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

Chapter 23
Sunday, May 11, 2003

It was cool down by the riverside along the launch ramp at Lee’s Ferry. Nanci had been looking forward to this day for a long time, just about every day since she’d gotten out of the raft last summer and walked up the Bright Angel Trail. While her school year at Black Mesa had gone very well, she realized now just how much she’d missed her life in the Grand Canyon. Now, she was sitting on a raft tube looking at the river and the night sky, just taking it in and trying to get her mind on the river. She was alone, with a can of soft drink in her hand, just taking in the glory of God and relaxing. Most of the rest of the team was asleep this late in the evening and Nanci knew that she ought to be too, but she really wasn’t in the mood to sleep.

Although this was Nanci’s first trip of the season, it was the White Team’s second; they’d gotten off the river on Thursday on a trip Crystal and Preach had reported to be on the cool side, but nothing like as bad as the one they’d run back in February.

Nanci had heard about that right from the beginning and would have liked to have been on it, but there was no way she felt she should take off from school for that long. First things had to come first, after all, although one weekend when she visited Flagstaff to go to church, she’d gotten roped into helping with the launch. It had been sad indeed to have to stand at the landing and watch the rafts start down the river without her.

But then, she’d gotten to do one thing that the rest of the team hadn’t gotten to do, so that made up for a lot of it.

After Jennlynn’s surprising announcement of her becoming engaged, the wedding came down in a huge hurry; when she made up her mind to do something, Jennlynn didn’t waste a lot of time doing it and this was really true with her wedding. Jon and Tanisha had only known about the wedding a week or so in advance, and much to her surprise Nanci was invited to it too! She figured it was at least partly so there would be an extra pair of hands to take care of Barbara, and maybe there was a little truth in that, but Nanci and Jennlynn had become pretty good friends themselves in the few weeks they’d known each other. Nanci figured that there must be something about her that really impressed her new friend.

The wedding was something special. It wasn’t held in a church, but out at Jennlynn and Will’s cabin in the Nevada desert, miles from much of anywhere. She, Jon, Tanisha, and Barbara had to drive to Las Vegas, where they met a plane that normally did Grand Canyon flight-seeing tours, and were flown out to the rude airstrip in front of the cabin. It was really a pretty neat place, with a combination of a great view and a cozy location; the cabin was small but spotless.

The wedding party was small, but very interesting; Nanci could hardly imagine a more diverse and eclectic bunch of people, and there were very few of them who she wouldn’t have minded talking to for more than the few hours she’d had available. There were a handful of work friends from Lambdatron, of course, but there was also the man who owned the Redlite Ranch, and Will’s grandmother, who managed the bordello. There were also a couple of women who had worked there with Jennlynn, and in other such places, too. The music was provided by a couple of renaissance faire musicians Jennlynn had known for some years. Will’s parents and a couple of relatives were there, and they almost exactly fit Nanci’s mental picture of what the term “ranch family” meant. Even the reporter who had done the story on Jennlynn earlier in the fall was there.

The minister performing the service was the missionary who had landed the hijacked Airbus with Jennlynn back in February, along with his wife, a dark-haired, well-scrubbed woman who seemed to be just about what Nanci would have thought of when someone used the term “missionary wife.”

And then there were Jennlynn’s parents. After the stories Jennlynn had told about them, Nanci had pretty well imagined a pair of Bible-thumping ogres, but they proved to be subdued and friendly, if a little overwhelmed by some of the people they had around them, so Nanci found herself taking pity on them a little. They were actually a little surprised to discover that Nanci was a pre-seminary student rather than some of the other things she might have been as evidenced by the vocation choices in this crowd. “There’s not enough young people studying the Word of God,” Jennlynn’s father said approvingly. “It’s good to meet one of them.” What they really felt about their daughter was hard to say, but they seemed neutral, rather than disapproving.

Jennlynn’s fiancé Will was just about how Jon and Tanisha had described him: like he’d just stepped out of an old Marlboro commercial. He was tall and lean, wearing blue jeans and a denim jacket, and a Stetson much like Jerry Palmer wore on a motor rig. Most of the time he talked in a cowboy, country drawl, but Nanci discovered he could turn it off like a switch, and could speak like the educated man he proved to be.

Will was in Kuwait now – he’d had to be a minder for reporters, but hadn’t been near the fighting. That was just fine with Jennlynn, who had been worried sick about him, but it looked like he’d be back in the States before too much longer. According to Jennlynn, there had been some discussion about what the two of them were going to do after he got back, but as far as Nanci knew there had been no decisions made.

