Southern Stars

Part 1

The long two lane road was sprinkled with rocks and bits of debris, all a faint crunching under the wheels of the blue RV making its steady way along it.  It was light and dark blue in swirls, and on the back half was perched a satellite dish dome near a skylight that could open up fully.

It crested the last bit of elevation and then went along levelly towards a set of stone and wood buildings, surrounded by smaller cabins, and alongside a large parking lot that already had a few similar RV’s parked in it.

The RV pulled into the lot, and into a spot near one end, and settled into stillness.

“Here we are.”  Kerry turned off the engine of the vehicle, leaning forward to peer out the front windshield. “Cute.” She remarked, taking in the cozy cuddle of rustic looking cabins that bordered a lodge shaped building lit in the late afternoon sun. “Nice place to spend a few days before we start off on our great river adventure.”

Behind her, a tall, dark haired figure levered itself up off a plush leather couch and came forward through the small kitchen area of the RV to the front to join the shorter, fair haired driver. “Hm.”

“Whatcha think?” Kerry leaned back in the captain’s chair.

Dar removed her sunglasses and inspected their destination.  “I think I see a hot tub.” She pointed past the lodge. “Wanna go check in and look around?” She suggested. “See what trouble we can get into?”

Aaabsolutely.” Kerry opened the driver’s side door, letting in a rush of cool, dry air. “This is going to be fun.” She hopped out. “Too bad we couldn’t take the kids with us down the river.”

Dar opened the passenger door to the RV and followed. “They’re fine in their puppy palace. I think they had a hot tub too.” She remarked, pausing to look around. “And a spa.”

“Did you book them pedicures?” Kerry stretched and bounced a little on the balls of her feet. “I bet Chi would love painted toenails.”

“Bet she wouldn’t.” Dar chortled. “But I booked them both for baths and swimming in the pool, and the platinum toy package.”  She looked around at their surroundings, and the canyon walls they could see past the line of trees beyond. “It’s pretty here.”  She admitted. “Whole drive’s been amazing.”

The lodge was perched on the edge of a canyon wall, and Kerry drew in a contented breath as they walked across the sandy ground, taking in the endless array of reds and ochres, and the vivid blue of the sky.   She could smell a wood fire on the breeze, and there were two couples crossing from the lodge to the cabins, carrying bags.

Dar was whistling softly under her breath, her dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, and she put her sunglasses back on as they walked across the parking lot and onto a rock lined path.  “Hey. Look there.” She pointed behind the lodge. “Horses.”

“Hey look there.” Kerry pointed amiably in a second direction. “ATV’s.  Vroom vroom.”

Dar chuckled.

“We can do both.” Kerry hooked her elbow through Dar’s.  “It’s just nice being on vacation, even if we had to work like idiots up to the last minute.”

“Yup.”

“It really has been a nice drive too.” Kerry said. “Especially since we crossed into New Mexico.”

“Your camera got a workout.” Dar agreed. “And the dogs liked the campgrounds.”

“And I liked campgrounds we brought a small, air conditioned apartment with a kitchen to.” Her partner chuckled. “That also has a shower and internet access.”

“Microsoft Rustic.” Dar agreed. “All the pretty sights and none of the bugs and sand.”

They mounted the steps to the lodge and Dar opened the door, standing back for Kerry to enter. The front of the lodge was decorated with what she thought of as typical southwestern, a cow skull on the wall and a long front box full of nicely tended cactus.

A lot of striped carpeting, a lot of what appeared to be Indian inspired patterns.  She followed Kerry inside, nodding at the huge, natural rock fireplace and the preponderance of weathered wood furniture. “Nice.” She observed the rocking chairs near the fireplace, and the presence of a cat on a pillow nearby.

Kerry went to the front desk.  “We have a reservation, name is Roberts.”  She told the young woman behind the counter. “We’re doing the river trip on Sunday.”

The woman was already nodding. “Yes, we have it right here. You have an RV?”

“Yep.” Dar had caught up. “Parked it over there with the rest of em.”

“It’s a full service campground.  All the hookups you need.” The woman agreed. “But you know, we’ve got some really nice cabins if you’re interested in upgrading…” She fished delicately, watching them with faint anticipation.

Kerry smiled at her and leaned on the counter. “Talk me into it?”  She responded. “We’re staying two days after we get back…” She mused.

“And you’ve booked the premier package.” The woman smiled back at her. “Want to take a look at our Silver Rim suite? I can walk you over.”

Dar reasonably assumed she was going to end somewhere other than the RV.  “I’m gonna get a drink.” She patted Kerry on the back. “Let me know when you want me to move the baggage, hon.”

Kerry chuckled as she looked at the brochure the girl had handed her. “This looks really nice.  Let’s go.” She watched her guide pick up a heavy, old fashioned key and twirl it around her finger as she stepped around the counter and started for the door.

“Have you done any white water rafting?” The woman asked, as they walked out a side entrance and headed across the dusty ground. “I’m Tamara, by the way.”

“Kerry.” Kerry amiably responded. “No, this is a first.”

“Oh, you’re going to love it.  Glad you started off with us.” Tamara led the way between two lines of smaller cabins, to a large one on the very edge of the canyon.  “A lot of the ops here are barebones, and they get a lot more customers but we like to think we’re giving a select experience.”

“That’s why we booked with you.” Kerry eyed the tidy building they were climbing the steps up to. “We don’t get on vacation much, so we want the ones we go on to be good.”

Tamara opened the door and pushed it open.  Inside was a space Kerry had to admit was charming.  They walked forward into a bedroom area that had a huge king size bed in it,  a rock lined Jacuzzi bubbling gently in the corner, and a wraparound window that showed Grand Canyon to the horizon. 

“It’s so close to the edge, we know no one can see in the window, so it’s private, but you get a fantastic view from the bed.” Tamara said, in a practical tone. “The sunset is spectacular.”

“Sold.” Kerry responded. “Before and after.”  She walked to the window and looked out and down into the canyon, whose walls in all shades of yellow and orange and red collected and spread the light.  Below she could see the river. “Is that where we go in?”

Tamara came over. “Yep, that’s our launch.  We carry you all down in our helicopter.” She pointed. “Landing pad there, and at the other end you get a ride back here on our plane from a ranch that has a strip.” She added. “You’ll get lunch at the ranch before you come back, and then we usually have the group have a big dinner here if enough of the crowd is staying over.”

It sounded great.  “Awesome.” Kerry agreed. “Sounds like a plan.” She turned. “So let’s get ourselves signed up.” She followed Tamara out the door and they started across the grounds again. “I think we’re going to really enjoy this.”

“For sure.” Her guide agreed. “Almost everyone does.  I mean.. “ She glanced sideways at Kerry. “There’s always one or two people you know, who book and don’t realize what a white water rafting trip is with the boat, and the water and getting wet and all.”

“Not a problem.” Kerry assured her. “We like water. Generally it’s salt water, though. We live in Miami.” She followed Tamara back into the main lodge, and they approached the desk again where another agent was speaking to a man and woman who were apparently also checking in.

“Nice.” Tamara eyed her. “Are you….um..

“Family?” Kerry suppressed a smile.  “Partners? More than friends?”

Tamara smiled back.  “Something like that, yeah.” She went behind the desk and tapped something into her computer.  “Okay, here we go.”

“Is that a problem?” Kerry asked after a pause. 

“Not for me.” Tamara responded cheerfully.  “We just like to let the river guys know so they don’t say something silly, you know what I mean? Just trying to be funny?”

“Absolutely I do.” Kerry removed her credit card from her wallet and slid it across the desk.  “Like are you sisters?” She leaned on the counter. “Or hey, you want to go out?”

“Exactly.” Tamara swiped her card and handed it back. “Okay, the trip is prepaid I see, so it’s just for the cabin and incidentals, that all right?”

