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

Chapter 16
Friday, July 26 – Saturday, July 27, 2002

It was a relief to be out on the river down between the Canyon walls again, where things went at a normal pace and Nanci had some idea of what to expect.

Her head was still swimming over what had happened during the weekend. It seemed the doors had been opened wide for her to attend Black Mesa that winter. A lot of things had fallen into place so simply that it was easy to believe that God’s hand had been hard at work for her. Well, Reverend Miller and her mother had been hard at work too; Nanci had been slow to realize just how hard. Not all the pieces were in place yet, but it was pretty clear that there was going to be a lot going on topside while she was on this trip. Nanci had even signed a power of attorney allowing her mother to deal with some of the issues, and all she could hope for was that God would see that it worked out for the best.

So it was a relief to row her raft away from the bank at Lee’s Ferry and to start the float down the river with new and wide-eyed passengers aboard. Even though she was still pretty new as a boatman, this part of her life was familiar and comfortable.

It was July now, the hottest season of the year, and it got intensely hot down on the floor of the Grand Canyon. Nanci wore her gi on the river every day and was glad to have it to keep the merciless sun at bay a little, and even then was careful with the sunscreen. She had to keep a close eye on her passengers for signs of heat exhaustion, for even on the river they could be affected by it. It was important to stay hydrated, and she was continually reminding them.

The sun was a little less of a hazard in the evenings, even though it was still hot. Nanci was no longer the kind of woman who wore a miniscule bikini like she had when she was younger. Now, she often wore a more conservative one or a raft-blue one-piece around the camp; it was cooler than her normal river clothes, and convenient for taking a quick cooling dip in the river.

Considering the heat, there wasn’t the hiking that often went on during trips with more moderate temperatures; the heat stored up and reflected by the rocks was brutal, and could often be dangerous. Oh, there were short hikes, sometimes of no more than a few hundred yards at places of interest, but there were no long, difficult ones like their hike up Havasu Creek on the trip before, no matter how grand the scenery.

Other than the heat, which was incredible even compared to her experience of the year before, the trip was relatively uneventful. There were no problem customers, and the ones they had were pretty likeable.

There was a guy who brought a guitar on the trip, and who knew all kinds of old cowboy songs. Though Nanci felt she wasn’t much of a singer, she learned a number of them, and even while floating down the river he occasionally broke out into songs like I’m Back in the Saddle Again or Ghost Riders in the Sky, a song that especially caught her attention. A couple of times he got together with Nanci in the evening and taught her a few chords on the guitar, and one evening around the campfire Nanci even rather badly played and sang a song he’d taught her, I Want To Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart. She made a mental note to get a few guitar lessons if she could somehow jam them in during her copious free time over the winter; it might be useful to her sometime.

All in all it had been a very good trip, so it was with mixed emotions that Nanci drifted around the bend above Diamond Creek Wash and saw the Canyon Tours bus waiting for them once again. She knew that the other part of her life was awaiting her, and that she’d face another couple of hectic days after the peace of being on the river.

Early the next morning she got into her Camry and drove down to Phoenix, the farthest she’d driven it since her agonizing escape from Chicago the year before. At least the air conditioner still worked, although she didn’t use it much; she’d gotten pretty used to the Arizona summer heat.

The day was a dizzying array of appointments, meetings, visits, and paperwork to sign. She got to meet Rev. Dr. Norman Nelson, the head of the Religious Studies Department at Black Mesa. He seemed to be a rather reserved man, more of an academic than a pastor, which he was, but she could see he was very knowledgeable and could be a good teacher. She had a long interview with him, going into her background and why she wanted to study in the department. He appeared to be impressed enough with her testimony and her dedication that he said he would be glad to have her in the department, and that he would be happy to be her advisor. “I don’t often see students like you with the motivation and the experiences you’ve had, Nanci,” he said at one point. “I think you will be able to add a great deal, and I think you’ll be able to learn even more.”

