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

Chapter 7

Eventually things broke up and the GCR crew got back to setting up their rafts, while the Canyon Tours crew packed up what they still had out of their kitchen. They were ready when Larry spotted the tour bus coming down the road to the landing. “Time to get the game face on, folks,” Crystal said loudly enough for everyone to hear. She shook her head and went on, “You know, right now I wish I had one of Scooter’s cigars, just to set the tone, you know.”

“Crystal, you don’t even smoke,” Preach pointed out.

“How much do you want to bet that I could fake it?”

“Not very much,” he laughed. “I know we only ran with Scooter a little last year, but it just about made me sick to watch her and those stinking things. Watching you turn green and blow your guts would really set the tone.”

“Oh, well,” she sighed as the bus brakes squealed as it pulled to a stop in front of them. “It’s probably too late to start now anyway.”

The bus door opened, and Crystal climbed up the steps to greet the customers, who were getting out of their seats and stirring around after the long ride from Las Vegas, which they’d left well before dawn. “Hi, everybody,” she said in a loud voice. “Welcome to the Grand Canyon. Once I get you checked in, I’ll introduce everyone in a few minutes, but for now, get off the bus, stretch your legs, and get your gear from the luggage compartment, then gather over in front of the rafts to the right. If you really need to use the rest rooms, they’re off to the left of the bus, but don’t take too long. We’ve got a lot to do in a short time, but I promise you that you’ll have a chance to hit the rest rooms before we get on the river. You might as well take the opportunity while you have it, since it’s the last time you’ll see a flush toilet for the next two and a half weeks.”

She got back off of the bus, followed by passengers coming one by one. The rest of the crew was standing around to help with the unloading. Al and Karin wandered off to stand in the shade of some nearby tamarisk trees; while he wanted to keep an eye on things and evaluate them, this was really the crew’s responsibility and there was no point in confusing things by his presence.

Unloading the luggage from the bus didn’t take a great deal of time. The customers had all been warned in their pre-trip information packets that they would be limited to thirty pounds of luggage, although in practice it was never checked. One thing was different on this trip; while Canyon Tours was not allowed by Arizona law to sell alcohol, customers often brought along cartons of canned beer, which the company normally permitted in reasonable amounts, and on other crews the boatmen sometimes would throw in some of their own. However, right from the beginning it had been agreed to ban alcohol on this trip, not that anyone expected much from these customers in any case.

As soon as most of the customers were gathered around, Crystal climbed up on a dry box and called for attention. “First off, I have to make sure everyone is here,” she said, and started to read off a list of names of people who had reserved spaces on the trip; Dan had given it to her up at the office the previous day. None of the names seemed familiar to her, but that was normally the case, although this time some of the faces seemed familiar from the church tour the previous winter. She didn’t associate any of the faces with the potential troublemakers she remembered, but that could only be trusted so far.

“All right, it looks like we’ve got everyone,” she said. “Did I miss anyone?”

Fortunately nobody answered that one. It had happened occasionally that someone who hadn’t had a reservation came along, and it was always a mess when it did.

“Good enough,” she said after a moment of waiting. “Like I said earlier, welcome to the Grand Canyon and Canyon Tours. My name is Crystal Whittaker, and I’m going to be the trip leader of this expedition. By the way, I don’t answer to ‘Chris,’ so be warned: if you call me that I’m not going to know who you’re talking to. Just for a little bit of background about me, I’m originally from outside of Chicago, but I’ve been an outdoor nut for a long time. I’ve been a rafter and a trip leader for Canyon Tours for several years now. Before that, I ran rafts back east, hiked the Appalachian Trail, sailed to Hawaii, and came down the Inside Passage on a salmon boat. You’ll probably hear a few of those stories as we go down the river, so there’s no point in going into them now.

“Now folks, while we want you to have a good and safe time on this trip, there are a lot of things I’m going to have to throw at you in the next few minutes. Some of it is safety regulations, some of it is National Park Service rules, some of it is how we’re going to operate, and some of it is just good common sense. You’ll probably hear me or some of the other boatmen repeat some of it several times in the next few days, just to make sure you all remember it. In addition, as we go down the river there will be more things to tell you, especially today, again mostly about how we operate and how you need to conduct yourself to safely enjoy the trip as a guest of Canyon Tours.”

