Southern Stars

Part 2

The light was muting into a gentle haze as the raft steered it’s way into an alcove, a deep cleft in the canyon that featured a long, white beach that was a well known landing point to the crew. 

“That last rapid was fun.” Kerry was wringing out her shirt, standing on the raft deck near her seat in her cargo pant and a sports bra with a towel draped over her. “Wasn’t expecting the wave over our heads though.”

“Uh huh.” Dar hadn’t bothered taking off her wet tank top.  She was relaxing in her seat, watching the crew tie up the raft. “Glad they mix the floating and the stopping stuff though.” She added. “Either one could get boring.”

Kerry eyed her affectionately.

“I know. Typical type A nerd ADD.” Dar twiddled her thumbs. “Is what it is.”

“You are what you are.” Her partner reached over and smoothed the wet hair out of Dar’s eyes.  “And I love what you are.”

Dar tilted her head a little, the words producing a gentle smile.

There was a cool breeze blowing over them, and Janet was circling the deck with a tray of mugs, holding what smelled like mulled cider. 

Dar took two cups as she came past, and offered one to Kerry once she’d gotten her now only damp shirt back on. “This smells good.”

“Ah.” Kerry sipped it. “Oh that is good.”

It was.  Some kind of fruit cider with some nutmeg and a shot of liquor and it took the chill off.  “Do I wonder how they got this hot?” Dar mused. “Or just enjoy it?”

Kerry chuckled.

“Okay folks.” Doug had come forward. “This is where we’re stopping for the night. So the drill is you all get off and find a spot you like onshore, and stake a claim to it. Then we’ll bring over the cots and tents.”

Todd and Amy were already hopping off the front of the raft and starting up the slight slope into the camping area.   Doug watched them, then shook his head a little. “Since its going to be cool tonight we suggest a tent. But if you want, you can just sleep under the stars. Your choice.”

Kerry got up and hefted her dry sack. “Tent?”

“Uh huh.” Her partner agreed. “Back in the day, in Florida, sleeping without a tent regardless of the weather was an invitation to wake up with a palmetto bug on your pillow.”

Kerry paused and stared at her, jaw slightly dropped.

Dar wiggled her fingers up near her temple and snickered. “Don’t worry. They’re subtropical.”

“You better hope so.” Kerry shouldered her sack with some dignity. “Or you’re going to find ME on your pillow.”

“Mm.” Dar got behind her and leaned in to nibble the skin on the back of her neck. “Lucky me.”

Cool skin, warm lips.  Kerry almost tripped on the edge of the seating area. “Oo.”

They made their way off the raft along with the rest, and paused on the beach.  Dar pointed to the left, and started in that direction, as the rest of the crowd split up in their small groups and wandered off.

The small beach curved around a little, and they walked along it’s edge untl they came to a small slope upwards.  The ground was mostly rock and sand, with a few tufts of hardy grass in it and they had to lean forward as they climbed up, moving around two large boulders before they found a small, relatively level spot near the cliff wall. 

It was quiet, and they turned and looked behind them.  The raft was just out of sight, but the sun was slanting against the far wall of the canyon painting it in a hundred shades of desert colors.  They could see the river rushing past, and with a satisfied grunt, Dar dropped her dry bag in the sand. “This works.”

“Nice.” Kerry agreed.

They could hear the others in the near distance, voices echoing softly against the rock but there was no one else within view and Kerry took out her camera, getting a few shots of the view before she went and sat down on a table height rock that had an almost flat top.

“I’ll go tell em where we are.” Dar offered. “Be right back.”

Kerry lifted one hand in assent, then she leaned back on the rock and let the breeze flutter over her, it’s dryness already sucking the damp out of her clothes and ruffling her short cut blond hair.  She was looking forward to the dinner, and relaxing, and the stars to come overhead and she felt a sense of letting go.

When they had started driving she hadn’t felt that, since they were in the range of their phones and email and talking about work almost the whole way.

But now, she felt the constant churn of ideas fading and they had left their phones back in the RV, sending one last message to everyone that they would see them on the other side.

She didn’t even feel anxious about it now.  It was odd and strange and a little intimidating and still, she had to keep catching herself thinking about some task or other she had to do back in Miami and putting it aside because literally there was nothing she could do about it.

Now sitting here with the oncoming sunset to watch, and the smells of the desert and the river competing in her nose it was getting easier to just live in the moment and let whatever the future would be wait.

Just wait, bringing a sense of tentative peace to her that had been hard to find in the recent past.

She braced her hands on the rock, feeling the residual sun warmth against her palms and drummed the heels of her hiking boots against the stone in idle rhythm, just watching the light’s progress across the canyon walls until she heard footsteps approaching again.

“Hey good spot.” It was one of the mates, Pete, who had accompanied Dar with a sizable sack carried on his back.  He put the sack down and straightened up.  “We’ve got some drinks going down by the raft, why don’t you all take part while I get this set up for you?”

“Awesome” Kerry took the hint and got up, moving past him to collect Dar who looked like she might want to take over the tent making process. “C’mon, hon.  Let’s go watch the fun.” She hooked her arm through her partners and kept going, encouraging Dar to turn and move with her. “Pete doesn’t need anyone telling him how to set up a tent.”

She winked at Pete, who unexpectedly broke into a frank grin, and gave her a thumbs up.  

They walked down the slope to the river and over to where the rest of the group was, clustered around the landing point where some quick assembled bar height tables had been set up with mugs on them, next to round dishes of trail mix.

Sally and Dave were near the edge of the river, pointing across.  Marcia was perched in one of the tall directors chairs that had been set up facing the west and had a sketch pad out, and was drawing on it. 

“Your mother would love this place.” Kerry said, observing her.  “So many colors.”

“She would.” Dar readily agreed. “I bet when they see the pictures they’ll decide to do a trip.”

Kerry considered that, as they went to the tables to collect their beverages. “Your dad would make these people  nuts, hon.” 

“No doubt.”  Dar started strolling down the edge of the water, and after a moment Kerry caught up with her. “Not with these guys, I mean just in general.  Don’t think Dad’s ever been out here.” She watched a bird coast overhead, coming to roost on a small ledge in the cliffs.

They moved around a small jut in the coast and around a bend and paused, on seeing a pile of gear in an alcove that had obviously been used many times for a camp.  Doug was just standing up and turning, and he paused as well on seeing them. “Oh. Hi.”

“Hi.” Kerry returned the greeting. 

“This where you all camp?” Dar asked, noting the well worn look to the gear.

The river pilot nodded, and stuck his hands in his pockets. “Gotta have a little down time.” He gestured upward. “We let the clients pick the nice spots, and we take usually this area, doesn’t really have a view and that.”

Dar turned and regarded the river moving past. Then she looked up the slope, which was full of rubble and tufted grass. “You guys make the other side nicer?” She guessed. “Did it look like this before?”

Doug came over and regarded her.

“I don’t’ care.” Dar said, in a gentler tone. “I grew up on a Navy base in the scrublands of far south Florida. I’ve camped a lot rougher.”

He nodded, and shrugged a little. “You  know, people pay for a nice experience. If we charge what we charge, we need to put skin in the game and make it worth it. “ He said, frankly. “So sure, we found nice spots to camp so they can take pictures, and go home and show everyone and it’s wow.”

“Nothing wrong with that.” Kerry said. ‘It’s a business.  We get it. We run our own.”