“Yup.” Kerry put her card away.  “Now let me go find Dar and whatever drink it is she’s gotten me.” She took the key Tamara handed to her.  “Lets get this party started.”

Tamara grinned and waved, then turned to greet another customer who quickly took Kerry’s place at the counter as she went around towards the fireplace and paused to give the cat a scratch behind the ears before she proceeded further into the lodge.

**

Dar glanced at the lodge restaurant menu, before she set down the two cups in her hands on a small table on the porch, taking a seat and extending her legs out along the terra cotta tile.

Nice. She took a sip of her beverage, and licked her lips.  There were a group of people around her age at a nearby table, laughing, and a couple in the corner, studying some brochures.  

To one side of the porch she could see the barn with the horses, and smell them a little, and across the way a rabbit scooted across the ground.   The air had a dry, clean taste, and there were high, white contrails across the solid blue sky and she made a mental note to retrieve the lip balm they’d gotten going through New Mexico.

It felt good to see new things. Dar smiled to herself and thought about the past few days of driving, crossing areas she’d never seen and experiencing living in the RV.  What had Kerry called it? Condo on wheels?  She chuckled under her breath. 

It had been fun, just driving along and stopping wherever they wanted, at pretty areas or just roadside tourist traps and little restaurants.  No rush, no stress.  Dar let her head rest against the chair back. It was nice to just relax.

The group at the next table were going down the river and they were really excited about it.  Dar listened to them talk about their previous white water experience, and found herself looking forward to doing something she’d never done before.

“There you are.” Kerry slid behind her and put both hands on her shoulders.  “We’re all signed up.” She put a kiss on Dar’s head as she moved past, and then sat on the chair next to hers. “And we triggered gaydar, but apparently that’s okay.”

Dar pushed a cup over to her. “I see.” She said.

Kerry took a sip, then started laughing. “What is this?” She looked at the contents. “Is that a piece of cactus?” She fished it out and examined it. “It is.”

“It’s a Grand Canyon welcome special.” Dar informed her. “I think it has tequila in it.”

“It does.” Kerry sat back with her drink and regarded the view. “This is nice.” She took a sip. “We can go to our posh cabin and take a shower, and then have some dinner in the lodge. Sound good?”

“Whatever you want, hon.” Dar rested her elbows on the chair arms, watching the sun splash across the floor.  “I’m not the one who’s been cooking the last few days.”

“Hey that built in grill’s pretty nice.”

“Hey!” One of the group at the next table stood up. “Let’s go check our gear!”  He was a red headed man with freckles and an athletic physique. “We better weigh it. They said no more than twenty for each of us.” He glanced aside at Kerry and Dar and grinned. “You going down the river too?”

“We are.” Kerry agreed.

“Cool! First time?”

Both Dar and Kerry nodded.

“River virgins!”  The man chortled.  “Nah just kidding you’ll love it. It’s so much fun!”  He rocked the chair he’d been sitting in and the rest of the group got up, grumbling a little good naturedly.  “I’ve been down five times. This is the earliest in the year for me though, first run!”

“That’s a good thing, just a small group usually.” One of his companions looked tolerantly at him. “Hi, I’m Dave, and that’s Richard.” He held a hand out to Kerry.  “He’ll settle down once we start, I promise.”

“No problem.” Kerry took the hand. “I’m Kerry, and this is Dar.” 

“Sally and Trisha.” Two of the women from the group came over. “We’re from Montana. You?” Both of them were tall and spare, with pale blond hair in braids.

“Miami” Kerry responded.

“Oh cool!” The last two of the group got up and came over. “I’m from Las Vegas, but my brother lives in Boca Raton.  I’m Scott, this is my cousin Jake.” 

“Hi.” Kerry repeated.  “Sounds like you all are veterans of this kind of thing.”

“We are.” Scott sat down. “Rich has done the most, but this is my third trip. First down the Colorado though.” He grinned. “I can’t wait. I’ve seen the pictures he brought back last time and wow, we jumped on it.”

Rich beamed.

“The slot canyons are gorgeous.” Trisha took the seat next to Dar. “And this op seems to have it’s act together. I went with one that didn’t, and that was a mess.”

“A mess.” Sally agreed. “Dumped one of the rafts midway and lost everything. We got real tired of protein bars let me tell you.”

“No, these guys are good.” Rich said. “They got good boats and good guides.”

“And good chow.” Dave reminded him. “Did we make sure they had Sally’s rabbit food?”

“Absolutely” Rich sounded indignant. “C’mon! Would I do that to Sal?” He looked at the table. “Are you ladies vegetarian?”

“No.” Dar spoke up for the first time.

“According to the brochure they have a pretty good selection.” Kerry added. “I think we’ll be fine.”

The group stood up. “We’ll see you all later.” Dave said. “Hey, want to join us for dinner? One of the cool things about these trips is getting to know people you know?”   He smiled in an engaging way at Kerry. “We make friends every single time.”

Kerry gave her partner a quick glance, and then nodded. “Sure.  Here at the lodge? In the restaurant?” She asked. “How about an hour from now?”

Rich gave her a thumbs up. “Right on.”  He backed away then turned and started trotting towards the door, and the rest of them followed, half turning to wave at Dar and Kerry as they disappeared.

Dar swirled her drink in her cup and took a sip of it. “Seem like a nice bunch.” She said, after a pause. “I think they said we’d only have a dozen on the trip.”

“Are you okay with joining them for dinner?” Kerry asked. “I couldn’t really tell with those sunglasses on.”

Dar chuckled and removed them, turning to look at Kerry. “Its fine.  We can get some intel about the trip. I like to know what I’m in for.”  She looked up as another couple entered, walking over to one of the far tables and taking a seat. 

Unlike the group that had just left, these two looked rather glum, and they waved off the waitress who came over to see if they wanted anything.

Kerry extended her hand. “Let’s go get our stuff settled.” She waited for Dar to take hold and then squeezed her fingers. “Want to go over and say hi to the horses?”

Dar grinned.

“And I think they have llamas” Kerry whispered, bending closer. “I want a picture of you with a llama.”

**

“My gosh that’s beautiful.”  Kerry paused, her finger resting on the camera shutter, watching the shift of light as the dawn light painted the canyon. “I can’t wait to see what the river’s going to be like.”

“Mm.” Dar edged in behind her on the small patio, setting a tray down on the even smaller table.  “Coffee?”

“Heck yeah.”  Kerry was dressed in a pair of worn jeans and a hoodie, with a pair of llama slippers on and she was seated cross legged on the deck. “Anyone else up?”

“Not that I saw.” Dar herself had heavy sweatpants and sneakers on, and a pullover. “I ran all the way down the road where that fence was and didn’t see anyone until I went into the lodge to get this.” She finished sorting the coffee out and offered Kerry a cup.

Kerry got up and sat down on the second chair, pulling her coffee over. “Horseback riding in the morning, then ATV in the afternoon?”  She extended her slippered feet out and crossed her legs at the ankles. “Then we should figure out what to pack. Did they really mean 20 pounds?”

“Uh huh.” Dar watched a bird circle above the striated rock levels of the canyon.  “Glad I’m not bringing a laptop. That would take most of mine.” She hiked one sneaker up and put it on its opposing knee. “But I saw they had light thermal stuff in the shop there.”

“At a premium.” Kerry gave her a wry grin.

“Sure. Marketing opportunity.”  Her partner agreed. “But I’d rather pack that and have room for peanut butter crackers after all that talk about healthy meals on the ride.”

Kerry started laughing, putting her cup down hastily to avoid spilling it.  “Dar.”

“I’m serious.” Dar grumbled. “You know I can’t deal with salad and granola.”  She tapped her thumb against the bone of her ankle under it’s clean white sock. “Its not like there’s Publix down there to grab fried chicken at.”

