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Down By the Riverside book cover

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

Chapter 33
Monday, May 10, 2004

“Wake, up, sleepyhead,” Crystal said from behind the wheel of Preach’s Buick. “We’re almost there.”

“Already?” Nanci yawned sleepily.

“Actually, we just came over Navajo Bridge, but I thought I’d give you a few minutes to pull your act together before we get down to Lee’s.”

“Oh. OK, Crystal,” Nanci replied, slowly coming to consciousness. She sat in the passenger seat in morning confusion for a moment, trying to convince herself that she couldn’t sleep any longer and would have to face the day. “Thanks for driving me up here.”

“It’s all right,” her sister smiled. “We need you on a raft, and I guess that’s one of the things the trainee boss has to do. I’m sorry, I guess I didn’t realize they’d be getting in as late as they did.”

“Oh. OK,” Nanci shook her head, still trying to wake up.

“Look at it this way. You’re going to have some stories to tell about how the other half lives. Besides, I was going to come up here for this anyway.”

“Yeah, I guess,” she yawned again. “I sure hope they still have the coffee on.” Things were getting clearer in her mind now.

School was out, and had been for a week, but the White Team had been on the river so there hadn’t been much to do. She hadn’t really felt like hanging around the house in Phoenix, so she’d decided to just stay in Flagstaff after she’d given the service at the Fellowship again. It would give her a little time to hang out with her mother and Al, and get her stuff together for a summer on the river.

On Tuesday morning a week ago, she’d wandered into the office a little lost for something to do, to find Al talking on the phone to someone. “Hey, look who just walked in,” he said into the phone. “That might be an idea. I’ll ask her.”

Al put the phone on his shoulder. “Hey, Nanci,” he said, “you told me one time you thought you’d like to do a motor-rig trip just to see what it’s like.”

“Yeah, I thought it might be interesting.”

“This is Marty Welker. He’s got a crew leaving in an hour, and he just came up short a swamper. The guy has the flu real bad or the Arizona state championship hangover, and he’s not sure which. He needs a hand. You up for it?”

“Yeah, sure. I’m not doing anything useful anyway.”

Al picked the phone back up and said, “OK, Marty, I’ve got someone for you. My stepdaughter says she wants to see what a motor rig trip is like, but she’s got to be back so she can start a trip first thing Monday. There was a pause, and he replied into the phone, “No, not Crystal, Nanci, she’s been a boatman for us three years now . . . yeah, her. OK, I’ll tell her to get her stuff together and I’ll get her over there as quick as I can. Catch you around.”

He hung up the phone and turned to Nanci. “Well, I guess we’re going to make a baloney boater out of you, and you’ll be one up on me. I’ve never done a trip on one but Crystal did a few years ago. Go get your river gear together. I’ll meet you at the house and run you over to GCR.”

Something like forty-five minutes later Al and Nanci drove into the parking lot of the GCR office, where there were two big semi tractors, each with trailers loaded with the center section of an S-rig. There were a handful of people hanging around, clearly waiting for them, and Marty was among them. “Good, you’re here,” he said. “They’re just now ready to go. Nanci, this is Joe Balsam, he’s the trip leader,” Marty said of a medium-height guy who looked like he needed a shave. “Joe, this is Nanci Chladek, she’s a boatman for Canyon Tours, and she happened to be available at the last minute. Treat her good, she’s got an oar trip starting Monday and Al will have my butt if you don’t bring her back on time and in one piece.”

“Pleased to meet you, Nanci,” Joe said, extending a hand.

“Glad to meet you,” she replied. “I think we’ve run into each other once or twice.”

“Yeah, maybe at the Burro or at Lee’s,” he smiled. “Grab your stuff and hop aboard one of the semis. The swampers usually ride in the sleeper cabs in the back unless a boatman needs some sleep, which has been known to happen on the way back from South Cove, but usually the boatmen get the shotgun seat.”

Nanci didn’t get introduced to the rest of the crew until they made it up to Lee’s ferry, although she recognized a couple of them. Since she was a total novice at rigging an S-rig, about all she could do was help where told. The semis quickly unloaded the center sections, and the rolled-up side tubes were unrolled alongside them. A compressor blew them up, and there was some messing around with attaching them that she didn’t understand.

There was a lot of gear already aboard the S-rigs, but more had to be loaded from a box truck that had come up to Lee’s with them; it was considerably more messing around than required for the oar boat trips, and it was getting dark before they finished. The crew took a run up to the bar in Marble Canyon for dinner, and Nanci went along with them; she just had a Diet Pepsi at the bar, unlike some of the others, and it was there that Joe explained what was going to happen.