Because of the need of the guests to fly in and out during daylight, the wedding and reception was relatively brief, but it was a lot of fun and Nanci had enjoyed a really interesting experience from it.

Preach and Crystal weren’t at the wedding, of course; they had been out on the abbreviated church tour, and didn’t even find out about it until it was all over with. “You’re going to have to tell us all about it around a campfire out on the river sometime,” Crystal had teased. “That has all the makings of a good campfire story.”

In many ways the wedding had been the high point of the winter for her, although Nanci felt like she’d had a good winter, if a little on the staid side compared to what she did in the summer.

Barbie was growing like a weed, of course; just the other day she’d taken her first steps, and Nanci had watched along with Jon and Tanisha. Three months before, Tanisha had announced that she was pregnant again, a little more planned this time. She and Jon had decided that if they were going to do the parent thing they wanted to have two or three kids and keep them close together so they’d mostly be dealing with the same issues as the same time. It made good sense to Nanci; for if her schooling went the way she planned she’d be around Jon and Tanisha for a lot of the rough early-childhood stuff.

Nanci had made it back to Flagstaff about every other weekend, mostly to attend church at Hillside, which seemed more and more like her home church than ever before after trying out various churches in the Phoenix area. After a couple of incidents where signing her name as a visitor to a church had led to unwelcome high-pressure visits, she quit giving her address in visitors registers as living at Jon and Tanisha’s. Instead, she started giving her old address at what used to be her home in Chicago, which her father had sold years before. After all, it was still sort of home in a way, although it wasn’t hers any more, but she’d grown up there. Once or twice she’d even considered giving Curt’s address, reasoning that he could use a pastoral visit or two and the pastors needed some challenges, but in the end she decided to not stir up that hornet’s nest.

Three times over the course of the winter Nanci had attended lay speaker’s courses on various topics, put on by the Desert Southwest Conference of the United Methodist Church. Those weren’t graded, but she felt as if she had learned an awful lot from them. She really wasn’t any closer to making her decision about actually becoming a minister, although the courses opened her eyes to the possibility a little more than Dr. Nelson’s classes had. It still seemed to be the obvious subject for a lot of thinking and a lot of prayer, and watching some of the pastors in some of the churches she’d visited had made her very thoughtful at times. At least she met some who seemed serious and sincere, good leaders of their flocks, and she decided to model herself after them a little if she actually decided to take her life in that direction. There were lessons to be learned from the church visits, after all, and that was why she kept doing them, rather than looking for a regular church where she might be more comfortable.

Her classes had gone pretty well, too. She’d struggled with a couple of the concepts in her bookkeeping classes, but Tanisha proved to be a little familiar with the subject, and her help had been crucial in Nanci getting the hang of it. Dr. Nelson had been both inspirational and helpful, too – it wouldn’t be fair to say that she breezed through her religion classes, but there was much there that was new and fascinating to her. One of her courses in the winter term had been Ancient Greek and Roman Mythology; there were some fascinating if fantastic stories there, but some obvious lessons and thoughts generated about how Christianity had first been seeded in those times. It was one of those things she hoped to learn a little more about someday.

One of the extra things that had come out of that class was that she’d met Derek Wood there. Derek was older; in fact, he’d retired from the Army a couple of years before and had been glad he’d retired in time to not to be involved in the mess in Iraq. He felt that if he’d stayed in he would have been right in the middle of it, and was glad someone else got to do the job now since he’d had his turn. After getting out of the Army, he and his wife had decided to get their degrees while they made up their minds about what they wanted to do next, and he’d taken the Mythology course just because it interested him.

The thing with Derek was that he was not only interesting to talk to, he was far more intelligent than she would have expected from a former infantry sergeant. Nanci was, of course, several years older than the average run of students in her class. That set her away from them a little by itself, let alone that she had vastly more experience in the real world than they did, most of which she didn’t talk about around other students, of course. Along with that, she wasn’t interested in playing the boyfriend-girlfriend game so common among the age group of most of her peers. People were a little leery of her since she was straight enough to be a pre-seminary student, which didn’t exactly make her popular around campus, not that she was on campus very much to begin with. She wasn’t looking for a social life, she was looking for knowledge.

But then, so was Derek, and that was what led her to become fairly close with him and his wife. They could talk, even argue a great many topics, religious or not, and just enjoy the discussion. While Jon and Tanisha were nice and supportive, sometimes Nanci felt like she needed a change of scenery, and the Woods often proved to be that change.