She and Dr. Nelson worked out the classes she would be taking the next year – he would be teaching some of them – and a general plan for the next three years. While it would be heavy on the religion classes, she also would be taking some business classes, with the idea of having a minor in that. It looked like a lot of work, but she was eager to get started with it. It was very different than it’d been years before at Northern Michigan, and even a little unlike the year before at Northern Arizona where she’d been a little unsure about what she was doing because of her checkered academic history.

The meetings with the financial aid people also went better than she had expected, but she also saw signs of Reverend Miller’s string-pulling. When everything was said and done, she’d still have to dip into her savings from being a boatman, but not very much, and both Al and Jon had said they’d help out if it became absolutely necessary.

The whole business took longer than she had expected, but at the end, when she walked back to the Camry in a bit of a daze, she was going to be a student at Black Mesa College in a few weeks. It seemed like it had all happened in a huge rush, and it had at that.

So it was later in the afternoon than she had anticipated when she drove to Jon and Tanisha’s house. She expected that there was going to be a lot of work to get things set up for the combination open house and baby shower, and figured she was going to be up much later than a boatman normally was to get it done. But, when Tanisha greeted her as she walked in the door, she learned that their friends and next-door neighbors had been pitching in on it all week. While there were things that would have to be done in the morning, everything was pretty well under control.

It turned out that Barbara was asleep. Tanisha said she’d been a good baby so far, although managing a baby was something pretty new to her. Jon wasn’t home yet, although he would be soon.

Tanisha took advantage of the little girl’s nap to take Nanci down to the basement, where a room had been set up for her. Nanci was a little surprised to see that it contained a desktop computer with a printer and a large monitor. “You know,” Nanci said, “I never even thought about that. I just used Al’s computer up in Flagstaff,”

“Jon and I knew that,” Tanisha smiled. “Well, your mother told us, anyway, and we knew you would need one. This is an older one, recycled from Lambdatron. I’ve spent a little time the last couple of days wiping and reformatting the hard drive, then loading Windows 98 and Word 97, but it’s barren otherwise. I hope you’ll be able to use it.”

“I’m sure I will, Tanisha,” Nanci replied gratefully. “Like I said, I never even thought about it since things have been happening in such a rush. Everybody has been so nice to me, I can’t believe it.”

“The computer is no big deal,” the black woman shrugged. “It was available, and Jon grabbed it. Look, Nanci. I know, and Jon knows it better than I do, how far you’ve come. We feel like we want to help you to see how much farther you can go. I have some concerns about what you’re considering, but they’re probably not what you expect they are. They’re just some things I’d like you to bear in mind, but now is not the time to talk about them. We can save that for when you have your feet under you a little.”

*   *   *

The open house the next day proved to not be as big a deal as Nanci was expecting. Al, Karin, Crystal and Preach had driven down from Flagstaff for the event. Most of the people who showed up were strangers, and Nanci soon figured out they were co-workers from Lambdatron, where Jon and Tanisha worked. They stood around talking for a bit, admired Barbara, and looked over the new house, while the group from Canyon Tours was mostly in the background.

It was uncomfortable in the house, since Jon had the air conditioning cranked up a bit – well, more than a bit, anticipating a whole house full of people. Since Crystal, Preach, and Nanci were used to being outside in the heat, they were almost to the point of looking around for winter jackets, and Al and Karin were not far behind them.

Finally, Jon took pity on them. “Hey,” he told them. “We do have a pool and a patio out back, you know. You guys might be more comfortable out there.”

“Talked me into it,” Nanci smiled. “I’d love to go swimming in something that isn’t bone-chilling. I threw in a swimsuit just in case you suggested it.”

It proved that Nanci was the only one who had thought that far ahead, but none of the others seemed to mind. She hurried down to what would be her room in the basement, and in only a couple of minutes she was wearing her raft-blue one-piece, heading for the pool.