“I’m sure it’s going to be fine.”  Kerry gave her an affectionate look. “I’ll save some space for snacks for you in my bag too, hon. If they have a chunk of protein at dinner at least there’s that.”

“Grab me a fish and have home made sushi.” Dar eyed her. “Can’t you see that? Blood spurting everywhere when I bite into the damn thing?”

Kerry covered her eyes in mock horror.  “Oh no.”

Dar chuckled. “Hell it’s only seven days.” She sighed. “I’m sure I’ll survive.”  She propped her elbows on the chair arms and sucked at the coffee. “And you’re right about the scenery.  It’s damn nice.”

It was.  Kerry settled back contentedly.  ‘’They know we won’t have any signal once we go down into the canyon, right?  Mark and Maria I mean?”

“They know.” Dar replied.  Everythings on track, all the projects are on schedule even the government’s, and we delivered Dade County before we left.  They should not need us for anything.”

“Mm.”

“Should not.” Dar repeated.  “We’ve got a good team there, Ker. We can trust them.”

“I’m not saying we can’t.”  Kerry said. “It’s just weird stuff happens, you know? We could have a Martian spaceship drop down into the central court at the office. Do they know what to do about that?”

“Do we?”

“Well, that’s a point”

Dar drained her coffee and stood up. “I’m gonna change. You up for breakfast?”

“Yup.” Kerry put her cup down and picked up her camera, as the sun came up over the cabin and splashed beautifully past it. “Just going to get a few more shots while you do that.”

Dar crossed behind her, giving the back of her neck a little scratch as she ducked inside the door and left her to her snapshots.

**

So far the morning ride was fun, Dar and Kerry had been joined by two of their new friends, Dave and Sally, who both had ridden before and appeared to love horses.

 Kerry was content enough to be riding a good natured piebald, with hazel eyes and a sedate walk.  He was happy to follow along where his equine buddies led, and she felt comfortable enough to tuck her reins under one knee and lift her camera up as they ambled along.

Dar was just ahead of her, riding a tall, dark gray horse with a black mane and tail, letting her head sweep back and forth as they moved through thick, fragrant trees with the faint hint of woodsmoke on the breeze, following a clearly marked path that would wind up the next ridge and back down.

Nothing crazy exciting.  Kerry was okay with that, remembering the last time she’d ridden horseback and ended up falling off her bee bitten steed and scaring Dar half to death.

She tapped her horse gently on the ribs and he stepped along faster, bringing her even with Dar and allowing her to snap a profile shot of her partner.

Dar eyed her wryly. Then she smiled and winked. 

Kerry took advantage of this, then put the camera down and picked up her reins again as they started down the slope towards a small gully.  “This is nice.”

“We’re not galloping.” Dar sighed mournfully.

“That’s what I meant.” Kerry patted her knee. “We’ll have a wild enough ride starting tomorrow, hon. I don’t want to get my ass thrown off like the last time.”

“Wasn’t your fault.”

Kerry chuckled, watching ahead of them as the other two riders stopped and were pointing. “What do you figure, squirrel?”

“Bobcat.”

Kerry stared. “Really?”

“No, I have no idea.” Dar flexed her hands, then rested them on her thighs. “I just want to see a bobcat. I think they’re cool.” She twisted her neck from one side to the other. “Its nice to not be behind a desk for a change, even an adjustable one.”

They rode up next to the other two horses and stopped. “What’s up?” Kerry asked, leaning forward.

“It’s a Mexican spotted owl.” Dave whispered, pointing into the trees nearby. “Isn’t it cool? See it?”

“It’s brown.” Sally added helpfully. “Right there on the branch.”

“See it.” Kerry lifted her camera and focused, zooming in a little and getting a decent shot of the bird. “It’s pretty, with those yellow markings.”

The horses were taking advantage of this by nibbling at the scrub grass and Dar casually reached over to take hold of Kerry’s reins as she got another shot of the owl.

It was a nice looking bird, she acknowledged, watching it rotate it’s head a little. “Aren’t they supposed to be nocturnal?”

“Yes!” Sally whispered. “I’ve never seen one in the morning before. It’s cool!”

Unexpectedly, the owl took off from the branch, apparently bored with it’s spectators and a moment later landed on Dar’s hastily thrown up arm as she saw it coming at her. “What the hell!”

It was heavier than she’d expected, and she was glad she had a long sleeve shirt on as she felt it’s claws grab her arm as she stared at it in wide eyed surprise. 

It sidestepped along, opening and closing it’s beak with a small hissing squeaking sound.

“Wow!” Sally’s eyes were almost as wide.

“Oh, nice.” Kerry was busy snapping away, ducking when the owl took off again this time to soar across the wooded area and land in another tree much further away.   “It’s that animal magnetism.” She let the camera drop and took her reins. “Never fails.”

“That was amazing!” Dave was staring at Dar. “Are you an animal trainer or something?”

“Or Native American?” Sally suggested. “I’ve heard a lot of the myths around here about that.”

Dar looked up from inspecting her sleeve. “Computer programmer.”  She replied, briefly. “From Miami. Let’s get moving before some bear decides to try that .” She put her reins against her horses neck and guided him from the trees and back up onto the path.

“That was amazing.” Dave repeated. “Really amazing.”

“Really cool, I got a picture too.” Sally slid her point and shoot camera back into her pocket.  “I cant wait to see what kind of wildlife we’re going to see on the river.” She added as they prodded their mounts to follow Dar. “Did I see you going to that blue RV last night?”

“Yep.” Kerry said.  “We drove from Florida. It was nice.”

“That’s a long drive.” Dave settled into his saddle.  “I drove to Seattle once. That was long enough for me. “

“It was all right. We had our dogs with us, and nice weather.” Kerry slid her camera into the pack she had attached to the saddle.  “I’ve never driven a lot cross country. I’m from Michigan.”

They started downhill and as they did the horses picked up the pace a little, and as they caught up to Dar they started into a gentle canter, coming into a more open slope.

It was really pleasant.  Kerry could see Dar was enjoying the motion and she briefly envied that relaxed and natural posture as her partner moved almost as a part of the animal.

A little crazy, since she knew Dar really didn’t have that much experience with horses, especially not recently.  She herself felt a little unsure, a little on the edge of control riding this unfamiliar animal at any type of speed but they were almost at the bottom of the slope and she figured it would slow down any minute.

Alas, no.  The horses could sense their comfortable barn ahead and sped up, thundering through the grassy tufts in the sandy ground. “Oh boy.”

She leaned forward a little, and concentrated on keeping her balance as Sally and Dave whooped in excitement, a little ahead of her as they chased after Dar’s tall form and her piebald agreeably joined them.

Scary. But after a minute of nothing catastrophic happening she relaxed a little and enjoyed the experience, seeing the end of the grassy area ahead and Dar’s horse already slowing down as they met the dirt road that lead off into the trees where the ATV’s were.

She was sort of in the rhythm now, and almost regretted it when her mounts pace slacked and became more bouncy and jarring before they reached the edge of the grass.

Dar turned her horse and came cantering back as the rest of them arrived and joined them. “That was fun.” She issued a brief grin as she ended up next to Kerry. “You okay?”

“Yup, me and old Paint here had a great ride.” Kerry patted her horse on the shoulder. “No bees this time.”  She ran her fingers through her now thoroughly disordered hair.  “But I have to be honest and tell you I like it better when I’m driving.”

Dar chuckled.  “Yeah I know.”  She glanced up at the bright sunlight, and pushed the sleeves of her shirt up a little as their horses ambled side by side down the track towards the corral that was half shaded by trees. “Ah. Owl tracks.”

Kerry leaned over to look at the red marks. “Just a few scratches.”