The Woods knew about Nanci’s considering becoming a minister; it had come out early on. Unlike a lot of people, they didn’t have any direct advice for her, but could make good, solid sounding boards when Nanci wanted to talk things out. She felt it was important for her to make at least a few friends who weren’t involved in her life in other ways, and the Woods provided that. She knew she would miss them this summer, but already looked forward to seeing them in the fall.

So all in all Nanci felt that it had been a successful winter, and none of it had been wasted. But it was behind her now, and it was time to get her mind on the river.

Nanci felt like she had some catching up to do, not having been on the White Team’s first trip of the season. Since they’d had their first launch of the season well before school got out, there had to be a fill-in to complete the team for that trip. It had proved to be Jerry Palmer, who often did such things in the spring and fall; in the summer he ran a motor rig for GCR. He’d once been an assistant trip leader for Canyon Tours before he’d changed over to the baloney boat outfit so he could be home with his wife a little more often than could be managed on oar boats. He was a pro and knew what he was doing, so Crystal said she always liked to run with Jerry when she could have him.

But Jerry was gone now, and Nanci would be taking his place on the crew until she had to head back to college in the fall. This year she would be making five full trips with the crew, assuming she stayed with it, and would have only a few days after the last one to get back down to Jon and Tanisha’s to settle into college as a junior.

Kevin was back on the team this year, and so was Mark, once again the swamper, and who was also making his first trip of the season. Mark had started on the rafts as a complete novice the year before but was picking it up rapidly. Crystal had told Nanci privately that there was a good chance Mark would have a raft of his own next summer if he continued to improve. The plan was to give him plenty of time at the sticks this year, even in the bigger rapids like Kevin had done with Nanci a couple of years before.

As expected, Larry wasn’t back on the crew this year. Nanci had gotten a phone call from him a few days ago telling her that he was starting work for an architectural firm, but that he hoped she’d have a good summer on the river, and offered to take her to church with him again sometime. She said she might have to take him up on it; she had enjoyed his church much more than some of the others she’d visited.

A girl named Angie Barrett had taken Larry’s place on the crew. She was tall and slender, with long dark hair and a big nose that seemed to detract a bit from her appearance. She was a little younger than Nanci, and she had about as big an outdoor bug as Crystal or Scooter. Much like them, she’d worked taking tourists on short river trips back east; in fact she’d worked for Ocoee Adventures, the same outfit Crystal had worked for years before. There must still have been stories about Crystal around the place, for they’d led Angie to try to get a job rafting the Grand Canyon. As luck would have it, the only job she’d been able to find in the Canyon had been as a motor rig swamper with GCR the previous year, but both Jerry Palmer and Marty Welker soon understood that she really wanted to be on an oar boat. Marty had offered to pass her on to Al, and Al was glad to have her.

Although Angie had lots of experience on rafts, even in the Grand Canyon, she’d never even been in an oar boat until three weeks before when the White Team started their first trip, so just to be on the safe side they’d started her out in a gear boat. Nanci thought that the fact that Angie would have passengers with her on this trip meant Crystal thought she must have figured out how to use oars.

A few days earlier, before the White Team got off the river, Al had explained to Nanci that Angie was the obvious person to put on the team. “Let’s face it, Nanci,” Al had said, “a lot of people in the company shy away from those Christian trips, and when you get down to it, I guess I don’t blame them. I mean, after what I heard about the first one of them last summer, I don’t think I need to explain that.”

“If that trip hadn’t turned around after Havasu Creek, I think I might be right among them,” Nanci had agreed.

“That says a lot,” Al laughed. “Anyway, that means we don’t have a lot of candidates for that last position. Angie says she was raised in a Southern Baptist church, although she’s gotten away from it. But she says she still knows how to talk the talk even if she doesn’t walk the walk very much anymore, so I hope she’ll fit in. The toughest part for her will be just those two trips, so she ought to be all right. What I’m saying, I guess, is don’t push her on that subject if you don’t have to.”

“One thing I learned from Preach is that if people aren’t ready to listen they’ll resist listening until they are ready to hear it,” Nanci smiled. “And he was right. I mean, look at me.”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Al said. “Angie is a nice gal and she acts like she wants to be a pro, not just a temp or summer help. If she works out at all I want to keep her around because she could have a good future with Canyon Tours, so try to help her fit in and not feel like an outsider.”