“You’re going to be a swamper on this trip, and I know you’ve been on the river long enough to know what that means,” he said. “Usually we run each rig with one boatman, one swamper who’s in training to be a boatman, and a junior swamper, which you’re going to be. I’ll probably let you run the rig a bit on some easy stuff. Have you ever run a motorboat before?”

“No, I haven’t,” she replied. “I’m going to be pretty green at that part of things.”

“Shouldn’t matter since this is just for one trip,” Joe shrugged. “But I think you’re going to find it’s pretty different, at least partly because we race down the river in comparison to you guys, and we don’t get to know the customers very well.”

That night they bedded down by the rigs like the Canyon Tours teams usually did, and had coffee and breakfast the next morning, although Nanci didn’t think the breakfast was as good as was produced by the White Team’s fabled warped grill.

After the customer bus arrived, the check-in procedure was also pretty much like that done at Canyon Tours; Nancy mostly tried to be helpful. But when Joe got to the crew introductions Joe surprised the customers – and the crew. “Guys, don’t be getting any bright ideas about our last swamper,” he said, “that cute little blonde who’s been trying to be helpful. She normally runs an oar boat for another company, but came along to help us out for one trip, Reverend Nanci Chladek of the Hillside Methodist Church in Flagstaff.”

You’re a preacher?” one of the crewmen said, jaw agape.

Nanci’s jaw was a little agape, too; she hadn’t known that Joe even knew about that. “Part-time,” she managed to reply, then regained her composure a little. “I’m a pre-seminary student at Black Mesa. Now, I can either talk to you about saving your soul, or we can get these folks on the river.”

“Folks,” Joe smiled to the customers, “You never quite know what to expect out of us river people. And Nanci, while I know you don’t blow your horn, word gets around and Marty gave me a heads-up. Now folks, we’ve got a little more to do, then we can saddle up and ride.”

At least out on the river it was the laziest trip Nanci had ever made; it was mostly a case of sitting back in the raft while Joe steered it, while she watched the scenery go by. Since she wasn’t rowing the raft, she had a lot more time to look at the scenery and saw several things she really hadn’t taken notice of during her three years of going down the river.

Because of the shortness of the trip, they spent a lot of time each day on the river. There were brief breaks, but only short hikes except for when they stopped at Nankoweap the second night out and climbed up to the Anasazi Granaries, one of the postcard views of the trip. In the bigger rapids the big S-rigs were a wetter ride than she’d expected; the heavier rafts crashed through a lot of the waves the lighter oar boats rode over.

Off the river the routine was much the same as with the Canyon Tours rafts, although there were some differences. All of the crewmembers had to pitch in with the chores, and at least some of the customers joined in as well. One of the problems Nanci had always heard about with the motor rig trips was that the customers weren’t together long enough to fall into the kind of teamwork that usually happened on the Canyon Tours trips, and it proved to be the case.

Another reason the trip was shorter was that the customers were only going to the helicopter takeout at Whitmore Wash, where they were flown out of the Canyon. The two S-rigs went on down the river to a handy beach, where the side tubes were detached and rolled up, then loaded onto the now much emptier center sections for the ride out to South Cove.

Again there wasn’t much she could do but sit back and watch the Canyon go by as the drone of the outboard motor powering the raft filled her ears. Nanci was pretty familiar with things up until they passed Diamond Creek, but after that she tried to pay more attention as they went on down to Separation Canyon; she’d only been there once before and knew she had missed things. While there were still some interesting features below there, a lot of the spectacular nature of the place died out.

Everything had gone all right up to that point, but when they got out to Lake Mead they found the wind blowing hard out of the west, and that slowed them to a crawl. She remembered how Jerry had barely enough gas to make it to South Cove when he’d towed the orphaned Canyon Tours rafts in there the year before, and Nanci realized they would never have made it without running out of gas if the wind had been like this.

The wind slowed them a lot, and they were later than they expected when they finally made it into South Cove, well after dark. At least the unloading and derigging was simpler than the rigging had been, but it was still nearly midnight when Nanci crawled up into the sleeper cab of the semi and promptly dropped off to dreamland.

Somewhere in there, Nanci realized that it was Sunday, and the White Team had to be rigging up at Lee’s Ferry without her! Was she going to miss the trip?

No. Someone, probably Joe, had thought to call ahead, and Al was waiting at the GCR parking lot when the semis pulled in sometime in the very small hours of the morning. Though Nanci knew that the GCR crew was going to have turnaround chores to do, just like they did at Canyon Tours, her trip leaving in the morning gave her an out, so she didn’t have to clean the rocket boxes, despite being the junior swamper. Joe said she’d done a great job for a motor rig newbie, and said if she wanted to ride along again sometime, she’d be welcome.