Loud voices suddenly attracted their attention and they looked up to see the couple that had come in late the evening before standing with Tamara near the rustic pole fence that bordered the corral.

“Hm.” Kerry watched them from the corner of her eye as they got to the gate and one of the staff opened it for them, waving them inside. “Wonder what their issue is?”

Dar glanced behind her, then dismounted and handed her reins over, turning at once to take hold of the piebalds bridle as Kerry got herself down off it’s back. 

They dusted each other off.  Dave and Sally joined them and they all stood for a moment. 

The yelling got louder.  The man was waving his hands, and pointing strenuously and the woman looked upset. Tamara had both hands out in a calming gesture. 

“Hm..” Kerry stretched her legs out. “Should we..”

“No.” Dar put her arm around her partner’s shoulders and steered her towards the lodge. “I learned my lesson with Kristie.  I’m done. No sticking my nose in other people’s business anymore.” She turned her back on the argument. “Grab some lunch before we ATV?”

Kerry was momentarily silent, then she nodded. “Yep.” She put her arm around Dar’s back.  Behind them she could still hear the yelling, but she also understood where Dar was coming from.

At least, she thought she did.

“Don’t get me wrong.” Dar spoke up, as though listening to her internal dialog. “For you, for my family, for our friends I’d step in front of a bus.”

“Mm.”

“But not for strangers. Not any more.”

And Kerry really could not blame her.  Twice in a row, once for a company, once for a worker on the island they lived on Dar had stood up, and taken it on the chin in return.  Literally.  They were in the process of searching for a new place to live due to the fallout from the last scene.

She got it. “I hear ya, hon.” Kerry gave her a little squeeze. “Totally understand.” 

The voices faded behind them and as they mounted the steps into the lodge Tamara came trotting behind them, shaking her head as she opened the door and let them enter ahead of her.  “Did you enjoy the ride folks?”

“We did!” Sally and Dave had been oblivious to the drama.  “We saw a spotted owl! It landed on her arm!” She pointed at Dar. “It was amazing!”

“Really?” Tamara gathered herself together and shook of the recently ended disagreement. “That’s a first!” She craned her neck to see the digital display Kerry was now holding out. “Oh my gosh!” She looked up at Dar. “It just flew onto your arm?”

Dar had her hands in her pockets now and she nodded mutely, as they all filed into the lodge and started to spread out inside.  

“Really cool.” Tamara said, firmly. “Can you send me a copy of it? Do you mind if we put it on the website?” She was crossing ahead of them, talking half over her shoulder.  “We’ll crop it so you can’t see who it is if you want, just the owl.”

“Sure.” Kerry agreed. “Give me an email address and I will, no problem.”

“Hey!” Rich appeared from the patio area. “Glad you guys are back – they’re putting lunch out. I think they’ve got snake sushi!”

Both Dar and Kerry, and, in fact Tamara, pulled up short and looked at him, nonplussed.

“Get out.” Sally rolled her eyes.

“Just kidding!” Rich grinned at them. “Cream of asparagus soup and chicken salad sandwiches with fruit.” He waved them forward. “C’mon!”

“Two out of three ain’t bad.” Sally said. “I’m going to go wash my hands. Meet you in there.”

Kerry put her camera back in her backpack and followed, with Dar whistling softly under her breath at her heels. They all entered the ladies room and went to the sinks, which had baskets between them with fragrant poupourri and clean white hand towels.

“That was pretty cool.” Sally said, as she scrubbed her hands. “I really like horses.  Do you have.. I mean, do you live on a ranch?” She looked sideways at Dar. “You’re a good rider.”

Kerry chuckled, but remained silent.

Dar cleared her throat. “No, we live in a development near downtown Miami.  I got to ride a little growing up.”  She wiped her hands on one of the towels. “I’ve always liked them though.”

Sally smiled at her. “Obviously animals like you.”  She said, then paused, as one of the stalls opened and the woman who had been arguing with Tamara came out, walking past them without a word and shoving the door open and then slamming it shut.

Kerry wiped her hands down and put the damp towel in the basin. “Hm.”

“That’s going to be a downer.” Sally said, wryly.  “She and her boyfriend bought a private raft trip, and these guys couldn’t deliver it. The guide team that was supposed to take them got sick at the last minute and didn’t make the flight out here from Toronto.”

“Ah.”

“Did you hear them arguing with Tammy?” The woman shook her head. “I mean, I get they’re pissed, but they offered them a full refund, and their travel and everything.”

“Well.” Kerry went to the door and opened it. “Maybe they were really looking forward to it? If they’re not going to go, why are they still around?”

Ooooh.” Sally paused near the door. “That’s the bad news for us. They’re going to be on our trip.”

“Maybe they’ll cheer up after we’re on the way.” Kerry suggested, as they exited and started for the patio, where the sounds of silverware and the soft strains of new age music were drifting from.  “After they get over the disappointment.  This place is so gorgeous, how could you stay pissed?”

Sally was nodding in agreement. “Exactly.”

They entered the patio and were greeted by Rich and the rest of their gang, seated already at a larger table that could accommodate all of them and as they sat down a waitress came over to take their drink order.

Dar let her elbows rest on the chair arms and let Kerry order refreshments, smiling briefly at the excited, interested faces of her companions as Sally’s sister and Rich related their morning hike at an almost breathless pace, and everyone clamoring to see Kerry’s picture of the owl.

Really different than the people she was usually surrounded by, with an open friendliness that was kind of nice and what was more, they were just being taken at face value and included.

Behind them, four women were at a table listening, and after a moment, they too got up and came over. “Hey there.” One said. “So you all are part of the raft group too, right?”  She had hazel eyes and a deep tan that went with the Southern drawl.  “We’re on break from school. “ She pointed around. “Carla, PJ, Jan and I’m Terry.”

“Take a seat!” Rich immediately invited them. “The more the merrier!”

“And we’re Donald and Marcia.” An older couple had been standing in the doorway, and now joined them as well. “I think we round out the lot.” Donald smiled at them. “This is our first time on a raft.”

“Us too.” Kerry indicated herslf and Dar. “Glad we’re not the only ones.”

The waitress came back and stopped. “Whoops, I’m gonna need a bigger tray!” She delivered the drinks and rambled off, as everyone pushed back their chairs to make room for all the new comers. “Be right back!”

**

Dar zipped up her duffel bag and straightened. “You ready Ker?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Kerry was pulling a hoodie over her head, as she emerged from the bathroom, her own duffel already packed near the door. “Holy crap, Dar. Do you know how long it’s been since I played actual cards?” She ran her fingers through her hair, freeing it from the hood. “That was kinda fun.”

“It was.” Dar readily agreed. “Fun bunch.” She slung her bag over her shoulder and put her hands in the front pockets of her own hoodie. “I think Donald may be ex Navy.”

“Some kind of veteran, yeah.”  Kerry went to pick up her bag and open the door. “Let’s go rafting, Dardar.”

They left the comfort of the cabin and went into a faintly smoke scented early dawn light, heading across the center of the complex towards a helicopter pad behind the lodge.

It was quiet, and ethereal, the air dry and clean, and a faint breeze stirred their hair as they came around the side of the lodge to where the rest of the team was assembling, stifling yawns and stretching as the light slowly grew around them.

“Hey, morning!” Dave said as they arrived, and added their bags to the pile waiting for the helicopter. “We ready for this?”

The college girls were all seated on the ground near their duffels, half asleep, but they waved faintly. “Shh.” The dark skinned and dark haired PJ added. “We had to finish the tequila we brought last night.”

Kerry chuckled a little under her breath. “Oh I remember those days.”  She leaned against the post rail fence surrounding the pad.

“Me too.” Marcia leaned next to her.  She and Donald were in their mid fifties, rough and weathered and dressed in matching lined and waterproof jackets.  “Now I stick to a glass of white wine.”

