"Aren't they adorable?" she asked Nick, pointing at the burros from where they sat in the back of the Jeep, arms over the cage.
"They look like they smell," Nick grumbled. He'd been crabby since Tom had returned from getting breakfast with an assortment of juices but no coffee. The explanation that coffee was a diuretic and therefore would dehydrate him in the dry desert air hadn't improved the caffeine addict's mood any, and he'd proceeded to descend to levels of crankiness previously unexplored by mankind as the afternoon wore on. Needless to say, the prospect of riding on an equine wasn't improving matters any, and the burros just were another excuse to exercise his bitchy attitude.
Amanda waved him off and a 'pffff' sound and watched with baited breath as the burros recognized Tom and started moving toward the side of the pen closest to them, braying at their buddy.
"You're gonna have some time to look in the shop," Tom said, waving in the direction of the shack, "I'm going to get them ready to go. I'll come get you when we're set." He jumped out of the Jeep and quickly loped off toward a little barn at the far side of the pen while Brian and Amanda climbed out of the vehicle.
Nick folded his arms over his chest, and pouted.
"You coming in the gift shop, Frack?" Brian asked, reaching in to nudge Nick's shoulder. Nick shook his head. "All righty then, up to you. C'mon, Amanda." Brian smiled and led Amanda across the parking lot.
"Lesson three," he mumbled into Amanda's ear once they were out of earshot of the Jeep, "When Nick is in a bad mood, ignore the crap out of him. Let him go it alone for awhile. It seems mean, but it's really not. He's like a puppy dog. He can't handle not being the center of attention. Consequently, if you ignore him, he's gonna change his behavior to regain your attention. Giving him attention, even if it's a negative reaction to his attitude, will only reinforce the behavior, and he'll get worse." Brian winked and pulled open the shop door.
Amanda glanced back at Nick's sour face. He was climbing over the side of the Jeep and cursing at the tire as he tripped. "How do you know him so well?" she asked, stepping inside the shop.
"Twenty years around a guy will learn you a thing or two," Brian answered, laughing.
She'd known the Backstreet Boys had been a band for a long time, but the number twenty had never even crossed her mind as a possible time frame. "That's a long time," she said reverently. She turned to the right in the shop and started looking at a shelf covered with little animals made from stones that had been collected in the bottom of the canyon.
"It is," Brian said, stepping up beside her and half looking at the animals as well. The window in front of him afforded a view of Nick, who was now spitting in the dirt and obviously scolding himself for his bad mood, pacing back and forth and kicking rocks around. Brian half smiled at the predictability. "I really worry about him," he admitted candidly, running his fingers over a raccoon made out of pebbles.
Amanda put down the fox she'd been looking at and looked up at Brian. "Worry about him?" she asked, turning and tilting her head.
Brian didn't take his eyes off the little raccoon. "He's been through Hell, to put it lightly," he explained. Brian's eyes wandered to Amanda's for the slightest of seconds before he added, "Especially in the romance department."
Amanda shifted uncomfortably.
"He's a good guy, really. The best friend a guy could ever ask for," Brian said, "He's very... misunderstood, you know? He's got a heart of gold. But it's only gold because it's been refined, if you know what I mean."
Brian turned and stared directly into her eyes for a long, piercing moment. "So don't you hurt him."
"I won't," Amanda stammered.
"Good," Brian smiled and the intensity of the moment was broken. He turned back to the stone animals, "That's all I can ask for."
"I do like these little lessons you've been giving me," Amanda said.
Brian's lips curled into a smile and he laughed. His fingers found and lifted a little stone eagle, wingspan spread to make it look as though it were in flight; it hung on an invisible wire. "Eagle," he said.
Amanda's mouth curled into a smile, "Ohh, it's beautiful. Piper would've loved it." She took it into her palm where he dropped it and looked at it. It was very well crafted. She turned it over in her hand and caught sight of the price tag, though, and realized there was no way in hell she was gonna buy it.
"You should get it," Brian said, looking over some plastic wind-up toy burros.