Those were all things she had said repeatedly to new customers over the years, but now she had to say something different. “This trip is something special for Canyon Tours. I will be the first to admit we’ve never done it before. This is a special Christian trip, where in addition to the normal things we show people in the Grand Canyon, we’re going to try to emphasize some of the spirituality of the place. We’re going to try to work on how you and we can grow as Christians by understanding some of what God has to teach us in a wonderful place like this.

“Now, while I attend Hillside Methodist Church in Flagstaff when I’m not on the river, I don’t consider myself to be a great expert on the subject of religion, so we have a real spiritual leader and teacher on this trip, Reverend Noah Whittaker. He is also a boatman for Canyon Tours, and the assistant trip leader. We sometimes call him ‘Preach,’ and I’ve heard him give some amazing insights and teachings about the Canyon, so you will all do well to listen to him. He is on leave as an associate pastor of Glen Hill Road Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Now, in case there are any young ladies on this trip whose goal it is to marry a minister, sorry girls. I beat you to him.”

As Preach gave them a wave and a big smile Crystal took a quick glance at the crowd; there didn’t seem to be any young single women there, so it really had just been a wisecrack. There were some snickers at that line, but Crystal noted a few frowns, so something in her gut told her that there had to be a sourpuss or two in the crowd, maybe more, just like she had been expecting. There was nothing to be done about it now except to press onward.

“I’m just going to give you a brief introduction to the rest of the crew. The guy down to my right is Kevin Haynes. He’s pretty strange, as he’s one of the few boatmen we have who actually shaves every day, and gets a haircut after every trip, although I have to admit he’s setting a good example for the rest of the guys in the crew. He’s a member of Hillside Methodist up there in Flagstaff, and pretty serious about it. He’s also a student at Northern Arizona University, although he’s taking his time about pushing on to get his degree over with.

“The guy sitting down here by my feet is Larry Newman. He’s the youngest of the boatmen, comes from Phoenix, and he’s going to be a senior at Arizona State this fall, so the odds are this will be his last year with us unless he comes to his senses. He’s studying architecture and building engineering. He grew up in some Lutheran church down there, I’m drawing a blank on the name right now. Larry?”

“Our Savior Lutheran,” he said.

“Yeah, that’s it. He’s pretty quiet and thoughtful, but he knows a lot about this place. Our last boatman is Nanci Chladek, the little blonde sitting on the next raft. She’s the newest boatman on the crew, but even though she’s new she still knows what she’s doing, because we don’t turn someone loose with a raft unless they do know and can do it. She’s had quite a bit of experience down here as a helper – we call them swampers. She also attends Hillside Methodist, at least partly because of Kevin’s influence, and you can take out of that what you will. She also attends Northern Arizona University. She’s going to be a sophomore there next year after being away from college for a few years. While she lives in Flagstaff now, like me she’s originally from outside of Chicago. I know her pretty well since she’s my little sister.”

There were a couple grins at that, and Nanci looked the least little bit embarrassed as Crystal went on, “Our final crew member is Mark Kayleigh, the confused-looking guy next to Nanci. Say congratulations to Mark. He just graduated from high school yesterday, so welcome to the real world, Mark. I don’t know much about Mark, since he’s new to the crew, but he took a trip with another crew last summer. I do know he goes to a Mormon Church in Flagstaff. What’s the name of that church again, Mark?”

“The North Flagstaff Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.”

“Yeah, I knew that,” Crystal smirked. “You’re planning on going to Brigham Young, right?”

“Looking forward to it.”

“I’ll bet you are. OK folks, Mark is our swamper on this trip. That means he’s our helper, the carrier of heavy objects and doer of grubby jobs. That’s how all us boatmen started out on this river, but he’s also learning to row a raft along with all the other stuff we do down here. That means you’ll be seeing him on the oars a lot, along with other things, and he’ll switch around from boat to boat. We’ll just have to see how it goes.”

Crystal changed the topic, but tried to keep it light, even though it was important, and customers who hadn’t understood this point had caused problems in the past.

“Now let’s face it folks, this is a camping trip in the Grand Canyon, not a luxury hotel where everything is done for you, because there just aren’t enough of us on the crew to do all of it. You’re going to be responsible for a lot of things like setting up your own camps, but we’ll get to how that’s done later. We’re also going to ask you to help pitch in with some of the community chores, like loading and unloading the boats, cooking and cleaning up, along with some other things. If you don’t know how to do it, that’s fine, we’re here to help you learn. Things will go a lot smoother and everyone will have a lot better trip as we’ll have time to see more things if we all work together when it’s time to get things done. It’ll also help you feel more like you’re a part of the trip, rather than just along for the ride. We’re still going to have a lot of fun, learn a few things, and see what the Canyon Tours brochure calls the most awesome countryside on earth, bar none.”