Doug relaxed a little. “Yeah, you guys seem cool.” He said.  “Some people aren’t.” He glanced past as his name was called.  “Sorry. Got to go start cooking.” He gave them a brief grin, and then followed them as they retreated back along the shore towards the main camp. 

The crew were setting up an outdoor kitchen, and some of them were carrying tent gear and large square boxes up and into the brush.

“The necessary.” Rich indicated the latter group with his mug as they arrived.

“Necessaries.” Janet was busy with a checklist, and she looked up with a smile. “One of the ladies, and one for the gentlemen.” She shifted her eyes, and her lips twitched.  “So to speak.”

Todd and Amy were approaching and they came over to her and as they did, Dar felt that internal twitch, that silent, unseen prickling of her hackles that Kerry always kindly called her crusader instinct flaring.

But no, she’d decided she wasn’t going to do that, hadn’t she?

“Hey.  How long is it going to take to get that tent up? We need to change.” He indicated himself and Amy, who was shivering in the breeze. “Can you get it moving?”

Rich was quick to sidle up. “Maybe you shouldn’t have picked that way out spot.” He said. “Cause our stuff’s already up. Taking them a while to get the tent gear up to your area.”

“Shut the fuck up.” Todd told him. “No one asked you.”

Janet visibly counted silently to ten. “Okay, let’s see if we can speed it up.” She put her clipboard down and motioned to Doug, who put down the table he was setting up and trudged after her.

“That’s it, get your asses up there.” Todd stared at the rest of them. “These guys screwed up our whole vacation. Damn right I want service from them. You got something to say about that?” He looked at Dar, who was regarding him steadily.

“Yeah I do.” Dar said. “If your SO is cold you should give her your shirt.” With a shake of her head she moved past and went over to the bar top tables to investigate the trail mix.

Todd took a breath, then released it, visibly nonplussed. “Uh.”

Ah. Kerry scratched the bridge of her nose, and stifled a laugh as she followed her, leaving the discontented pair behind as Rich scrambled to join them.  “He wasn’t expecting you to say that.”

Dar had sorted out the mix and gotten a handful of cashews, which she offered to share. “I mean, c’mon.” She took a sip of what was apparently rum punch. “How about some common sense?”

Rich was laughing, and he took handfuls of the mix and tossed them into his mouth.  “That was funny.” He said. “But I think you pissed him off.”

“Wouldn’t be the first.”  Dar sighed. “Won’t be the last. I am waiting for the words ‘don’t you know who I am’ to come out of his mouth.”

“Yeah me too.” Rich agreed. “He is someone by the way.  Sally googled him before we left.  His dad’s the owner of some big company.”

Dar rolled her eyes. “Even better.”

Mm.. but he gave his shirt to her.” Kerry had seated herself so she could see behind them.  ‘So there’s that.” She took a swallow of her grog. “And he won’t be the last to take advice from you, hon.” She gently poked her elbow into Dar’s side. “His father was probably one of our old customers.”

“Meh.”

Sally and JP came over.  “We get veggie fajitas.”  Sally announced, with some satisfaction.  “And yellow squash soup.”  She took a handful of the mix.  “I think you guys are stuck with either steak or chicken.”

“Moo.” Dar responded. “Too bad they didn’t bring milk.”

**

It was dark when they made their way away from the dining area, the sounds of harmonicas and guitars having faded into the night silence that was now broken by the sound of the river, and their footsteps against the sand as they climbed.

“That wasn’t bad.” Kerry said, as they got up to the level where their tent had been pitched, and approached it. “I really liked that soup.”

“Mm.” Dar grunted softly. “I like your cooking better.” She said. “You use better spices.”

“Thank you, sweetheart.” Kerry had her arm around Dar’s waist and she unwound her hold now as they got to the tent.   She undid the ties and drew aside the flaps, exposing the neatly made interior.  “Ah.”

Dar entered and removed the flashlight from her pocket, turning it on and moving the beam around the inside.  There were two folding bunks made up, with a foam pad on them, covered with a sleeping bag and at the head an inflatable pillow covered in a cotton pillowcloth.

A small battery lantern was hung at the apogee, and she switched it on, turning off her flash as Kerry came in and knelt next to one bunk, pulling over the duffel bag she’d last seen getting on the helicopter. 

It was nice.  Dar sat down on her bunk and opened her duffel. Along with those, the raft team had delivered a six pack of water for each of them, and a kit for the toilets including hand sanitizer.

It was good to get her hiking boots off and the socks. “I think those water boots were a better idea. Like what Rich has on.” She commented. “They dry faster.”

“And no socks.” Kerry agreed. “Next time.”  She set her boots and Dars near the doorway. “Glad we brought spares.” She paused to poke her head out, as the last of the light faded on the horizon. “Turn that light off, would you Dar?”

“Sure.”

Behind her, the light went out and then she was able to look up at the night sky, full of stars and the distinctive swath of the Milky Way splashed across the center of it. “Oh wow.”

Dar poked her head out. “What..oh.” She studied the view. “Yeah that’s nice.  You want to change and then sit outside for a while.” She indicated the two directors chairs planted in the sandy ground.  

“Yes I do.”

They ducked back inside and changed, and Dar took the time to open the three screened in window panels, to allow the breeze to enter. 

Then they took a bottle of water each and emerged into the night, taking seats and settling in to enjoy the stars and the residual warmth of the sun in the sand under their feet.

“So.” Dar said, after a few minutes of compatible silence. “What do you think so far?” She reached over and took Kerry’s hand in hers. “What you expected?”

Kerry leaned back and tipped her head up so she could study the stars.  They were dense and beautiful, and so much more plentiful than she was used to back at home.  “I’m not sure what I was expecting.” She answered honestly.  “I just mostly wanted to be with you, and not be dealing with work for a week. So in that case, it’s definitely met my expectations.”

“Mm.”

“And the views are pretty, like I thought they’d be.” Kerry added, after a pause. “You?”

What did she think about it? Dar considered that for a while. “I like the rapids. Those are fun.”  She said. “I like the hiking. The views are really different.  But I don’t know that I enjoy hanging out on the boat getting from point a to point b.”

“Mm.” Kerry regarded her with a sideways glance. “Why not see if Marcia has another sketch pad? I could see you were getting bored. I have my camera.”

“Nah. I can read a book.” Dar said, wiggling her toes. “I’ve got a few with me.” She exhaled. “I’ll put it in my drybag tomorrow.”

“What is it?”

“Lord of the Rings triology.”

Kerry started laughing. “You really did come prepared.”

Dar chuckled along with her. Then they both paused and sat up as a shrill scream broke the silence of the camp.  After a moment, there was the sound of running and the moving spears of flashlights, and another scream.

“Hope it’s nothing serious.” Kerry said, gathering herself to stand. “And it isn’t a palmetto bug.”

**

The screams were coming, it seemed, from the outhouse.  Kerry was a step ahead of her partner as they joined a group of others, the combined light of their flashlights illuminating the tarp covered structures as Janet arrived and moved decisively forward.

“Hey! What’s wrong!” The group leader asked, tapping on the outside of the tarp. “Whats all the screaming about?”

“Snake.” Dave suggested.

“Scorpion.” Rich disagreed. 

“No toilet paper.” Dar dryly supplied, and chuckles rose around them.

“Hey. That’d make me scream.” Marcia agreed. “My age? You betcha.”

Janet apparently had received permission to enter as she’d unlatched the tarp and stepped inside, with two of the raft crew standing hesitantly behind her.  A moment later she emerged holding the arm of JP, who was limping, tears visible on her face. 