“Beer.” Kerry agreed.

“Milk.” Dar chimed in drolly. “Chocolate milk when I really get wild.”

Mmm.. please don’t say chocolate milk.” PJ begged.  “My stomach could barely handle the oatmeal this morning.”

“Okay folks.” A young man with a blue jacket with the name of the lodge on it came over and opened the side of the helicopter. “We go six at a time, and I’m Jimbo, your pilot.” He started loading the bags in, then paused as Tamara came up next to him with a clipboard. “Hey Tam.”

She leaned close and whispered to him, displaying the clipboard.

Ooooh.” Jimbo paused in his loading. “Okay, let me do that first then.” He ducked around the side of the helicopter and motioned at two people standing off to one side. “C’mon then, let me get you down, okay?”

“Ah.” Sally folded her arms.  “The grumblies.”

The two disgruntled customers got into the helicopter, refusing to look at anyone as Jimbo got their bags loaded and then closed the door.

“Man, that’s going to be a drag.” Rich sighed.  “It only takes one sourpuss, you know? Everthing’s gonna be wrong for them. The weather, the seat, the river, the food…”

“Well, you never know.” Kerry spoke up. “Let’s give it a chance.”

Dar had her sunglasses on, as the sun was now splashing over the plateau and she leaned next to Kerry against the fence as she watched the helicopter spool up.  The blast from the rotors fluttered her jacket against her skin, and seeing the profiles inside the window she privately considered that Rich probably was more right than Kerry was.

Tamara watched the craft take off, then she came over to them, holding her clipboard and looking more than a little apologetic.  “We have two late additions. “ She said. “They were supposed to have a different guide, but we had a conflict.”

“They look kinda pissed off.” Dave commented.

“Well, it’s our fault.” Tamara said.  “We’ll try to make it up to them, and hopefully it won’t bother the rest of you because you’ve all got such a great attitude.  Anyway, sorry about that.”  She turned and headed towards the lodge, breaking into a run as she went past the fence.

“Hmph.” Kerry grunted slightly.

“Into everyone’s lives a few assholes must fall.” Dar intoned, pushing her sunglasses up on her nose a little.

Rich heard her, and laughed, and Sally’s sister Trisha did as well.  “Yeah.” Rich mock sighed. “There’s always that one guy. Or gal. Or both.”

The sound of the helicopter returning got them all stirring around and a moment later Tamara and one of her colleagues returned with a tray with cups on it. “Hey guys, here’s some hot chocolate to start the day off.”  Tamara said. “With a little bit of extra.”

PJ had taken a cup and sipped it. “Kahlua, nice.”

“Hair of the dog.” Her companion Jan agreed. “Just what we needed.”

Kerry took a sip, tasting the rich creamy beverage, that had a hint of cinnamon along with the Kahlua, glad they’d had some breakfast before their early morning activity.  “That’s good.”

“It is.” Dar agreed. “They can serve this for dinner every day far as I’m concerned.”  She straightened up and drained the chocolate, setting the cup on the tray as Tamara came around to collect them. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” Tammy smiled at her. “Have a great trip, ladies. Take lots of good pictures.” She winked at Kerry. “Already had six or seven comments on that owl.”

Six of them boarded the helicopter including Dar and Kerry and a moment later they were airborne and lifting up into the morning sun to tip over the edge of the canyon and down into it.   The sound of the rotors echoed off the striated walls, and the colors spread with the sun as it chased them downward.

Below them they could see the green blue of the river, with splats of brown through it, and on one side a landing with sturdy wooden posts bracketing a set of heavy well built raft boats.

They were odd looking, square in parts and pontoon in parts, like no other boat she’d ever seen and Dar watched with interest as the river guides bounced all over them, loading gear.

The chopper landed on a pad on a little rise and Jimbo popped out and popped the side door open to let them out. “Here we go, peeps! Don’t worry about your bags. We’ll handle them.”

They scrambled down out of the craft and immediately Dar could smell the distinct scent of the water and now, closer they could see the current rippling past.  

Rich and Dave, Sally and Trisha were with them, and they moved away from the landing pad and towards a set of picnic tables under a sturdy tarp that shaded them from the sun as the helicopter lifted again to pick up the rest of the group.

The other couple was already there, seated at one of the picnic tables and as the rest of them wandered in and started to settle, Rich went over to them. “Hi!” He sat down at the table. “I’m Rich, and I guess we’ll be spending the next week with each other.”

The two of them stared at him, but after a moment the woman unfroze a little and cleared her throat. “Hi.” She said. “I’m Amy, and this is Todd, my fiancé.”

“Hi.” Todd added, briefly.

He had a crew cut, and a squared face with a muscular jaw and very pale hazel eyes.  Amy was pert and pretty, with long blond hair and a creamy complexion, and gray eyes and she was dressed in what Kerry considered haut outdoorsman.

They looked like they were in the early twenties. 

Dar took a seat next to her and leaned on the table, tipping forward her sunglasses a little as she regarded their surroundings.  The boat team was busy loading all their gear into deck boxes, calling to each other and paying more attention to their tasks than their passengers.

Sally and Trisha had joined them at their table, while Dave wandered over to join Rich at the next one.   “Nice day.” Trisha said. “Going to be great weather for rafting.”  She and her sister had their hair pulled back into identical pony tails and they were wearing similar waterproof rain jackets and multi pocketed cargo pants.

Dar and Kerry were also wearing cargo pants and tank tops under their hoodies, and Dar was glad since she could already feel the air warming down at river level in the canyon.  She left Kerry to continue the casual chatter and looked around at the striated walls, their craggy outlines and shades of color appealing to her eye.

“I’m looking forward to seeing those slot canyons you told us about.” Kerry said. “They sound amazing.”

“Oh they are!” Sally immediately smiled. “I mean, the river’s nice and I like the rapids, but the hikes into those slots for me, that’s the best part.”

“Hope we don’t get flash floods.” Trisha added. “I got caught in one once, and that was no fun let me tell you. Do you guys swim? I think you said you did.”

“We’re divers.” Kerry supplied, then they fell silent as two of the boat crew came over, a guy and a gal with clipboards.

The rest of the group had now joined them and they had fourteen passengers who turned looks of various levels of attentiveness towards them.

“Hi there folks.” The woman took the lead. “My name is Janet Wilson and I’ll be your trip coordinator for our first run down the river this year. Everyone excited?”

“Yes.” The group answered back.

“This is Douglas, and he’s the raft captain.” She introduced her companion.  “So he’s in charge of everything that moves and I’m in charge of everything else. Okay?” Janet had a confident, no nonsense attitude and looked as though she expected everyone to be okay with that.

“So we’re going to go through the safety basics, even though I know some of you have not only done this before, but done this before with us.” Janet concluded. “Because we really want everyone to have a great time, and really enjoy themselves, but what the most important thing to all of us is, that we all do that in a safe way.”

Dar was nodding at this statement.

“So how many of you have rafted or done whitewater?” She scanned the raised hands. “Okay great, about half of you. That’s awesome.” She half turned. “Doug, you want to go over the safety features of our custom made, cool looking rafts?”

Doug smiled. “Sure.” He had a backpack on his back, and a sparse beard and was probably in his mid thirties. “Let’s get this party started.”  He said. “C”mon over to the boat.”

They went as a group along a rough rock lined path and down to the river’s edge.  The raft was pulled up to a wooden pier, and Dar could see the current tugging at it, rippling past at a good clip.  The craft was cross tied against it, with a walkway set from the pier to allow them access.

“So you can see we have lots of seats.” Doug was saying. “We can take a total capacity of twenty people on one of these, so you all are going to have lots of space and you can move around to different seats depending on how you feel that day. “ He stepped onto the surface. “These seats up here, on the front pontoons are the action stations. You feel every bump.”