As she stood on the dry box she went on to cover some other topics, like safety regulations and always wearing personal flotation devices on the river, along with a dozen other things. Even though there were things that needed saying at this point, she tried to keep it fairly brief because she knew she could overwhelm people with a flood of information, no matter how important it was. The boatmen all knew they would have to explain some of that in detail and reinforce some of the major points Crystal addressed, especially the first few days until people got used to it.

After a few minutes she took a break from her orientation session, and had the customers introduce themselves. As she had suspected earlier, it was mostly couples, but there was a family with a young teenage daughter, maybe thirteen or fourteen from the look of her. Canyon Tours had a minimum age limit, so she couldn’t be too much younger. That kid is going to be a little lonely, Crystal thought, with no other kids among the customers. She’d seen trips with that situation before and sometimes it hadn’t been a lot of fun for the kid. At least Mark was somewhat close to her age, so that might help. It was a potential problem to keep an eye on.

“That at least gets us all introduced to each other,” she said as the last customer made their brief self-introduction. “I have to admit I’m not real good with names the first time they’re thrown at me in these numbers, but I’m sure we’ll all get to know each other, especially as we break up into separate rafts. I’m going to assign you rafts and boatmen for today, but we’ll mix it up as we go along so everyone gets to know everyone else. Once you’ve been introduced to your boatman, they’ll help you get your stuff organized and in dry bags and will probably have other things to go over with you.”

*   *   *

Nanci had no idea if Crystal had assigned the family of three along with another couple to her raft intentionally, or if it had just been by chance. It didn’t really matter; they were all new customers and unknown to her even with the introductions. “Hi, everybody,” she said brightly to the group as they gathered around the raft. “I’m Nanci Chladek, and I’m going to be your boatman at least for today. I’m afraid everyone went through the introductions a little quickly, so I’m going to ask your names again, and I’ll try to get them right the rest of the trip.”

“I’m William Barber,” the rather stuffy-looking man of the older couple said; he was in his forties at a guess, and on the heavy side, going bald. “This is my wife, Loretta,” he went on; she didn’t speak and seemed relieved that she didn’t need to. She was no larger than Nanci, but thin to the point of being anorexic.

“Hi, pleased to meet you,” Nanci replied and turned to the family of three. “And you folks are?” she went on.

“Hi, I’m Malcolm Fletcher,” the father said. He appeared to be a few years younger than the Barbers, and was taller and in better shape. “This is my wife Cassie and my daughter Bethany.” The mother had short-cropped black hair, and was what Nanci thought of as average build, while Bethany had long dark hair halfway down her back; she had the thin, scrawny build of a young teenager.

“All right, we might as well get started,” Nanci went on. “Let’s get your gear dealt with first. I have two drybags like this for each of you,” she said, holding up the heavy waterproof bags; the smaller one was a little less volume than a paper grocery bag. “Each of them has a large number on it, and they’ll be yours for the whole trip, so remember your number. The smaller bag is for the stuff you’ll want on the river during the day. That means things like your camera, perhaps a jacket, your sunscreen, and that sort of thing. Make sure your sunscreen is in that bag. You’ll want it, because we’re going to be out in the open most of the day, and the sun can be brutal. It’s worse because the sun reflects off the water and the Canyon walls.”

“I’m not worried,” Cassie spoke up. “I tan pretty easily and don’t get sunburned.”

“Ma’am,” Nanci replied respectfully, “It’s all right if you believe that, but a sunburn can ruin the whole trip for you. You may think you don’t get sunburned. My sister-in-law thought that, and she had reason to believe it since she’s about as dark as a black person can be, and she got roasted down here one time before she learned she’s no different. Better safe than sorry, so use sunscreen, OK? If you run out we have a little extra, but it’s pretty gunky and smelly stuff.”

“Well, if you say so,” the woman replied.

“All right. You want to put the rest of your gear in the larger dry bag, which we call your night bag. That’ll be under a tarp during the day, and you won’t be able to get to it unless it’s a real emergency. When you get your bags loaded, I’ll show you how to roll them up and close them. You were told to bring rain suits, and while you won’t want to wear them all the time, you’ll want to keep them handy. There are net bags you can put them in when you’re not wearing them.”

“Hey,” Bethany piped up. “Why do we need rain stuff? It doesn’t look like it’s going to rain.”