“Huh.” Kerry folded her arms over her chest. “Wonder what happened?”

The two two other crew members had ducked inside, and they could see flashlights moving around. 

“Sit down.” Janet had guided JP over to one of the camp chairs and after the girl was seated, shone her light on her foot. “Oh, crap.” The group leader’s eyes widened a little as blood was immediately visible.  “Doug! Get the kit!”

“It looks like a cut.” Marcia said, in a low voice.

“Janet, here it is.” One of the crew had emerged and came over, holding something in his hand. “Someone must have broken a bottle. It’s a big piece of glass.”

Dar got a brief glimpse of the item, which was long and curved, and a pale gold in color.  “Ouch.” She muttered, shaking her head.

Janet briefly glanced at it, her lips tightening. “Get the rake, and make sure that’s the only one.” She said, sternly. “And go through the checklist and see that nothing else was missed.”

The crewmember gave her a glum look, but carefully put the shard into one of his cargo shorts pockets and moved away, the other crew trotting off to get some tools. 

“Oh my god it hurts.” PJ moaned.

“Okay folks.” Janet stood and faced the crowd. “Show’s over. Please go back to your tents and give PJ some space.”  She made shooing motions with her hands. “We’ll get her fixed up.”

“That’s bad luck.” Kerry said, as they obeyed, moving through the darkness back towards where their little camp was. “She was saying how much she was looking forward to hiking.”

“Mm.”  Dar made a low noise in her throat.  She glanced casually around, then tipped her head back a little, looking up at the small escarpment where Todd and Amy had put their gear.  She could see a shadow against the pale rocks past it, and as she watched the shadow moved and disappeared.

They walked back to their tent and settled back into their chairs, and Dar put her elbows on the chair arms and steepled her fingers, brow slightly creased.  “That was a big piece of glass to miss.” She commented, after a moment. “But I’m  not sure I’d be walking around in the desert with out shoes either.”

“No, that’s true. Though you go barefoot all the time at home.”

“I’ve paid for that.”  Dar removed one of her sandals and directed her light to the bottom of her foot. “Still have marks where that damn fish bit me.” She pointed out one.  “I remember how much that hurt. So yeah, it sucks to be her.”

“Hm.” Kerry glanced at her bottle of water as the steadily cooling breeze brushed over her skin. “You feel like some tea? They had a jug of hot green tea down by the kitchen.” She stood up.  “Be right back.”

“Sure.” Dar leaned back in her chair, after sliding her sandal back on.  She watched Kerry disappear from sight, then tipped her head back to regard the canopy of stars, and the dark outline of the canyon walls against it.

**

“You know what, Dar?”

Dar sealed the zipper on her duffel bag and straightened up.  “You like your bathrooms to be bathrooms.” She suggested. 

“Mm.”

“I’m not crazy for the whole water in a canvas basin either.” Her partner said, with a grin.  “When we used to camp back in the day we’d just dive into the nearest water and consider it done.”  She lifted her duffel and Kerry’s moving outside the tent and setting them on the dry, cool ground.

“Does that make me a sissy?” Kerry followed her, and regarded the beautiful pink and gray dawn around them, with the everpresent sound of the river and the clatter and clamor of the group getting ready to go down to the kitchen for breakfast.  “I feel like it.”

“Why?” Dar put her hands in her hoodie pockets. “C”mon lets go get some granola.”  She had traded her boots for the thick soled sandals she’d worn the previous night and she flexed her toes in them. “Better than wearing wet leather all day.”

“For sure.” Kerry joined her as they walked down the slope.  “I don’t know why – everyone else seems so naturfied.”

“Ker.” Dar draped an arm over her shoulders. “We’re not from the country. No sense in pretending we are. Even if I did some camping rough in the past, I’ve been a well off city gal long enough by now.”

Something about that made Kerry smile.  Maybe because though she knew it was true, and she knew Dar believed it was true, it wasn’t the whole truth.  There was a rough surface under her partner’s techie faćade that she herself did not possess.

They joined the rest of the party at the tables neatly set for breakfast for them, and the small group clustered around JP.  She had her foot up on a second chair, and it was wrapped very well, and had a plastic protection around it.

“How are you feeling?” Kerry asked.

“Bummed!” JP answered, her face shifting into a pout.  “I can’t believe I was so stupid, not to wear shoes into the loo.”

Todd and Amy were at a nearby table, and he turned to look at her. “Their fault.” He indicated the crew.  “They’re supposed to make sure no shit is dangerous like that. Lots of people walk barefoot in camp.” He indicated his own feet, which were bare. “Lucky as crap it wasn’t me.”

Dar had detoured to the buffet and now she took two plates and moved methodically along, plunking bits of fruit and a half bagel each onto the plate. She paused at the offering of yogurt and granola and sighed, then took a cup of each and added it to the platters.

One of the crew had been watching her, alert to assist if needed. “What’s your usual morning fare, Ms Roberts?” He asked, in a quiet voice. “I kind of get the feeling its not this.”

Ah, their tent assembler Pete from the previous night. “Coffee and pastalitos.” Dar responded readily. “Cuban pastries that have cheese, or meat, or coconut in them.”

He considered that. “I think that sounds yummy.” He admitted. “Where I live there’s a doughnut shop and I sometimes start with a maple bacon one.” He had edged closer, and was randomly sorting the yogurt cups. “Or sometimes sushi.”

“I like sushi.” Dar finished her selection and glanced casually around. “All work out last night?”

Pete sighed. “We got yelled at.” He said. “Someone must have missed that piece of bottle. Big no no.” He went to the end of the table. “Want some chilled OJ?”

“Sure.” Dar had both plates gripped in one hand.  “Be right back.” She turned and went to one of the high top tables, setting the plates down and regarding the back of Kerry’s head as her partner stood talking to PJ. After a moment of that, Kerry looked around and made eye contact, then smiled when Dar pointed t the plates.

Dar made a little satisfied grunting sound, and went back for the juice.  Marcia was standing chatting with Pete, and she moved aside a little to make way for her.  “Good morning.”

“Good morning.” Marcia responded at once. “We saw a coyote just before dawn.” She picked up a cup of the yogurt. “We got a picture. It was wonderful. We were walking up near the bushes there.” She pointed with a spoon.

“Really?” Pete asked. “Wow – we haven’t seen one along the river in a while.” He gave Dar two glasses of juice. “Wish I’d seen it!”

“Me too.” Dar admitted readily. “I want to see a bobcat.”

“Oh! So do I!” Marcia responded. “I hope we do!”

“I’ll do my best to find one for you, ladies.”  Pete gave them both a little bow.  “They’re nocturnal, so keep those flashes handy.”

“Absolutely.” Marcia beamed at him. “Thank you so much.”

Dar brought the juice to the table as Kerry reached it, and they both perched on the foldable stools.  Sally and Rich came over and plunked their plates down on the small table with them.  “Morning.” Kerry greeted them.

“And a nice one it is.” Sally agreed. “Except for poor PJ. Bummer.”

“Bummer.” Rich agreed. “She’s lucky it was glass though not rusty metal.” He was vigorously stirring his granola into the yogurt.  “I put a rusty spike through my hand a couple trips back and holy cow was that a mess.” He lifted one large, muscular hand and expose the palm. “See?”

“Ouch.” Kerry grimaced at the knotted scar.

“Got infected, ugh. I was miserable.” 

“So this sort of thing happens out here sometimes?” Dar asked, thoughtfully consuming the creamy, slightly sweet yogurt.

