Nanci’s brother Jon, not much of a church person in any way, even enjoyed hearing it and singing it, too.

Without really considering it, Nanci knew that the way Methodists could strangle the most sprightly hymn was not the sort of thing to sing while walking, so she softly started singing something she’d learned from Tanisha on that first trip down the river a year before:

Gonna talk with the Prince of Peace,

Down by the riverside,

Down by the riverside,

Down by the riverside.

Gonna talk with the Prince of Peace,

Down by the riverside,

Down by the riverside.

There are tens, if not hundreds of variations of the first and fifth lines; while Nanci knew a few of them, she was sure Tanisha knew a lot more. She skipped the chorus, which was about “ain’t gonna study war no more,” mostly because it didn’t seem right for walking. The song carried her along and down, through the steep parts of the trail and around the switchbacks as it approached the river. When she’d gotten through the verses she knew a few times, she started making up her own:

Gonna hop on that big blue raft,

Down by the riverside,

Down by the riverside,

Down by the riverside.

Gonna hop on that big blue raft,

Down by the riverside,

Down by the riverside.

The trail continued its steep descent until it reached the River Trail, which took her upstream toward the bridge. Nanci didn’t even pause her walk but turned along the trail, continuing to occasionally make up lines like Gonna row through them big old waves, down by the riverside, with her voice reverberating in the short tunnel above the bridge. She walked out of the tunnel, looked over at the landing to see that she had well and truly beaten the rafts.

She had no idea of how long she would have to wait, but that was all right, she thought as she walked across the narrow suspension bridge. She could stand the relaxation of killing a little time, she thought as she did a verse with the “Prince of Peace” line again. There was a little pocket New Testament in her shirt – no backpack for that – and there was a chapter of The Acts of the Apostles she wanted to study and contemplate while she waited.

-Forward to Next Chapter >>
To be continued . . .

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