“My kinda ride.” Rich grinned.

“Behind them, that row, you get plenty wet, but it’s more stable. Behind them, more stable again, there in the middle and in the rear of the raft where I stand, it’s the barcaloungers.”   Doug said. “You can walk around while we’re between rapids, but we do recommend you sit down to go through em.”

The group chuckled.

“So now lets talk bout water safety.” He looked across at them. “I don’t have any mariners this trip, do I?”

After a brief pause, the older man Donald raised his hand, and a moment later, Dar did also, and then they looked at each other.  “Navy?” Dar hazarded a guess.

Donald grinned. “Coast Guard.” He admitted. “You’re Navy, right?”

“Only by proxy.” Dar said. “But I have a captains license.” She regarded the waiting Doug. 

“OUPV?” He regarded her with interest.

“Masters.” Dar replied in casual tone. 

“Nice.” He grinned at her. “Not really useful on the river, though.”

“Not in the slightest.” Dar agreed. “Since you’re driving and I’m used to salt water.”

“But I don’t have to explain port and starboard to ya.” He looked around at the rest of the group. “For the rest of you, the boat does have two sides, port and starboard.  Easy to remember that port has four letters, and so does left. So left is portside, and right is starboard. Got it?”

Dar could see some rolling eyeballs.  She put her hands in her pockets and watched the group, as Todd walked past where Doug was talking and started inspecting the boat on his own. 

Doug swung around to watch him, and drew a breath, then Janet touched his arm, and shook her head.  He glanced at her, then shrugged, and went back to his briefing.  So , anyway the most important thing to know is what to do if you fall off.”

“Oh yeah.” Kerry muttered. “There aren’t any seat belts on that thing.”

“No.” Dar regarded the craft. “You don’t want to be strapped down if it flips.”  She glanced at her partner, whose eyebrows were lifted. “Well think about it, hon.  We carry those seat belt cutters in the car for a reason right?” She said. “Besides you can swim.”

“So, if you go into the water, the most critical thing is not to freak out.” Doug was saying.  “You’ll be wearing safety jackets that have enough lift to keep you at the surface, and we’ve got enough horsepower to come after you. Don’t worry.” He grinned. “When it’s calm, you don’t have to wear them but we’ll let you know when you do.”

“Mm.” Kerry rumbled under her breath. “I hate when someone says that.”

Dar rocked up and down on her heels. “Let’s get this moving.” She could see the rest of the group was getting restless. “Want to see new things.”

**

Rich did in fact claim one of the pontoon seats on the front.  So did Trish, and PJ.  Donald and Marcia settled in the middle, with the rest of the collegians in their row, and Amy and Todd took seats in the back, near Doug. 

Dar and Kerry, and Sally and Dave decided to take the front row and they settled there, arranging their dry bags that clipped onto the relatively sturdy seats.  Dar stood up and took off her hoodie, stuffing it in the dry bag along with a handful of peanut butter crackers, and a bottle of water.

The air was still cool, but the sun slanted down over them and it felt good on her bare shoulders.   She left her lurid orange life vest on the back of the seat and strolled around the decking that bordered the seats.  In the middle of them were long, large lockers where their gear was stowed, and near the back of the raft, two of the crew were loading beer and wine into floating coolers which they then pushed into the water.

“Natural refrigeration.” One of them smiled at Dar. “Next one has the margaritas in it.”   He pointed at the gear lockers. “We put the chow in the lower level of those, keeps everything nice and chilled.” 

“And it’s more eco friendly.” Janet had come over, seeing her standing there. “Which is cool.”

“It’s cool.” Dar agreed.

“You’re.. ah, Dar.. right?” Janet said. “Roberts?”

“That’s me.”  She nodded. “First time on white water.”  

Janet nodded. “A lot of first timers, and that’s really cool for me, because I love sharing the Colorado with new people. Just seeing the faces.” She grinned and her serious demeanor eased.

“I feel the same way about diving.” Dar responded agreeably, catching sight of Todd coming back to his seat and slumping into it, a can of beer in his hand. His safety jacket was on the floor and as she watched, he put his military booted feet on it and popped the top on the can.

Janet saw it also, and frowned. Then she just shook her head and focused on Dar. “What kind of work do you do?”

“Computers.” Dar said. “I co own a little tech company.” 

Janet regarded her with a faintly puzzled expression. “And you’re a boat captain too?”

Dar put her hands in her pockets and nodded. “I’ve been on the water since I could walk, and got left a boat so figured I should learn how to drive it.”

“Good idea.” Doug was fiddling with his station, and he looked up with a grin. “How many screws?”

“Twin diesels.” Dar said. “Eight hundred horsepower.”

Doug stopped in mid motion, and looked at her. After a minute he laughed, and Dar did too. “So now I know who I can ask to spell me, right? I thought you were just messing with me with the license.”

“Totally different type of driving.” Dar demurred.  She half turned as one of the crew came over with two plastic tubes of liquid and offered her one. “Thanks.”

“Raspberry lemonade.” The crewman said.  “We’re ready, Janet.”

“Excuse me.” The woman smiled at Dar and edged past. “Okay, Doug, let’s line off, and get going.”

Dar took her tube of lemonade back to her seat and settled into her end seat next to Kerry.  She opened it and took sip, then offered it to her partner. “Ready?”

Kerry had taken off her hoodie as well, but was sitting with her safety jacket on, snugged firmly around her body. She took the tube and sucked in a swallow, swishing it around a little. “Mm.” She licked her lips. “That’s good.”  She closed the tube and clipped it to her vest with the small plastic ring on it’s top. “Ready, Dardar.”

The lines came off and the crew boarded, the staff onshore pulling the gangway free and waving as the raft backed out into the current and with a brief gun on the engine turned and started downstream.  

It was sunny, and breezy, and they had a long stretch of the river before them which was relatively placid and calm and Dar drew in a breath of contented well being as she relaxed in her seat, and absorbed the new scenery.

Ahead of them, she could see what looked like eagles circling, and the cliffs that rose on either side were strange and craggy.  It was an odd juxtaposition between a desert like environment and the river, which burbled and splashed all around them.

In front of them, straddling the pontoons Rich raised both ands and let out a whoop, that echoed back to them from the walls as the launch point disappeared behind them.

**

Dar realized rather quickly that just sitting on a raft, going down a river didn’t really end up doing that much for her.   Kerry at least had her camera to entertain herself with, and was busy taking shots of the moving scenery and her raft mates while she was mostly just waiting for something to happen.

When booking, she’d briefly considered signing them up for one of the paddling trips, but after some mental tug of war she decided on the posh run, given they’d never done anything like it before.  Seven days, she reasoned, was a long time if you found out you really didn’t like paddling a canoe.

Ah well.  She had her arm draped over the back of Kerry’s seat, and just then Kerry swiveled and tilted backwards to lean against Dar’s body so she could take a picture of a bird.

She rested her cheek against her partner’s pale hair and listened to the little sounds of the shutter and the low chuckle of achievement, deliberately refusing to think about what was going on back in Miami.

It was at least easier now, with the projects their company was working on.  None of the accounts so far required the kind of attentive support she’d been used to in their previous jobs and she was confident that once out of the canyon her phone would not contain multiple increasingly agitated voice mails.

Or Kerry’s either. 

“What does that piece of rock look like to you, Dar?”

“A piece of rock.” Dar amiably supplied. “Are you suggesting it’s something else?”

“It looks like a hatchet, doesn’t it?”

Dar tilted her head.  Sorta.” She admitted, briefly glancing around at their raft mates.  Most were pointing and gesturing to the various scenes to either side.  Marcia, though, was knitting. No one was giving them one of ‘those’ looks, or even a second glance.