“Hey they try their best.” Rich answered immediately. “But you know, it’s like the wilderness out here, and you can’t catch everything.  Real fault belongs to whatever moron left broken glass around instead of packing it out.”

“You go on believing that.” Todd had been passing and now he pointed at Rich.  “Like I said, lucky it wasn’t me.” He went past to deposit his plate on the table, tossing the silverware onto it before heading up to where they’d made camp.

They watched him retreat, then Kerry shook her head and went back to her bagel.  “Hey.” Rich lowered his voice, and glanced around to where Amy was still seated, waiting for the meal to be over.  She had a small leather bound book with her and was scribbling into it. “So the big company his dad works for? It’s a law firm.”

“Ugh.” Sally  rolled her eyes. “Figures. Probably threatening the op with lawsuits every time the sun changes inclination.” She was sectioning fruit neatly in her plate and eating it.  “No wonder they’re running so scared.”

Dar was sucking on her spoon, and from the corner of her eye she saw Kerry’s jaw tighten, and her partners eyes narrow. “Yeah that makes sense.” She commented briefly. “Who wants trouble with a big ass legal firm.”

“Right Not me.” Rich agreed. “Not that I don’t wish he didn’t fall on his ass so we could all laugh at him, but there’s no way I want that kind of complication in my life. I’m leaving them alone.  Taking his advice and shutting the hell up from now on.”

“Right on. But I told you that yesterday.” Sally said. “No one wants any trouble.”

Kerry cleared her throat a little.  “Did you like that?” She indicated the yogurt.

“Not really.” Her partner sighed. “But it’s the closest thing to milk they have.” She rested her chin on her fist and gave Kerry a mournful look.

“Aw.” Kerry finished up her bagel and took both of their plates. “It’s just a week, hon.” She gently bumped Dar’s shoulder, then leaned over and put a kiss on the back of it. “I promise I had the dispenser filled before we left.”

Mmmmoooo.” Dar rumbled softly, as she got up and went to the river’s edge, hopping up and down and shadow boxing as the water burbled past.

Kerry walked over to where the crew was washing up and sorted the silverware and crockery into the bins they were working from. “Thanks guys.”

The two workers glanced up at her in some surprise, and gave her smiles. 

Kerry smiled back and went over to pick up both her and Dar’s dry bags, slinging them over her shoulder as she joined the straggle of people starting to climb up onto the raft as the crew worked to stow all the camping gear and the staff onshore rushed to finish packing.

Not an easy job.  She fastened the bags to their chosen seats from the previous day, no one seeming to want to trade them at least for the moment though some of the other chairs were in the midst of being swapped.

Dave and Rich, for example, with Dave now straddling the pontoon, his drybag strapped across his chest, the dark orange safety vest under it.

Rich had taken a seat next to Kerry, and Sally had swapped with her sister.  Marcia and her husband were standing back where Amy had started to set out her things in the far rear section in conversation with her.

“Should we pick another spot?” Kerry asked, as Dar crossed over from the gangway and joined her. 

“Not unless you want to. I liked the front row seat.” Dar eyed the pontoons. “Might want to see if I can do that one time.”

Brr.” Kerry rubbed her arms through the hoodie sleeves. “Maybe in the afternoon.”

“Polar bear.” Dar chuckled. “You can stay up here and only be mostly drenched.”

“True.” Kerry twisted her body around in both directions to  loosen up.  “We’re going to see that waterfall today, Dar. I can’t wait.”

They watched as Doug and Pete linked arms, and made a living chair to lift PJ up and carry her onto the raft, a situation not at all completely unpleasing to the college student, followed by her three friends all chuckling.   She was settled into one of the second row seats, and then was joined a moment later by the older couple.

Don came over to where Dar was standing, hands in pockets and offered her a sack of throat lozenges. “Gets dry here.”

Dar took one. “It does. Thanks.” She watched from the corner of her eye as Todd made his way onboard, going over to where Amy was getting herself settled and taking a seat in the plush, comfortable space alongside.

Don was doing the same. “Peculiar fella.” He commented briefly.

“Asshole.” Dar said. “Determined to get every bit of his dissatisfaction out on the team there.” 

“True, and funnily enough, seems I remember him being the last person to use the WC before that gal did.” Don remarked, rolling the lozenge around in his mouth. “Not that it means anything, necessarily.”

Dar remained silent for a bit, thinking.  “Suspicious old salts, aren’t we?” Her eyes twinkled a little. “Comes from being around a while.”

“Comes from.” Don agreed. “Most of these kids haven’t seen much.”   He amiably changed the subject as Doug and Janet walked up. “So, what did your dad do in the service?”

“Special forces.” Dar went along with it, noting the furrowed brows on the two in charge.

“Ah hah.” Don chortled. “Now that’s a different breed of fella, too. But in a good way… “ He paused a moment. “Hold on. You said your name was Roberts?”

Dar nodded.

“Okay folks – we’re ready to go. Can you take your seats for the launch? It can get a little wobbly.” Doug was waving them back.  “Don’t want anyone to get an unexpected bath.”

“Talk to you later.” Don obeyed the shooeing and went over to where Marcia was getting her knitting out. He leaned over and said something to her, and she looked up in some mild surprise at Dar, but then the raft started to move and everyone settled in.

“He know dad?” Kerry asked, looking up from getting her camera sorted.

Dar shrugged. “He knows my name.” She said. “Guess we’ll find out later.” She faced forward in her chair as the raft was released from it’s mooring and shoved off from the beach, the crew scrambling onboard as they moved into the current and were caught up in it.

“Got your book?”

Dar patted the drybag.  But she left it closed for the moment, as the walls started to move past them with some speed and the breeze brushed over her.   “There’s another sheep.” She pointed to it.  “Up there on that ledge.”

“Got it.” Kerry smiled.

Overhead the sky was a deepening blue, with no clouds anywhere to be seen.  The sun was just slanting in and painting the top of the canyon wall with sunrise, and as they passed a slightly narrower part of the river, with a bump of speed and slight roar it was setting up to be a beautiful day.

**

It was only a very short drift until they came around a bend, and then everyone drew breath as the red canyon walls suddenly burst into vivid green as multiple waterfalls came gushing out of the stone and down a stepped series of ledges to the river below.

“Oh wow.” Kerry was already focusing her camera, as the sun splashed into the canyon and lit the wall up, exposing flashes of brilliance in the rock. 

Dar put her book away and sat up, regarding the wall they were now approaching. 

“Vesey’s paradise!”  Janet said, with some satisfaction in her tone.  “That’s all fresh water, being drawn out of the rock. We’ll pull in to the left there so you all can get a good look.”

Doug piloted the raft into a cleft in the rocks at the shore and everyone climbed down, splashing through some shallow water and carefully evading the tumbled rubble at the base of the falls.

“Be careful of your footing folks, and stay clear of the foliage.” Janet said. “I’ll be glad to take pictures of anyone who wants the falls as a background.”

Kerry availed herself of the offer, and handed off her camera as she moved to one side and put her arm around Dar. “Feel that mist?”

“I do.” Dar amiably draped one long arm over Kerry’s shoulders as Janet knelt and got an angle that included both them and the falls.  She waited for the guide leader to finish then she turned around and faced the cliff wall. 

The rest of the group was scattering to explore,  Sally and her sister climbing around the edge of some rocks to a small cave behind it, and Marcia and Don strolling down and around the bend where the whole river could be seen.