“There are other ways to get wet than having it rain on you,” Nanci grinned. “We’re going to have a lot of water splashed on us while we’re on this trip, and it’s pretty cold. We can get away without them most of the time and they can be pretty uncomfortable, but I’ll tell you when you’re going to want them on.”

“Look, miss,” William said with an argumentative tone in his voice. “Are you sure you can handle this? I mean, you’re a woman, and a young one at that. How do we know you know what you’re doing?”

The question was no surprise to Nanci; she’d heard it before, if not in exactly that tone of voice and not directed at her. “Sir,” she said respectfully, trying to cover up how she really felt, “I may be young, but I’ve had enough time on this river that the company owner, Crystal, and myself agree that I know what I’m doing. A lot of boatmen are college age and younger than I am. As far as being a woman, about a third of the boatmen on the river are women, and so are three of the four Canyon Tours trip leaders. Canyon Tours has not had a serious on-river incident in many years, so we must know what we’re doing.”

“I’m sorry,” William replied, his manner showing that he really wasn’t. “But it just doesn’t seem, well, appropriate for a woman to be in charge of a raft with people’s lives in their hands, or leading a trip like this. I’d feel more comfortable with a man in charge.”

Well, Crystal was right, Nanci thought. We’ve got a jerk on this trip, although not exactly the kind of jerk she was expecting. What else could this joker have up his sleeve? She wasn’t sure she wanted to find out. Maybe I’d better nip this in the bud, she thought. “That’s the way it is, sir,” she replied as respectfully as she could. “The bus hasn’t left yet, so I’m sure you could get a ride back to Las Vegas if you don’t think we know what we’re doing. However, you’ve paid your money and there won’t be a refund since you were checked in here.”

“That’s outrageous! We don’t have to put up with this! I ought to be able to get my money back if I don’t go on this trip.”

“The owner of the company is under that tree over there,” she pointed. “His name is Al Buck. You’re welcome to go complain to him, but he’ll tell you the same thing I just did.”

There was a staring contest for a few moments. It was pretty clear to Nanci that this Barber character was used to getting his way with bluster and he wasn’t used to someone standing up to him. It seemed like things were going to get worse very quickly even before the trip got started, until the man’s wife reached out and held him by the arm, saying nothing. “All right,” he said, still pretty huffy, “But if anything on this trip goes wrong, you’re going to hear from my attorney.”

“I can’t promise that nothing will go wrong,” Nanci told him, trying to sound a little conciliatory while wishing that the man had decided to go see Al. If things were this way at the beginning, it could be a long, long trip. “We all will do our best to avoid it, but we can’t always predict the future. That’s why you had to sign a release of liability before you were put on the trip list. Now, if we have that settled, let’s get back to the orientation, OK?”

She glanced up to see Crystal rolling her eyes, and then glancing skyward as if to say, “Why me, Oh Lord, why me?” She’d seen the exchange, Nanci was a little surprised that she hadn’t stepped in.

A little to Nanci’s surprise Barber didn’t interrupt the rest of the orientation, or get nasty with her again, but it seemed as if it was only going to be a matter of time.

Once she had the orientation completed she told them, “It doesn’t look like we’re quite ready to leave yet, so this is your last chance to hit the flush toilets before we get on the river. Things are going to be a little primitive from this point onward. Go ahead and stretch your legs a little if you feel you want to, but don’t get too far away because we’re probably going to be saddling up and riding pretty soon. I’ll be hanging around here in case you have any questions.”

In a manner of seconds all five of her customers were headed in the general direction of the rest rooms; Nanci was surprised that Barber didn’t head for the tamarisk where Al was still standing around, shooting the bull with a couple of the GCR people from earlier. By then, Crystal had finished her own orientation, and came over to talk. “I heard that,” she said. “You handled that just about as well as I could have. Maybe better, since I might have been tempted to give him some lip after the way he was mouthing off.”

“Or worse,” Nanci smiled. She knew her big sister was a black belt and she’d seen her when she got well and truly mad.

“Yeah, that would really set the tone for the trip,” Crystal conceded sarcastically. “Look, maybe we’d be better off if we put him with one of the guys.”

“I don’t think it would change anything,” Nanci shrugged. “I mean, it might have been just pre-trip nerves or something. Besides, if we changed him now it might look a little funny.”

“Look, Nanci, I’m sorry that one fell in your lap. If you can stick it out today, I’ll put them with one of the guys tomorrow, maybe Preach. We can talk about it when we’re off the river tonight, OK?”

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To be continued . . .

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