So it was the same crew as the year before except for Angie replacing Larry. Although Nanci had met Angie while getting the food together and loading for the trip, then unloading and rigging here, they really hadn’t had much time to get to know each other.

Now, here on the riverside, a half moon hung in the clear sky giving her just enough light to see the river clearly. She took another sip of her soft drink and thought about getting into her sleeping bag, although she really wasn’t in the mood yet; it was too nice to just sit here and enjoy being alongside the river again.

She barely heard the scuff of feet on the gravel of the ramp, but it alerted her that someone was coming. “Wow, are you still up?” Angie said.

“I didn’t want to sleep,” Nanci replied. “I know I ought to hit the bag, but I don’t want to just yet.”

“I had to hit the head,” Angie said quietly as she came and sat on the raft tube near Nanci. “I guess I shouldn’t have had that third beer with dinner. At least we have rest rooms here.”

“Yeah, we won’t be seeing any more of them for a while,” Nanci agreed neutrally. “I’ve gotten used to it, and actually am looking forward to it a little.”

“From what I hear you guys don’t drink much on this crew,” Angie replied, perhaps looking to start a conversation.

“Not much. Crystal and Preach will have a beer once in a while if there aren’t any customers around. Kevin will, too. I actually had a beer one hot day last summer. I drank more than enough in high school and the first time I went to college to make up for it.”

“The word I heard around the office before the season started was that you’re even more religious than Preach. I hope you won’t hold it against me that I’m not.”

“I don’t know about more religious,” Nanci replied. “It’s just that Preach and I show it a little differently. I try not to shove my beliefs down people’s throats, though. If you want to talk about it, fine. If you don’t, we can find other things to talk about. But yeah, I take it pretty seriously.”

“I know what you mean about having it shoved down your throat. People did it to me all my life until I went to college, but I got away from it there. I guess I went the other way a little as a rebellion from my family.”

“That’s sort of the way it happened with me, although I wasn’t raised like that,” Nanci replied, really trying to keep from straying into talking about serious things. “To be honest, I’ve heard that story before, escaping from controlling parents. Sometimes it came out all right, and sometimes it didn’t. Actually, I suppose it happens with a lot of people. Kids grow up, and sometimes parents don’t want to admit it.”

“Yeah, my parents sure didn’t want to, so that’s why I don’t have much to do with them. So you like this rafting life, huh?” Angie said, obviously trying to keep from getting into more serious areas herself.

“Yeah, I do,” Nanci replied, relieved at the change of subject. Maybe there would be time to talk about such things with Angie, but tonight was not the night. “This will be my third summer, and I’ve waited all winter to get back on the river.”

“Are you planning on staying with it?”

“Now, there’s a good question,” Nanci laughed lightly. “Probably at least another year or two, maybe longer. After that it’s hard to say. I might stay with it after that, and I might not. I’m not committed to making a life out of it, at least so far.”

“I think I’d like to stay with it, at least for a while. I wasn’t crazy about all those trips and the fast turnarounds I had last summer for GCR. I felt like I really got to see something on my last trip. I’m real glad Al and Marty worked it out so I could move over here.”

“It’s pretty good,” Nanci said. “We get to be pretty good friends.”

“I could stand to have a friend or two on the river. They mix the crews around so much at GCR that you never really get to know anyone real well. I mean, always friendly, never friends.”

“You don’t have any family out here or anything, do you?”

“No, I’m trying to stay away from my family. It’s made it pretty lonely out here, but I think I got to be friends with everyone on the last trip pretty well, except for you and Mark, of course.”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t have a lot of close friends myself outside of my family, and I wasn’t friendly with them for a long time.”

“I hope we can be,” Angie said. “So what it’s like being a religion student?”

“Let me answer that by asking you one. What did you study in college?”

“I was a chemistry major.”

“What’s it like being a chemistry major?” Nanci smiled, then explained herself. “You’re studying something you enjoy learning because it involves something you want to do. It’s the same thing.”

“When you put it that way, I think I understand a little,” Angie yawned. “Look, I’m interested in getting to know you better, but I think I’d better get back to sleep.”

“Yeah, I really should bag it myself,” Nanci agreed. “The first day of a trip is always a killer with all the new people and orientations.”

“Just be glad you didn’t have to do it once a week. Nanci, you seem to be easy to talk to, and I think I want to do some more.”

“We’ll have the chance,” Nanci said. “We’re going to see a lot of each other for the next four months.”

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To be continued . . .

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