Nice, actually.  Not that either of them would have cared if there had been, but there was something oddly comforting at the anonymous perspective of it all, and not being the center of attention as they often were at work.

Dar regarded the flowing river with a smile. Nice to just be a couple of people on a raft.

“Okay folks.” Janet was making her rounds. “In about five minutes we’d like you to all get your vests on because we’re going to start rocking and rolling a little before we meet our first challenge, Badger Creek rapids.” 

Kerry already had hers on, but she sat up and swiveled around to let Dar lean forward and pull hers out from the back of her seat and slide it onto her shoulders.  She put her camera down and let it hang around her neck as she adjusted the straps and snapped the connectors together.  “There.”

Dar wriggled a little and tightened the restraints, finding the garment reasonably comfortable and not inclined to hike up and hit her chin.  She folded her bare arms over her chest and regarded the increasing pace of the water with approval. “Vroom.”

The canyon walls, rising high above them, narrowed slightly and the pitch of the water now had small whitecaps ruffling it’s green-brown edges.   All round them the rest of the raft party was getting ready, and now Marcia put her knitting into a dry bag and faced forward with an expression of excited pleasure.

“We’re about to get drenched, aren’t we?” Kerry said, as she tucked her camera into it’s waterproof housing. “I never figured I’d use this above the surface.  She indicated the dive case. “How cold do you figure the water is?”

“They’re chilling your beer in it.” Dar responded dryly.  “How cold is our refrigerator?”

“Oh boy.”

Dar chuckled. “Sun’s nice. We’ll dry out.” She heard the motor behind her gun a little and the raft slewed sideways in the current, as they approached a bend in the river, and she could hear beyond it the flutter and rush of rapidly moving water.

“Okay!” Doug yelled. “We’re going to take it straight front, to the left!”

“Wonder what that means?” Kerry wrapped her legs around the base of her seat, and hesitated. “I probably should put this down and hold on.”

Dar took hold of the back of her partner’s jacket and clamped a hand through one of the belts. “G’wan. I got ya.” She said, confidently “You aren’t going anywhere without me attached.”

Kerry lifted her camera and grinned, starting the video recording as the raft headed into the white water, flexing and bucking under them.  She took a breath and then her eyes widened as she felt the raft slam sideways and plunge into a cleft in the water, a wall of green and white froth crashing over the pontoons and completely covering the three people riding up there.

Then they came up and bucked sideways and she was glad Dar was hanging onto her as she saw the water coming at them and then it rolled over them with a shocking chill as she fought to keep the camera steady amidst the screams and hollers of the other riders.

Booah.” Dar barked, as she got hit in the face with the cold liquid, one hand clenched in Kerry’s jacket, the other latched onto the railing alongside the seats. The shock of the water made her inhale sharply, and she shook her head and blinked catching a little bit of the water in her mouth.

It was sweet and minerally, so different than the ocean water she was used to.

“Woo!” Kerry let out a yell as they plunged to the left, and the raft tipped up halfway on it’s side and she almost ended up in Dar’s lap, barely keeping control of the camera as they came up and over a ridge in the water and then went down into a gap with a stomach wrenching motion.

The raft went half under again and then popped up and over and they were out of the rapids and into a wider part of the river with still moving current, but no rough disruptions.

Kerry triggered the stop on the video and shook her head to scatter water everywhere. “Oh that was fun.” She exclaimed.  “I want to do that again!”

Janet was at their side. “Oh you will!” She assured her with a big grin. ”You liked it?” She handed Dar a small towel and extended one to Kerry, before moving past them.  “You three will need more than this!” She called down to the three on the pontoons, who were completely soaked and laughing.

“That was cool” Dar responded, wiping the water out of her eyes. “Literally and figuratively.” She released Kerry, who then leaned back in her seat. “Nice.”

“It was.” Kerry wiped down the camera case and then ran back to footage. “Oh Dar, look.” She extended the camera. “Like being in a washing machine!”

The sun had come through the water just as it was washing over them in a blast of color. “That’s cool.” Dar leaned back in her seat herself and took a swig of their tube of lemonade.  ‘This is going to be fun.” She decided. “And the sun’s nice.” She appreciated the warmth of it, and she ran her fingers through her hair, escaped from it’s pony tail to push it out of her face. “I liked that.”

“Me too.” Kerry smiled in contentment, half turning in her seat to take a picture of her companion, sunlight glistening through the remaining droplets of water on her face.   Then she swiveled and prepared the camera for their next bit of adventure.

Janet was walking back and forth, giving them tidbits about the area they were passing through and the lands beyond it.   Dar relaxed and listened, fishing in her dry bag for one of her packets of crackers.  In her peripheral vision, she saw Dave getting up to remove the sweatshirt he’d had on under his jacket, and Sally was wringing her hair out, half standing in her seat.

She loosened the straps on her water jacket and munched her snack, offering Kerry one of the peanut butter crackers and putting it between her partner’s teeth when she nodded in agreement.  

“That was nice.”  Dave wandered over. “Hey Rich, want to swap places for the next one?”

“No!” Rich shot back. “We flipped a coin! You lost! Wait for tomorrow!”

“That did look fun.” Kerry mused. “Those front seats.”

“By the end of a day or two, he’ll swap with you.” Dave confided. “You get chafed. Know what I mean?”  He was ruffling his hair dry with the towel. “Got some good flow on the river. That was deeper and twistier than the last time.”

Rich had scrambled up from his seat on the pontoon, and come climbing along the ropes to the upper level. “Woo hoo!” He accepted a tube of lemonade from one of the crew, who was passing them out from an over the shoulder leather bag. “Nice!  House Rock’s gonna be awesome. I bet we come close to vertical on that left hand turn!”

He was shivering a little, the tube shaking in his hands. “Gotta get a dry off.” He said. “Boh I know that water’s cold but I’m used to being here a little later in the summer.”

Sally came over and handed him a towel. “Here, before you start chattering.”  She resumed her seat, casually looking behind her, then at them. “Got some problems back there I guess.”

Dar leaned on the back of her seat and looked, spotting Todd back facing off against their captain Doug in a trucelent stance.  There was far too much noise, between the water and the engine to hear what they were saying, but she saw two more of the male crew drifting over, heads cocked.

With a shake of her head she faced forwards again, glad for once it wasn’t her issue.

“This is so gorgeous.” Dave sighed, as he also turned back around. “Why would anyone want to be a jerk instead of enjoying it? I don’t get it.”

“Some people are just natural grumps.”  Sally patted his arm. “Ignore it.”

Kerry fluffed her hair out and wiped off the plastic housing of the camera.  She lifted it up and focused, then paused, and pulled her head back a little watching the reflection that showed her what was going on behind her back,

Marcia and Don, the older couple were huddled together, laughing, merely damp rather than drenched as they had been. But behind the two of them she could see the girl Amy sitting with her arms wrapped around her, back to the argument going on in the rear, a look of wistful longing on her face as she watched the rest of the group.

There was something very lost in that look. It made Kerry wonder.

“Okay folks, one more bit of excitement, and we’re going to stop at a nice beach Doug knows for a lunch break, and to stretch our legs. There’s a nice little hike up the wall a bit, and you get a great shot of the river.” Janet walked across the boat, zipping up her waterproof jacket. 

The motion broke the scene, and Amy glanced aside as Todd rejoined her, folding his brawny arms over his chest and with a look of satisfaction on his face.  She leaned over and asked him something, and he just laughed, making a brushing away gesture at her.

Hm. Kerry glanced to her left, where her solicitous spouse was feeding her another cracker and reminded herself once again how freaking lucky she was in the lottery of life. “Thank you honey.” She took the cracker and nibbled it.” Have I told you today how much I love you?”

Dar smiled her sweet, and usually just between them smile.  “I never get tired of hearing it.” She settled her arm back around Kerry’s shoulders. “Back at you.”