Al took her home, and she crashed while he washed her clothes. At six in the morning Crystal was there to drive her up to Lee’s Ferry; she’d slept all the way through that trip, too.

So Nanci wasn’t exactly at her best when Crystal pulled up to the launch ramp. Still shaking off sleep, she got out of the car to the tune of Preach yelling, “Hail, the prodigal daughter has returned to the fold!”

“Let’s save the fatted calf for later,” she managed to reply. “So long as you’ve got some coffee hot.”

“So how do you like riding a baloney boat?”

“It’s different. I can’t say it’s better, but it sure is different. I think I’ll stick to oars in the future, though. Are we about ready to go?”

“Pretty close. We’ve still got to pack up the kitchen, but we thought you might like something to eat. I called the office after we got up, and Dan said you didn’t get in until way late.”

“Thanks,” she replied. “I don’t know if Crystal thought of breakfast, but I sure didn’t. I think I was back asleep again before we got out of the driveway.”

“Good. Crystal, we saved something for you, too. Grab some coffee, and it’ll be about five minutes on everything else.”

“Thanks, Preach,” Crystal replied. “Nanci was snoring so loud stopping for breakfast got pushed out of my mind.”

Nanci stumbled over to the kettle where she could smell some river style coffee – strong, and that was just how she needed it right then. She noticed a familiar person standing at the grill, working on eggs and sausage. It took her a moment to realize that it was Norma Dieshu, the Navajo boatman with the uncanny weather sense. What was she doing here?

Oh, yes, she thought. Crystal isn’t going on this trip, so Norma must be replacing her. Nanci didn’t know Norma well, but had met her at a couple of season ending parties; she remembered that she’d usually run with Scooter or Mary in the past. “Hey, Norma,” she said. “I thought you weren’t going to run this year.”

“I wasn’t,” she replied. “But Al called up and begged, so here I am. I’m on break from med school, and the money will be welcome. This will probably be my only trip this year.”

“Well, good, glad to see you,” Nanci said. She’d known for months that Crystal wasn’t going on this trip, but now here it was and the reality struck home. Crystal had come partly to bring her up here, and partly to see Preach off, but she was filling Al’s shoes in seeing the trip off, too. This would be the first White Team trip in years that Crystal had missed, and now that Nanci thought about it a little, her sister had seemed like she was a little down.

“It’s good to see you, too,” Norma grinned. “I was wondering what we were going to do if you didn’t show up.”

“Well, if I’d gotten back with the GCR crew much later, Crystal might have been running with you anyway. I suppose I could have walked down to Phantom again.”

“It worked out,” Crystal sighed. “That was starting to be the plan until they called in about midnight last night, but I’ve got stuff to do topside this week, too.”

“It doesn’t feel good, does it?”

“No, I’d really rather be heading down the river again, but this is the next step that I knew I was going to have to take sooner or later. I’ll be on the next trip, though.”

Preach was standing nearby, and said, “I’ll tell you what, Nanci. I sure wish you had been on the last trip. We had a bunch of Mormons with us and they tried to convert everybody. I sure could have used your help in dealing with them.”

“I’m glad I missed it,” Mark, the Mormon swamper said. “Don’t get me wrong, I like my church, but I sure have seen people be pains in the neck about it.”

“Yeah, it wasn’t exactly the most fun trip I’ve had,” Angie added. Nanci had barely noticed she was there. “It made those Christian trips later in the summer look pretty mild, but we survived it.”

“Maybe it’s just as well that I was still in class,” Nanci replied. “Some people don’t realize that if people aren’t ready to hear they won’t want to listen. It sounds like it must have been a long trip.”

“I think that’s one I was just as glad I missed,” Norma said.

“It wasn’t the best trip I’ve ever had either, that’s for sure,” Crystal agreed. “And I’ve caught a couple of real stinkers. I was real glad to see Diamond Creek, if you know what I mean.”

The strong coffee helped Nanci wake up a little, and the talk around the stove helped to make her feel a little more a part of the team, even though it wasn’t the team she had been used to, especially knowing that Crystal wouldn’t be with them this trip. Even though she’d been with the White Team for three years, coming back to it partway into the season made her feel a little like an outsider, although nothing like it had been with the GCR crew up here a few days before. But she soon started feeling more comfortable and she would be on the river again before long, and that at least was something familiar.

After about three cups of good strong coffee, Nanci went over to her raft. She’d made time to get the gear in it set up the way she wanted back up at the shop one Saturday before the season opened, and her mother, who had again rowed it the last trip, probably wouldn’t have messed around with it very much. Still there were things she needed to inspect and get set up, and that took her a while.

She was busy working on that when Angie came over and sat down on the side tube. She’d seen Angie off and on over the winter, since she’d been working in the shop and the office, but there hadn’t been much time to sit down and talk. “So did you get through the rest of your school year all right?” she asked.