The pool was warm, maybe a touch on the too-warm side, but it seemed wonderful after brief dips in the river, which was always cold after having been taken from the bottom of Lake Powell above Glen Canyon Dam. She really wasn’t much of a swimmer – unlike her much more athletic sister – but it felt good to swim the length of the pool and splash around a bit. After a while she got out of the pool and sat down in a plastic lawn chair, bringing everyone up to date on what she’d learned at Black Mesa the day before.

All of a sudden the back door opened, and Jon came out, followed by his father Pete, an older black woman, and a statuesque raven-haired beauty of a woman, dressed expensively. “Hey, folks!” he said with a happy tone, “Look who Jennlynn just flew in!”

“Pete!” Karin gushed. “I’m surprised to see you!”

Her father was just about the last person Nanci expected to see here. She hadn’t seen him for over four years, not since shortly after she’d moved in with Reggie. It had not been a pleasant meeting, and plenty of angry words had been spoken. She knew that Jon and Tanisha had reconnected with him earlier in the year, and had said that he was much more personable after the removal of his brain tumor, but she hadn’t talked to him directly – she’d been a little scared to try, remembering his temper from those days.

Nanci knew the tall, good-looking woman slightly, but only from a brief meeting at Crystal and Preach’s wedding last fall. She was Jennlynn Swift, a co-worker of Jon and Tanisha’s, but much, much more besides. Nanci knew that Al and the rest of the group from Canyon Tours knew her and were friends with her despite her reputation. Besides being one of the brains behind Lambdatron, she operated a charter jet service on the side, and most stunningly, when she felt the need she spent a weekend working at a Nevada bordello, the Redlite Ranch. Earlier in the year she’d played a key part in retaking a hijacked airliner and landing it safely, but in the fracas that followed she’d become a real hero as well as becoming the nation’s best-known prostitute!

“You’re looking good, Karin,” Pete said warmly. “I guess life in the Grand Canyon must be treating you pretty well.”

“Very well,” she said, getting to her feet and going over to give him a mild hug, with Al right behind her. “Pete, I was so sorry to hear about you being in the hospital. I still wish I could have been there for you.”

“It worked out,” he smiled. “In fact, it worked out in some ways I had no reason to expect, so no excuses, all right?”

“Sure, Pete, but still.”

“It’s all right, Karin,” he said. “I’d guess this would have to be Al.”

“Yes,” she said, “It’s such a surprise to see you I’m forgetting my manners.”

“Al, I hope you’re taking good care of her.”

“When I can keep up with her,” Al grinned. “At my age, that gets to be a job sometimes.”

“Hi, Dad,” Nanci said, joining the group clustered around them. “How are you doing?”

“Very well, Nanci,” he said, looking her over. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you looking so healthy. I take it rafting the Grand Canyon has been keeping you busy.”

“For something I never dreamed I’d do in my life, it’s pretty cool,” she smiled.

Crystal and Preach were standing near the edge of the group. Nanci knew that Crystal didn’t have much use for her stepfather, and that it went back a long time. Although she hadn’t said much about it recently, back when Jon announced the news that he and Tanisha had reconnected with him, Crystal had thrown a memorable snit, which was part of the reason the topic of her stepfather didn’t come up very often in her presence.

Out of the corner of her eye Nanci could see Crystal and Preach squeeze hands before Crystal stepped up and said, “Pete, I’m glad you could make it out to see us.”

“You’re looking good too, Crystal,” he replied, apparently aware that her greeting wasn’t exactly the warmest in the world, not that he really expected more. “I take it you’re satisfied with your life?”

“It was tough getting here, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said, a little more animated. “Preach has been telling me that sometimes tough times happen for a purpose, and I guess it worked out that way for me.”

“I’m sorry that I had to be one to make them tough for you,” he told her, “but at least it looks like they worked out well anyway.”

“Yeah, they did,” she said. “Pete, why don’t you sit down? It’s got to be nasty out here in the heat for you.”