“Stay clear of that foliage!” Janet called out, as Amy and Todd started climbing up the face of the falls.  “Be careful!”

Dar put her hands in her pockets.

Amy half turned and waved at them, then they continued on, picking their way up the stepped rocks, into the mist of the falls and thorugh the heavy shrubbery.

Janet came up to stand next to Dar. “Why cant they all be like you, Ms. Roberts?” She sighed. “If they slip and fall it’s going to be really long day.”

“Going to be long anyway.” Dar said. “That’s poison ivy they’re climbing through.”

“Holy crap are you kidding?” Kerry shaded her eyes. “You sure.”

“Oh shit.” Janet started running, moving after them.

“Yup.” Dar rocked up and down on her heels.  “C’mon, lets go see those shiny rocks.” She turned her back on the climbers and pointed where Sally and her sister had gone. “Think we can drink the water?”

Kerry tore her eyes from the climbers and rejoined her partner as they walked through the shallow water and into a crevice, where some of the others were examining a layer of intensely sparkling rock, as the sun plunged into the canyon and lit it up. “That’s not going to end well.”

“No.” Dar drew in a deep breath of the cool air.  She put her hand on the rock wall and leaned close to inspect it, the striated layers drawing her interest.  “A lot of history here.”

They heard a yell behind them. 

Kerry slipped a macro lens on and focused, taking a shot of a piece of the wall that was half in shadow, half in sunlight, with all it’s layers in all their uneven patterning.

Another yell.

Kerry took another shot, then she glanced at Dar, who was standing there, hands clasped behind her back, regarding a knot in the stone.  After a moment, Dar looked back at her.

They both sighed. 

“Hey what’s going on back there?” Don made his way over to them. “You hear that?” He had a backpack on his back, and a walking stick that had a neatly carved head. 

“Amy and Todd decided to climb the wall.” Kerry said. “Probably has something to do with that.”

Don sighed. “What is wrong with those kids?”  He headed around the rock that blocked the view of the wall and disappeared around it. 

“What’s wrong with them right about now is that they’re breaking out into big itchy lumps.” Dar said.  Then she started climbing up a short slope to the small cavern, where Sally and Dave were already exploring.  The path up had worn handholds, and she was able to pull herself up readily.

“Ugh.” Kerry felt a certain level of sympathy despite the grumpiness of the pair having once experienced the poison plant herself.   But she ignored the yelling behind her and changed lenses again, this time to capture Dar’s progress up the rock, the tank top exposing her supple back.

She took another shot, then turned and moved around the edge of the rock to get a better angle.   That let her get a view of the argument and she paused for a moment as she saw Amy sitting on a rock, rubbing her legs, tears in her eyes.

She felt bad, at that.  Don was standing nearby, thumbs hooked in the straps of his backpack and Doug was just coming back from the raft with a first aid box in his hand.  Todd was arguing with Janet, who had both hands out in a pacifying gesture.

Don stepped forward and said something.  Todd turned around and shoved him, and the older man stumbled back and lost his balance, falling onto the rocks.   Kerry surrendered to instinct and shoved her camera into her pack and started towards him, reaching him just as Todd returned to his argument.

“Hey, easy.” Kerry extended a hand to Don.  “You okay?”

“Leave him the fuck where he is I’m not done with him!” Todd yelled at her.

Kerry turned and pinned him with a stare. “Go to hell.” She said. “I’ll help anyone I want you piece of pig shit.”

He stared back. “You have no idea who you’re dealing with you little bitch.”

“Likewise.” Kerry smiled coolly at him, aware from the corner of her eye that Dar was leaping down the rocks like a demented antelope heading her way.  She turned and offered Don a hand up again, confident her back was covered.  “You okay, Don?”

“Yeah.” He looked disgusted, and was rolling over onto his knees to rise. “Just a jerk.” He got up and brushed himself off, grimacing a little as he touched the back of his hip. “Hit something.”

Dar arrived at that moment, sliding a little on the wet rocks near the shore.  “What happened?” She asked. “You okay?”

Don made a face. “Can’t stay out of other people’s mix ups.” He admitted, in a low tone, glancing past her to where Todd had gone back to arguing with Janet.  “I’m too old for this crap.”

Janet walked past them towards the raft, her cheeks flushed and red, and Todd came over to them and pointed at Kerry. “And you stay out of my business.”

Dar reached out and took hold of his hand, pushing it aside. “Don’t do that.” She said, in a quiet, even tone. “You’re the idiot who went climbing up into poison ivy after they told you not to.  It’s not their fault.” She released him.

Don stepped up next to Dar, instinctively, standing shoulder to shoulder with her, and a moment later, Doug joined them, but Todd just laughed and backed off. “The more the merrier for the lawsuit. No problem jackasses.”

“No problem.” Dar responded, still in that mild tone.  But he turned his back and went over to Amy, who was drying her tears as she inspected her calamine tainted skin.

“Jerk.” Don muttered.

“Rich jerk whose father’s a lawyer.” Doug said with a sigh.  “And really folks, not that I don’t appreciate you all standing up for us, stay out of it. No sense in getting yourselves mixed up in this.” He told them. “We have liability insurance.” He looked meaningfully at Don.  “Please.”

Don lifted his hands. “Sorry.”

Doug smiled briefly and walked back to the aid kit, kneeling beside it.

Kerry sighed. “Dudley Douchebag.”  She shook her head.  “Why does it always have be Dudley Douchebag, Dar?” She looked up to see Dar’s profile as her partner watched the scene at her back, and saw that narrowing at the corners of those blue eyes.

Then Dar put her sunglasses back on and dusted her hands off. “I thought.” She said. “I could bring back a handful or so of those rocks. I think my mother’d like em.”

Kerry went with the subject change as they carefully maneuvered back across the slippery rocks to the slope. “The ones with all those colors? I bet she would.” She joined Dar in examining the specimens near the water’s edge, which were shaped and rounded by the river. “What would dad like?”

“A bobcat.”

Kerry chuckled softly under her breath.

**

They were back on the boat, on the river, heading for another rapid when the sky overhead started to gather a few clouds. The sun rippled through them, making large, dark splotches against the water’s surface, and Kerry caught Janet turning her head and watching them as she balanced along one side of the raft.

“Okay everyone, get ready!” Doug yelled, from the back.  “We’re going to the wall, and then down that side channel! Hang on!”

The river ahead split in two, one side turning into a thick churn of white whirlpools, and the other a faster rush between a huge boulder and the wall.  The water seemed smoother, but ahead of that Kerry could see a drop – not a huge one, but a plunge anyway and that was where Doug was aiming them.

She reached down and got her camera ready, feeling the powerful tug as Dar took hold of her safety jacket and the rest of the crew edged down the sides of the raft, holding onto the support ropes.

Rich was already whooping like a cowboy, holding on with one hand and waving the other one as they lurched hard to the right and came up against the rock wall, sliding up partly sideways against it and throwing them all against their respective restraints.

“Holy crap.”  Dar squirmed out of her seat and got behind Kerry’s, trading her one handed hold with both arms clasping herself to the seat back and around Kerry’s body in a tight squeeze, bracing both long legs against the deck.

For a long moment, the raft tipped up sideways and Kerry was sure they were going over. She started breathing harder, and kept the record button down on her camera as the front right side of the raft came up and scraped against the wall and then..

Then just as she was sure they were going to end up overturning the river slammed them around and the front of the raft plunged down again into the gap between the rock and the wall and they were moving fast heading right into a froth of churning water that exploded up around them in a wash of sun splashed brilliant green.