“Pretty well,” Nanci told her. “I had some problems with an accounting class, but it was partly because the instructor didn’t make a whole lot of sense. I got out of it with a B-plus, so I guess I can’t complain. So how was your winter?”

“I can’t complain either,” Angie smiled. “I would have rather been on the river, but it worked out all right. In fact, a lot of it worked out all right.”

“How’s that?”

“You mean, you haven’t heard? I’ve been dating, and it’s starting to look pretty serious. Look, you remember last summer when we talked a lot about how I thought I was interested in girls?”

“You’re telling me you’re not anymore?”

“Yeah, I think I got over that, and I think it’s at least because you were warning me that I ought to be careful about what I was doing. When we got off the river last fall I was getting pretty close to going to Los Angeles and looking up Julie, because we had a pretty good time that one time we got together. But something wasn’t right about it, and I decided to give it a pass.”

“I know you said something about it, but I was thinking that you just didn’t want to go to the effort.”

“I didn’t, Nanci, and I’m glad I didn’t. I don’t want to say if this is going to work out all the way, but so far it looks pretty good.”

“Well, good. I’m glad for you, Angie. It can be tough when you’re alone, I know that.”

“Yeah, and I went through a lot of alone. Look, I think most of my interest in girls must have come from the fact that I was trying to get back at my family, or distance myself from them or something, but I think I got that under control. Dan is a really nice guy, you know.”

That came as a real surprise – Dan? After last summer, Nanci wouldn’t have been willing to bet on it. And . . . “Our Dan? Up in the shop?”

“Yeah, he’s a really sweet guy. I know he’s had some problems but he seems to be over them. We’ve, uh, been seeing each other quite a bit. It started out working in the shop with him, but, well, things kept going on.”

“Well, good,” Nanci smiled. Maybe things had worked out after all. After considerable prayer and thought, Nanci had come to the conclusion that same-sex relationships might be all right, considering. They were certainly becoming more common, or at least more visible, but she was sure she would never be comfortable in one. She also knew it had caused Angie a lot of soul-searching and agony, but at least her reluctance had kept her from making what might have been a big mistake. It might not have been for others, but it might well have been for her. “Is this getting serious?” she asked.

“Moderately,” Angie smiled. “We’ve got the part about being separated most of the time this summer to deal with, but that ought to be a good test of just how serious things are.”

“You’re not going to be the only one going through that,” Nanci replied. “I mean, look at Crystal and Preach. I know they don’t like being separated, but they’re biting their tongues and doing it anyway. I’m sure it’s going to work out, although it’ll be tough for both of them.”

“Yeah, Crystal was moping around a lot on the last trip, and those Mormons making things a pain in the tail for all of us didn’t help make things any better. But I think she realizes it’s something she’s going to have to do, like it or not.”

“I’m sure you’re right. I’m interested in what happens when we get off the river, and how she’s going to feel after she’s missed a trip.” Nanci wanted to change the subject, so she went on, “So I take it you’re planning on staying on the river?”

“For a while, anyway. Dan may get involved with my decision, or he may not, but I think I’m good for a few years yet. You know about this business about swapping the assistant trip leaders around, don’t you?”

“Yeah, it sounds like Al has a good idea, but I can see how it’s going to be pretty confusing, too.”

“From what Crystal said the last time we talked about it, it’s confusing to set up. Anyway, we worked it around that I’m going to be the assistant for a couple of trips this year, and Kevin will be, too. Al told me that it might work around that I’ll be an assistant in the future, or maybe even a trip leader. I told him I don’t think I’m quite ready for that yet, but I might be after another couple of years on the river.”

“Good for you,” Nanci smiled. “I don’t have any plans in that direction. I don’t know what happens after this summer with me. I might be on the river next year, and I might not be. A lot depends on if I decide to go to seminary.”

“You’re still kicking that one around, huh?”

“Yes, I am, and it’s getting to the point where I’m going to have to be making up my mind.”

“Are you any closer to a decision?”

“Sometimes I think I am. There’s a part of me that wants to do it, but there’s a part of me that wonders if I have the faith and the courage and the willingness to take the responsibility to do it.”

“If you want my advice, don’t worry about the faith part of it. You’ve got as much as anyone I’ve ever seen. You don’t flaunt it, you just do it. After dealing with those jokers on the last trip, I sort of think that people who talk the talk don’t always walk the walk. I have no doubts about you.”

“Thanks, Angie. I’m glad to know you have that much faith in me. But I still wonder about my courage and taking the responsibility.”

“You ought to be able to answer that yourself. You’re a Grand Canyon boatman, aren’t you? You ought to know all you need to know about both of those.”

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To be continued . . .

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