“I could be more comfortable,” he said, “but with everybody gathered around like this, it’s probably as good a time as any to say a couple things needing to be said. The first, of course, is obvious. I know I was an awful asshole to you for a long time, and while I know it was the tumor talking, I really don’t have any excuses, so I hope all of you will forgive me for it.”

“That’s in the past,” Karin said. “I don’t think any of us did much to make things easier for you, so there’s some apologies needed from our side of the fence, too.”

“Yeah,” Crystal added, “I suppose we didn’t help much.”

“As you said, it’s in the past,” Pete said, “and the past is a good place for it, especially since there’s a future to come. But in spite of everything, some good things came out of it. Karin, I suppose you and Jon and Tanisha told everybody about Doris, and how she saved my life and nursed me through my worst days after the operation.”

Nanci got a little more interested in the older black woman. She’d heard the story from Jon, of how Doris, a cleaning lady, had found him laying on the floor of his office and called an ambulance. She’d taken off work after his operation to nurse him back to health; later he’d arranged for an apartment for her in the same building he lived in, and they’d become close friends. It was more than a little surprising when Nanci considered some of the racist remarks her father had made before she’d been driven out of the house.

“Yes,” Karin said. “Doris, I don’t know how to thank you for it. When I heard about it, I knew you’d done something I should have done, even though I was divorced from Pete at the time. I still felt a responsibility toward him, and I feel like I dropped the ball. Thank you for picking it up.”

“I couldn’t help myself,” she said. “I knew he was hurting, and well, there was no one else so I decided I had to do it.”

“And I’ll be forever grateful,” Pete smiled. “I’m also sure Jon has told you that Doris and I have spent a lot of time together since the operation. At first she was nursing me, and then it was just a couple lonely people who needed friends.” He took a deep breath and added, “Then Jon and Tanisha came along, and they taught us very quickly that despite the color difference between Doris and me, we didn’t have to limit ourselves to being just friends. Everyone, I’d like to introduce you to my new wife, Doris Chladek.”

*   *   *

For being totally unexpected, it was quite a family reunion – the first time they’d all been together in years, and now with several additions, including Al, Preach, Tanisha, and Doris. There were many stories to tell of what had happened in the years they’d been apart, and from them Nanci could tell that Jon and Tanisha hadn’t done a great deal of filling Pete in on the details about her.

As they caught up on things, Nanci noticed that Crystal and Pete were getting along civilly. There was still some tension, mostly on Crystal’s part, but apparently they’d buried the hatchet at least part of the way, and not in each other’s backs at that. Pete had known since Jon had filled him in that Crystal had married Preach, and the two of them seemed to get along – but then, Preach was the sort of guy who got along with everyone.

Nanci hung back from her father a little bit, for she wasn’t sure how he’d take some of the news about what had happened to her – well, a lot of the news. Pete had never been religious, in fact, he had been a little contemptuous of religion, so she couldn’t help but wonder what would be said.

It was some time before Nanci and her father had the opportunity to talk one-on-one in a couple of the chairs on the patio. They were in the shade, and the sun was getting down a little anyway, so the Phoenix summer heat wasn’t quite as oppressive as it had been earlier in the day. “Nanci,” he smiled, “I said earlier that I’ve never seen you looking so healthy. I take it that the rafting is agreeing with you.”

“Yeah, Dad, it is,” she grinned. “Al made me a boatman earlier in the year, and it’s working out real well. Everyone knows I came up a little fast, but they thought I could handle it, and so far it’s proving that I can.”

“Is rafting all you do? I’d think it’d get pretty cold in the winter.”

“No, it ends in the fall. I worked until November last year, and it got pretty cold on the river.”

“So what do you do besides rafting? Do you have some other job?”

“No, I’m going to college,” she smiled. “I pulled all A’s at Northern Arizona University up in Flagstaff in the spring term.”

“That’s wonderful,” he smiled broadly. “Especially after that mess you were in at Northern Michigan. Did you study anything in particular?”