A blob came right up and whacked Kerry in the face, obscuring her vision as she felt Dar press up behind her, and the raft bucked under them as it turned and plunged again down a definite slope and a wave came up and wet them all through and through.

“Oh yeah!” 

She could hear Rich yelling in excitement, as the water drained off the raft and they were through the rapids and emerged into a wider, slower stretch.  “That was fun.” She reached up to wipe the water out of her eyes. “I thought we were going in for a minute.”

“Me too.” Dar released her and licked her lips.  “I was all ready to start swimming.”

“Fun, huh?” Janet was next to them. “I love that rapid.”

“It was great.” Don was wiping his face with a towel.  “Did you get that on your camera, Kerry?”

“I did.” Kerry said. “The best part was when the front of the raft came down there, and all the sun? It was great.”

JP came over and peered past Kerry’s shoulder. “Rockstar.” She bumped Kerry’s shoulder with her fist.  “I was hoping someone on this thing could use a camera better than I could. Every thing I shoot is out of focus. I don’t have a clue why.”

“Yeah, I already know who’s going to be featured on the screen at the end of ride dinner.” Janet smiled. “So.” She glanced around. “Hey folks listen up?” She raised her voice.  “We’re going to run it a little later today so we get to a camp where we’ve got some hard shelter overhead. I think we’re in for a rare event, a rainstorm on the river.”

She pointed overhead, where the scattered clouds were becoming less scattered, and a brisk wind ruffled across the water, fluttering the clothing they all were wearing.  “Sleeping out in that is no fun, and cooking isn’t either. So we’re going to stop at a place where there’s a nice big cave to set up camp in.”

“Indian cave?” Don asked, with interest. “Read about those.”

“Yes.” Janet agreed. “We have permission.” She added, seeing some raised eyebrows.  “They know we treat the place with respect, and always leave it in pristine condition.”

Todd and Amy were huddled in the plush seats at the back center, and merely listened. They were covered with waterproof ponchos, and Amy was visibly shivering. “How much longer?” Todd asked, brusquely.

“About two hours.” Janet didn’t even check her watch.  “So Im going to hand out some snacks, and we’ll move along so we can get undercover before the weather breaks.” She moved along to the storage bins and opened one, and two other crew members went with her.

“Hm.” Kerry accepted the towel Dar was offering. “Have you ever slept in a cave?”

Dar was momentarily silent then she grinned briefly. “Yeah.” She sat down and ruffled her hair dry. “Wasn’t much fun.  Me and some of the guys were caught out up in the Polipody jungle, mid state. They have limestone formations there and.. well, anyway.”

Polipody jungle?”

“Long story.”

Kerry squinted at her. “Is this the kind of story that ends up with mud and worms?”

Dar cleared her throat. “A cow, actually.” She said.  “Tell you later.”

It was near sundown when they started to pull over towards an inlet, and the sky was already darkened overhead and they could hear thunder in the distance.  There was a faint sense of urgency in the crew and they hurried the passengers off the raft, with Doug jogging in the lead, taking a moment to stick glow sticks in the ground to lead them as the purple light was rapidly starting to fade.

The river had a distinct smell, but over that Kerry could smell rain coming, that odd, almost musty scent she had become used to over her time spent in Florida, which had more than it’s share of it.   She followed Dar off the raft, almost the last of the group to step down onto a red sand covered beach they’d pulled the boat up onto.

The wind was whistling around them, coursing in and out of the rock walls and she felt it buffet her between the shoulder blades, pushing her forward a little as the climbed up the slope to a level area full of random rocky debris.

“Careful.” Dar commented, as she stepped between several larger rocks. 

Kerry had her personal bag over her shoulder and she shifted it from one side to the other as she followed in her partner’s footsteps, hearing a rumbling in the distance. She turned her head to look behind her, and saw the outline of the cliff face still distinct against the darkening sky.

She heard the sound of falling rocks and swung her head around to look up, stopping abruptly as her vision was occluded by Dar’s back. “Oo.”

Above them on the wall a large bird was just landing, folding it’s wings as it came to perch on a ledge full of random sticks and debris.  “Is that a nest?”

“I think it was a hawk.” Dar peered at it. “Too dark to get a shot?”

“Hold this.” Kerry handed over her bag and lifted her camera in it’s case up, adjusting the controls for a moment before she looked through the viewfinder and zoomed in.   The light wasn’t great, but just as she snapped the picture a flash of far off lightning, as though accommodating her, lit up the sky.

“Folks, please lets get under cover.” Janets voice chided them.  “It’s going to start pouring rain and we need the path clear to get all the gear inside.”

“Sorry.” Kerry turned the camera off and followed Dar around a huge boulder to find the entrance to the promised cave ahead of them. “Oh.”

It was larger than she’d thought it would be.  An irregularily shaped dark gap in the wall, higher  on one side than the other, but tall enough to allow them to enter upright with ease.  

Inside, the crew already had some lanterns lit, and as Dar and Kerry entered they all trotted  purposefully outside to get more gear.   The cave itself was extremely large, and her momentary anxiety that she was going  to end up cheek  by jowl to the rest of the crowd was eased.

The rest of the group was clustered near a central, now darkened firepit and they joined them to wait for whatever was going to come next.  

Dar put down both of their bags, then she put her hands on her hips, one eyebrow edging up. After a brief moment of silent pondering, she drew in a breath, then released it. “This’ll go faster if we help.” She said. “C’mon.” She turned and started for the entrance, not watching to see who followed her.

Kerry suppressed a smile, then she followed, and as she did she caught movement out of the corner of her eye and was surrounded by a cluster of bodies who joined them as they walked back out, into a wind  already tinged with moisture.

“Good idea.” Don commented as they evaded the shooing hands of the crew and grabbed the gear bags lining the shoreline.  C”mon, kids, none of us are cripples. Move aside.”

Dar picked up a tent and put it on her shoulder and the four college gals picked up one of the two big kitchen kits, and they started back towards the cave as Rich and Sally grabbed another sealed bin and Kerry lifted up a large duffel bag.

Choo.”  Rich waved Janet out of the way. “C’mon, we’re gonna get wet.”

The rest of the crew looked unabashedly relieved, and two of them broke off moving gear to go over to where Doug was standing, sorting out ropes to tie the raft down with. “Thanks.” Janet lifted a box and joined them.
“I really do appreciate the help.  They want to get the boat secured in case we get a surge of downstream.”

“Exactly.” Rich agreed.  “Last thing we need is to lost that.”

The first spattering of raindrops just caught them as they marched inside the cave, depositing their burdens and turning around for another trip. “Hey.” Dar addressed the few lingerers. “Start sorting that out while we get the rest of it.”

Todd and Amy, especially stared at her.

“Aren’t you hungry?” Dar asked. “Cmon!”

There was a brief moment of silence, then grudging movement.  Dar shook her head and grumbled under her breath, as they emerged back into the weather.

“Sure you weren’t in the navy?” Don asked, as he caught up to her, chuckling a little. “Coulda fooled me.”

**

Kerry hung her shirt up to dry on the line she’d strung from their tent and sat down on one of the two folding chairs the staff had placed nearby.  She ran her fingers through her damp hair and exhaled, watching the crew set up their cookstove inside the old firepit as Janet picked up a tray and started circulating with drinks.

Their tent was on a slight rise to one side of the pit and Kerry was the first to be offered. “Thanks.” She took two of the cups and put them down on the small camp table.