“Aw you guys are cute.” Sally said, casually.  “I have a cousin that’s gay, and she and her partner act like absolute jerks most of the time.” She accepted one of Dar’s crackers. “Thanks.”

“Thanks for being cool.” Dar responded, with a wry grin.  “How olds your cousin?”

Twenty one.”

“Ah a baby.”  Kerry grinned, “But Dar’s right – it’s nice when people don’t react in a bad way to us. Your cousin will probably grow out of the.. um… “She looked over at Dar. “Drama phase?”

Dar nodded.

“That’s a relief. I’ll let my aunt know.” Sally munched her cracker.  “I’m Bi.” She added, unexpectedly.

Kerry blinked, somewhat nonplussed, then shrugged. “Well I’m Republican.”  She answered, feeling Dar start to shake with laughter. “Takes all kinds, right?”

Sally winked, and went past, heading over to where the drink coolers were.

**

“Dar, this is gorgeous.”  Kerry focused her camera on the spears of sunlight penetrating down the sides of the small slot canyon they were hiking in. “Oh my god.”

Dar juggled two small rocks in her hand, looking around in somewhat awed appreciation.  They had hiked up a small slope from the gentle white beach the raft was pulled up to, a curve in the river that gave them a fantastic view of the canyon they were going to head into next.

Lunch had been turkey wraps, or in the case of the vegetarians roasted vegetable wraps and they had been acceptably tasty and Dar had relaxed a little, now that it seemed she wasn’t going to have to live on her stash of crackers.

The air was cool and dry and this far from the river, with a faint dusty taste to it, the sand and dirt they were walking over already gathering to coat their hiking boots.

Ahead of them was a rock wall and Dar went over and put her hand on it, leaning closer to examine the layers and layers running through it.

“It’s amazing isn’t it?” Dave was nearby. “This whole canyon is so amazing.”

Dar turned and looked out over the gap, with it’s winding river at the bottom. “Amazing that this whole thing was made by that.” She pointed at the river. “All those years of it just doing what it does.”

Amy was standing nearby, while Todd explored a cleft a little further down the wall.  She glanced at him, then edged a few steps over. “Its kind of a parable for life, you know?” She commented quietly. “So like, if you keep at something long enough it will change anything.”

She had a faint lilt in her voice, an almost accent Dar could not quite place, and as she turned to regard her, the woman didn’t quite meet her eyes. 

Dave dove right in. “Well, it had help from this being limestone and sandstone.” He said. “It would have taken a hell of a lot longer if it had been granite but yeah.”  He nodded. “I did a whole semester in geology on this place.”

Dar wondered if she’d ever even taken geology. “We don’t have much geology in Florida.” She admitted. “It’s just limestone. One good kick and it dissolves.”

“Have you been in the aquifer?” Dave asked. “I’ve seen pictures oh that’s cool.”

Dar shook her head. “Not my thing to squirm down a hole in the ground.”

Amy moved a little closer. “I’ve been spelunking in Pennsylvania.” She said. “I love caves.” She peeked over her shoulder. “That’s why I wanted.. I mean we wanted to come here, to see the caverns and rocks.”

“Hey.” Todd called over, seeing them standing together. “Come see this.” He jerked his head at Amy.

“Excuse me.” Amy gave them a brief smile and climbed up towards him, using a hiking pole she handled with skill.  She got up to the level he was standing at and they moved along past an outcropping and out of immediate view.

“Don’t like that guy.” Dave said, straightforwardly.

“Me either.” Dar responded. “As my father would say, he makes the toe of mah boot itch.” She allowed her drawl to emerge, keeping Kerrys scrambling form in her peripheral vision as her partner moved around to get the striated color in the rocks focused.

Dave laughed. “Are you from the south?”

“I’m from Miami.” Dar said. “It’s not the south. But my father’s from Alabama, which is.”    She saw a small cascade of rocks tumble down and stepped away form the wall to see where they’d come from.  “Hey what’s that?”

“Dar! Look!”  Kerry was hopping up the slope sideways, moving from bright sunlight into the shade of the wall as she brought her camera up. “A… “ She focused. “Sheep?”

“Yeah!” Rich came bouncing over. “A big horn! Check it out!”

Dar climbed up the slope until she was at Kerry’s side and looked up, to see a rock shelf about thirty feet over their heads with an animal standing on it, looking down at them.  It was large, and had brush brown shaggy fur with long curving horns over the top of it’s head.  “Big horn.” She said, as she shaded her eyes. “Got it.”

Kerry chuckled softly.  “It’s sticking it’s tongue out at us.” She zoomed the camera in and took a shot, pulling away her head a little as Dar peeked over her shoulder.

There was a rush on the rocks as the whole group scrambled up to get a look, and the sheep remained standing there, as though content to pose for them. 

“Hey!” Dave suddenly called out. “Don’t climb up there!”

Todd was scaling the cliff side, fingers caught in small cracks in the rock, feet feeling for ledges.  His muscular body was taut under the long sleeve tshirt and camo pants he was wearing and he paid no attention to Dave’s warning.  He had obvious skill and was moving at some speed, angling up towards where the sheep was standing.

“Hey be careful!” Sally came over.

“its okay.” Amy turned and waved them off. “He’s a solo climber.”

Kerry turned her camera sideways and took a careful, considered shot of the rock face, Todd, and the sheep.  “That animal might not ask for his references.”  She commented in a mutter to Dar, as they watched the man make his way up the face like a spider.

“My hope is that it turns round and poops on his head.” Dar responded, half turning as Janet arrived at a near run at their side. “Make sure you get a shot of that, Ker.”

“Don’t worry I will.”

“Oh for god’s sake.” Janet expelled an exasperated breath.

“He’s really good.” Amy objected.

“If he falls is that going to matter?” Dar asked, in a mild tone. “Sucky way to end a trip, on the first day.”

“He wont fall. He does this all the time.” Amy looked briefly uncomfortable, but she moved away and went to the wall, peering up at the still climbing Todd, who was now nearing the shelf the sheep was standing on, watching him with a bemused expression on it’s face.

Amy pulled a point and shoot camera out of her pocket and took a picture.

Janet sighed. “That’s why they wanted a private trip down the river.” She remarked. “They wanted to do all the caverns and some climbs. The guy who was supposed to lead them is a climbing expert. Has ropes and stuff for safety. We don’t.”

“Ah.” Kerry nodded. “Got it.”

“Hey, he signed the release.” Dave shrugged. “If he falls doing this its on him. But I hope this doesn’t mean we have to deal with this crap every time we stop.” He shook his head and turned around, pointedly turnin his back on the drama and heading for one of the underhangs where Rich was already kneeling examining something.

Janet sighed again, and Kerry gave her a sympathetic look. “Hard to make everyone happy.”   She looked around for something else to focus on, and spotted a lizard, basking in the sun.  “Will you pose for me too, mr lizard?” She eased closer, also turning her back on the wall.

Todd had reached the level of the ledge and he gripped firmly with one hand, then released the other and extended it out towards the sheep. After a puzzled pause, the animal sniffed his finger and then nibbled them, before turning and leaping away up the cliff further past and out of sight.

Dja get that!” Todd yelled down. “Amy! Didja?”

“Yes!” She called up. “I got it.”

Todd pulled himself up onto the ledge the sheep was standing on and stood up, extending both arms up in triumph.  “Yes!”  He shouted out over the ground, his voice echoing back from the walls opposite. “I am a rock star!”

Dar shook her head and went to join Kerry, as they moved past the lizard and went closer to a shallow cave in the rock wall, which had glinting bits of stone in it. “Dogs.” She said, briefly.

“Yep.” Kerry switched her lens for a macro, and adjusted her focus. “Dogs.”

**

Continued in Part 2