“It was just the usual freshman stuff, the intro courses, but yes, I’m pretty proud of it.” She took a deep breath and went on, “I’m not going back there this fall. When I came down here from Flagstaff yesterday, I spent most of the day registering at Black Mesa College not far from here. They don’t offer what I want at NAU.”

“What are you going to be taking? Something in the sciences, maybe?”

She glanced at her father and grinned. “Good, you’re sitting down, Dad. I’m going to be pre-seminary.”

“Pre . . . Nanci, are you kidding me?”

“No I’m not. Dad, a lot has happened to me since we saw each other the last time, and some of it isn’t very pretty. I was pretty wasted when I came out here a year ago last spring, and . . . well, I might as well spit it out. I became a Christian, and it turned my life around. I haven’t made my mind up yet, and don’t plan on making it up for a while, but I’m considering becoming a minister.”

“Nanci,” Pete shook his head. “Those may be the most amazing words I’ve ever heard you say. That is about the last thing I would have expected from you. No, exactly the last thing. What brought this on?”

“It’s a long story, Dad, and one I don’t want to get into right now, mostly because I don’t want to ruin a happy occasion. Crystal and Preach know most of it, although there are a few things I haven’t told them either. Mom and Al know quite a bit about it, and Jon and Tanisha know some of it. It wasn’t very pretty, and to be honest, I barely survived it. Like Preach says, sometimes tough times happen for a purpose, and like Crystal said, it worked out that way for me.”

Pete clearly still didn’t know what to make of the announcement. “Nanci . . . I don’t know what to say, I truly don’t. Are you sure that’s what you want to do?”

“No, I’m not sure, and that’s why I intend to take a long time making up my mind. I know it’s going to involve a lot of thinking and a lot of prayer. I do know that being a minister is a huge responsibility, and I have to take it seriously if I want to honor God by doing His works. If I don’t think I can do the job adequately, I don’t want it.”

“That last part I can understand,” he nodded thoughtfully. “There’s no point in not doing your best. It’s a waste of talent and effort otherwise. What happens if you decide not to become a minister?”

“Honestly, Dad, that’s a little fuzzy. I’m going to minor in business, mostly bookkeeping. That doesn’t mean I plan on being any less of a Christian, though.” She shrugged and went on, “I might just keep running the river. It really is pretty neat.”

“I can’t imagine you doing that, either. What’s more, I can’t imagine Karin doing it. Now, Crystal, that I can imagine.”

“Mom doesn’t run all the time, only when we need a fill-in, but she’s pretty good at it.”

“I just can’t imagine what it would be like. Is it sort of like when Crystal took us down the Ocoee that time?”

“The water is wet and we’re in rafts, otherwise things are pretty different. We were on the Ocoee for two and a half hours that time. Up in the Canyon, we stay out two and a half weeks. Hey, if you want, we’re going to be starting a trip at Lee’s Ferry Monday morning. You could come up and watch Crystal and Preach and me launch.”

“I’m afraid I’m going to be wrapped up with business at Lambdatron,” he sighed. “I came out here partly to see the place, and partly to discuss a new process with them.”

“Jennlynn is a pretty big wheel around Lambdatron, from what I hear,” Nanci grinned. “I’ll bet she’d be willing to do a little rescheduling. Tanisha might come up with you and Doris. She knows how to find the place. You might even decide you want to make a trip with us sometime.”

“I’ll think about seeing if I can come up Monday,” he said. “But as far as taking a trip with you, I was on a raft with Crystal once, and that was enough. When are you heading back?”

“I have to get going from here this evening sometime. I’ve got to go to church in the morning, and then we’ll spend the rest of the day buying food and packing for the trip.”

“Church? You really are serious, aren’t you?”

“Dad, I’m a member of the Hillside Methodist Church in Flagstaff. It’s very important to me.”

“You’re not the Nanci I used to know,” he sighed. “And I’ll tell you what, I’m glad of it. I’m so glad I don’t think you’d ever believe me. Look, I’m not made of money, but if I can help you with school, just let me know.”

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