“Thank you for helping out.” Janet replied. ‘I know I said that before, but I wanted you to know I really meant it.”

“Hey it was to our advantage.” Kerry smiled. “Glad we made it here before the storm really let loose. It’s raining sideways out there.”

Janet looked over her shoulder. “It is. But I’m not worried, really, about what it’s doing here. I’m worried about what it’s doing upstream.”  She confided.  “Lets hope it just moves over us and goes west.”

Kerry considered that as she watched the woman make her way along the rocks, going clockwise around the large chamber that now had a somewhat incongruous set of colored tents scattered around it’s large interior.

There were torches planted randomly and lanterns, and they gave the large space a sense of curious mystery.  There were markings on the walls, but the light was too dim to make them out, and the surface above the cookpit was darkened visibly from smoke.

Above where they had the tents set up there was a higher level, but this was blocked off by a chain and post fence, and there were signs positioned along it.  Behind that the darkness obscured her vision, but she made a mental note to wander up in the morning and see what was past it.

The next tents over were the college kids, and PJ was seated with her foot up on a box, with Doug and Don tending her foot, and Sally was wandering around taking pictures.

Todd and Amy, predictably, had set up their tent near the fence, and one of the crew was carrying one of the first aid kits up to where they were seated.

Dar emerged from the temporary bathroom, which had been set up as far as possible from everyone else, near the other side of the cavern.  She paused at the entrance to the cave to look out, the wind blowing her dark hair back as she studied the storm.

Then she continued across the front of the cave, past the busy crew, towards where Kerry was seated, stopping to watch two of the crew hauling out what they were going to make for dinner.

Sally came over and sat down next to her. “Hope this storm doesn’t last long.” She said, with a sigh.  “Starting to get the sense this trip’s kinda.. um..

“Cursed?” Kerry supplied.

Sorta.” The lanky woman agreed. “First we pick up the douchees, then PJ’s foot, then the poison ivy…  I mean I’m used to little things happening but wow. Now the rain?”

Kerry hiked up one foot and put it on her knee, clasping her hands around her knee.  “Well.” She mused. “At least two of those things are related.”

“Mm.”

Kerry caught sight of Dar straightening up to her full height and craning her neck to observe the contents of a tray being moved towards the cookstove. She chuckled under her breath as a relatively content expression appeared and Dar continued on her way up to the tent.

“Your SO’s funny.” Sally commented.

“Sometimes.” Kerry reached out a hand as Dar got up to where they were and smiled as it was clasped and lifted, and a kiss planted on the back of her knuckles in a gentle, absent gesture. “So, you satisfied with dinner, hon?”

Dar sat down on the ground, reaching over to pick up the mug.  “I think so. Looks like salmon.”

“Oh.” Sally seemed surprised. “Hey, something I eat. Hot damn.”  She rested her elbows on the chair arms. “I didn’t think they brought fish with them.”  She got up from the chair. “I’m going to scope it out. See you guys at dinner.”

“Sally was just wondering if we were cursed.” Kerry said after Sally had walked out of earshot. “You think? Or is it just one of our typical vacations?”

Dar smiled. “Our one?”  She said. “I think we’re fine.  Better than if we’d gotten caught out in the storm. They did a good job getting us to cover.” She took a sip from the mug. “Can I be honest?”

“You’re bored with this.” Kerry reached out and riffled her fingers through her partner’s dark hair. “I can tell.” She watched as Dar looked up at her, eyes shaded almost sand color from the dim light. “Sorry hon.”

“Why? We both decided on this.” Dar said. “I just think.. I just want to do more.” She looked a touch embarrassed. “I feel bad about just sitting around letting these guys take us from spot to spot. To..

“Touristy?”

Dar shrugged. “Maybe.”

Kerry considered that, “Ah well. It’s only a couple more days.  Then we can get back in our camper, pick up our dogs and go find some adventure on the way back to Vegas.” She gently brushed her thumb over Dar’s cheekbone. “I’ll get some decent pictures out of it at least.”

Dar nodded. “It’s fine.” She said. “We’re supposed to go to that swimming hole tomorrow.  That sounds fun.” She said.  “I think there’s a ledge you can dive off of.” She sounded more enthusiastic.  “And there’s more rapids.”

“And you have your book.”

“And I have my book.” Dar grinned at her, standing up and offering her hand. “Let’s go sit around the campfire.  Maybe those kids’ll drag out that trivia game again.” 

They walked down to where the crowd was starting to gather, sitting around the two large tables that had been set up by the crew.  PJ had just hopped down and Rich had brought out his deck of cards and was starting a game of fish.

Don and Marcia came over and sat down next to them, and a moment later Pete came over with a tray of drinks and a dish of cut fruits and vegetables with a few bowls of things to dip them in.  He put them down and gave them a smile, and everyone reached over to sample.

The celery was crisp, and tasted fresh, and Kerry crunched it contentedly as Rich dealt everyone a hand. 

“Hey Kerry.” PJ inspected her cards. “You’re in IT right?”

“We both are.” Kerry indicated herself and then Dar. “We own an IT company.”

‘That’s cool.” PJ put a card down.  “My boyfriend .. well, my ex boy friend.” She gave her companions a droll look as they sniggered.  “He was majoring in IT. But all the people he hung out with were just.. “ She eyed Kerry.

“Nerds?” Kerry put down a pair of cards.

“Yeah, just really geeky.”

“We’re really geeky.” Dar had her chin resting on her fists, watching Kerry’s hand.

“You don’t seem geeky.” PJ said. “So that’s what I was going to ask, is it different because you aren’t guys? Is it just the guys who are so weird and freaky?”

“Well.” Kerry was aware of Todd and Amy wandering down, staring at the two tables with distaste but coming over to sit down at theirs, but on the far side away from the rest of them.  “Dar programs in her head and I run operations.”

“I have a copy of Lord of the Rings in my backpack.” Dar offered. “Not sure what you consider nerd cred.”

Everyone chuckled. 

“We have a lot of nerds working for us. They never seemed really weird.” Kerry said. “Just smart guys and some gals, with a good work ethic.” She put down another pair. “Go fish.”

Rich picked up a card. “My uncle works for Microsoft.” He said. “He’s kinda weird. He has glasses and wears those pocket protector things. Hates the outdoors.”  He took a sip of his drink.  “I’d rather hang with people who do outdoors things.”

Outside the rain started coming down harder, and thunder rumbled overhead, sounding close and intense as the mouth of the cave lit up with a flash of silver.

One of the crew jumped, then picked up a tray of plates and came over with it, circling the table and putting the plates down. “Wow that’s loud.” He commented. “Sure glad we’re in here.”

They put aside the cards for the moment.  Kerry pulled the plate over and found chilled vegetables on it, string beans and radishes, with  curls of lettuce. “Sorry hon.” She bumped her head against Dar’s shoulder, as her partner took a long suffering breath and released it. “Try a bean.”

Dar mouthed one of hers.  Then she reached over and dipped it into the dill cream dip for the celery and tried a bite of that.  “Hm.”  She pulled the bowl of dip over and started consuming the vegetables.

“I’m gonna have to get that recipe.” Kerry bit into a piece of radish. “PJ, what are you majoring in again?”

“Marketing.” PJ said. “It’s all rainbows and unicorns, but you get to go into rooms with a bunch of other people all of whom are talking bullshit and have a contest to find out who can lie the best and they get the best grade.”  She informed them.

“Sounds like marketing.” Kerry agreed. “I rue the day when we’re going to have to hire a marketer.” 

“Or a sales department.”

Rich looked at them. “You have a company without sales and marketing? Where is this? Miami? Can I come work for you?”

“Can’t be much of a business.” Todd spoke up.

“Ah, we do all right.” Dar was munching steadily through the string beans.

“How many people in your company, Dar?” Don asked. “is it consulting?”

“A little of everything.” Kerry said, with a smile. “I think we’re… what is it now, Dar? 88?”

“Hundred.” 

“We started off with five including us.” Kerry put down a pair of sixes, and picked up a card. “Its nice to own your own business.”

Two of the crew came over with a trivit, and a small cast iron pot. They put the trivit down and set the pot on it, and a third crew member handed around small bowls

“Soup is good on a night like tonight. It’s vegetable barley.” Janet had followed them over with a ladle. “We’re going to fire up the weather radio, so we can see what the prognosis is.” 

Don took the ladle from her and started to serve the soup, glancing over his shoulder at the cave entrance.  The darkness outside obscured the view, but they could hear the rain coming down and the thunder was getting more frequent.

Rich put the cards away as he received his bowl of soup, sniffing it appreciatively. “Mmm.”

They all jumped a moment later as a blast of lightning hit outside, and Doug left his position at the cookstove and went to the entrance to look outside.

Todd got up and went to the opening. Amy watched him go, but she remained seated, applying her spoon to her soup bowl.   The dim light hid the rash on her hands, and it was obscured as well by the medication they’d painted her with.  After a moment, she looked up at the rest of them, and smiled briefly.

“How’s the itch?” Sally asked.

“It’s okay.” Amy said. “They gave me an antihistamine and I’m going to take that after dinner. I think it will make me sleepy.”

“Hardly expected to see something like that out here.” Don spoke up.  “Sorry you fell into it.”

Amy smiled a little more naturally.  “We didn’t expect it either. I’m glad I had long sleeves on. I turned that shirt right inside out and put it in a bag.” She looked around and then back at her companions. “This is a cool cave.”

“It is.” Kerry said. “I’m glad we’re in here, and not outside.”  She watched them all nod in agreement.  “We have storms like that back in Miami. No fun.”

“No fun.” Rich agreed. “But it’s gonna make tomorrow all that more exciting.” He grinned in anticipation.  “The surge down the river’s gonna be awesome.”

“Really?” Amy asked, pausing.

“Oh sure.” Sally reached out to take a roll from the basket that had just been deposited.  “If they take a lot of rain up above the dam, they’ll released it down the river and we’ll be in for a hella ride.”

Dar visibly perked up.  “More rapids?”

“Big big.” Rich was almost bouncing in his seat. “Can take those class 4s and 5’s and take them up past that.  Hope you all can swim!”

Kerry felt a bit intimidated by that, but she could see the idea interested her partner. “I think I need a bungy cord.” She took a roll herself and a spoon of soup. The broth was tasty, and the vegetables and barley were plump and thick. 

“They won’t release the water with us in here will they?” Marcia asked, after a brief moment of silence. “Couldn’t it come right up into the cave? You can see the waterline up there.” She pointed at the wall. “That would be a mess.”

Todd returned and dropped into his seat.  “Keeps raining, I’m going to spend the time walking this cave.” He announced, then grabbed a roll and ripped it in half. “That fence wont’ keep me out.”

No one answered him.  The smell of grilling salmon wafted over, and the cavern reverberated with thunder, and Kerry chewed on a mouthful of the barley, suddenly wishing she was home.  She glanced aside and found Dar watching her, a look of wry understanding on her face.

She smiled and felt Dar’s knee bump hers under the table.

**

The thunder kept up.  Kerry was glad to duck inside their tent where the folding bunks were set up nicely, pillows ready and light sleeping bags all tucked into their place.  The mesh covered windows had all been rolled down and tied and a breeze was wafting through, tinged on it’s edges with a faint hint of the grilled fish and the sweeter overtones of the warmed brownies they’d been given for dessert.

Dar was already sprawled on her bunk, a small battery powered lamp clamped near her head as she read from the thick paperback held in one hand.  “I heard that moron go over the fence about five minutes ago.” Dar commented as Kerry sat down. “He’s going to end up getting his ass either killed or arrested.”

“His girlfriend didn’t go.” Kerry said, as she took off her sandals.  “She was down by the fire, having some hot chocolate with the rest of us.”

“Maybe getting a clue.”

“Maybe.”   Kerry listened to the storm. “Should we tell Janet?”

“No.” Dar said, firmly. “Better for us if he gets hauled off to Indian jail.”

Kerry chuckled. “Or gets the crap scared out of him by an Indian spirit.” She said. “That’s what this cave’s known for ya know.”

Dar made a mild, groaning noise.

Hon they know better than to come here and bother you. I’m pretty sure there’s an internet message board somewhere for spooks and after New Orleans they opened a thread on that crazy Florida person who stands off ghosts bare assed naked.”

“Hm.” Dar chortled under her breath softly. 

They heard some bangs and thunks, and Kerry got back up and went to the door of the tent, peering out.  “They’re moving everything away from the entrance.”

Dar joined her and they both watched as the crew worked quickly, moving the boxes with the food stores up onto the rise that led to where they were, frequently turning their heads to look back at the entrance. “Hm.”  She took a step outside the tent. “Water’s coming up.”

Kerry could see the line of the river now even with the entrance, and a moment later Sally appeared, coming over from the nearby spot where she and her sister had settled.

“What’s up?” Sally joined them. 

“The river, apparently.” Kerry pointed. “They’re bringing all the gear up.”

“Wow.” Sally commented, after a pause.  “Guess they just want to make sure nothing gets wet.” She added, as the crew finished their work and now, apparently more relaxed, gathered together in a clump to listen to whatever it was Janet and Doug were telling them.

“Yeah. Wet granola’s no fun.” Dar drawled.

“I just hope it’s stopped by the morning.” Sally stifled a yawn.  “I don’t’ mind getting wet in the rapids but I don’t like doing that with rain all day long. I caught the worst cold last time that happened on a trip.” She started down the slope. “Night you two.”

They watched the crew disperse towards the area they had set up for themselves, as Doug went alone to the edge of the cave, swinging a rain poncho over his shoulders as he settled on the small beach chair perched on the rocky verge, his bare feet splayed out on the red stone.

“Not sure I want to ride all day in the rain either.” Kerry commented.

“Want to try skiing next time?” Dar draped her arm over Kerry’s shoulders. “Less group, more Jacuzzis.”

Kerry sighed. “I don’t know why I had such high hopes for this vacation.  They never go like you expect them to do they?”

“Not ours.” The taller woman laughed briefly.  “Ah, it’s not that bad, Ker.”

They retreated back inside the tent and then stood there regarding each other. “Well.” Kerry said, with a faint shrug. “You never know if you don’t try stuff, right?”

Dar circled her with both arms and tilted her head down, engaging Kerry’s lips with her own.  They ignored the rumbling outside and let their bodies press against each other in a moment of slowly escalating sensuality.

After a little while they paused, and Dar touched the tip of her nose to Kerry’s, watching her partner’s eyes close rather than cross trying to meet hers.  “Let’s try to make the tent rock. How about that?”

“They said we had to bring our entertainment with us.” Kerry unbuttoned Dar’s jeans and bumped her backwards. “Entertain me.”

**

Continued in Part 3