"Nah," she answered, trying to sound casual. She suspended it from her finger, staring at it, imagining how much her brother would've adored it, and how much she missed him. "It is beautiful, though." She replaced it on the shelf sadly.
They continued looking around the little shop and Amanda was again reminded of how much America gouges tourists in these type places. Everything was ridiculously over priced just because they had little stamps that said they were bought at the Grand Canyon on them. Amazingly, it wasn't long before Nick rejoined them, his mood greatly improved. He even pretended some interest in the burros and picked out some picture postcards for his friends and family. Brian winked behind Nick's back at Amanda in a told-you-so manner, and Amanda stifled a laugh -- he really knew his stuff.
When Tom came in to collect them, Nick and Amanda paid for their postcards and stamps and headed into the parking lot while Brian paid for the armload of stuff he'd picked out for Baylee and Leighanne. After depositing their bags in the Jeep, Nick and Amanda started walking toward the corral where the burros were.
Nick smiled as they walked together. "So you and Brian are getting to be friends, huh?" he asked. He sounded happy.
"Brian's a great guy," Amanda said, nodding.
Nick laughed, "He's smart, too. Like he knows everything in the world I bet. And he's the best friend a guy could ask for."
Amanda smiled at the identical terminology. "You know, he said the exact same thing about you not even ten minutes ago," she said. Nick practically glowed with this information and Amanda was glad that she'd divulged it to him.
Brian came out of the shop a few minutes later and deposited his bag in the Jeep as well before joining them at the corral.
There were four burros in the bed, draped with blankets with hispanic designs all over them. They had reigns that fit over their heads in a harness, and little padded saddles were strapped to their middles.
"Okay," Tom said, coming over carrying four canteens. He handed each of them a canteen and pulled his own around his neck. "Now, usually the burro rides are done in large groups. For obvious reasons, we're making an exception for you three, to avoid commotion and tension that might upset the animals. What this means, however, is that I'm the only guide that's going on the trip, so we've got to stick together. If you fall behind or get separated, the burro knows how to get back here. The command is in Spanish, to keep him from getting confused by casual conversation. To get the burro to return here, ask it, 'donde es su casa?'"
"Dundy issue castle?" Nick repeated, hacking the crap out of the Spanish.
"Don-duh es sue cah-suh," corrected Amanda.
Nick blinked, "Isn't that what I just said?" He glanced at Brian for back up.
"Why do I just know Nick's gonna get lost?" Brian asked, looking at Tom, "And he's gonna tell the burro to go to a castle." Amanda laughed as Nick blushed.
"The moral of the story," Tom said, "Is that Nick isn't going to be the last in the ranks. Nick, you ride behind me, then Amanda, and Brian take up the rear."
Nick snickered, and whispered under his breath, "You're gonna take it up the rear Brian."
Brian rolled his eyes, "Okay, Beavis."
"AJ's trained me well, Frick," Nick giggled.
Tom, oblivious to the exchange, motioned for them all to approach the burros. "Let them sniff your palms before you get too aggressive patting them," he directed, "This will help you forge a relationship."
"It's gonna frickin' bite my hand or something," Nick muttered. He was nervous, and channeling all the apprehension into joking around.
"He's not gonna bite your hand off. They're gentle," Brian said, sounding just a little exasperated as he offered his palm to his own burro and Amanda inched towards hers, suddenly shy of the animal.
Nick rolled his eyes, "Says the guy who thinks horses are nice, too..."
Amanda's burro tucked his nose into her palm like there was a magnetic force between them, and she smiled. Brian was already stroking his burro's ears. Nick finally thrust his hand out for his burro to sniff, and the burro got over excited by the amount of salty sweat in Nick's palm and jammed its face too fast into Nick's hand, sending his finger tip up the nostril.
"Ugh!" Nick cried, withdrawing his hand and making the poor burro sneeze. The sneeze sprayed all over Nick's arm and he made a face, a mingle of disgust and intrigue. "Burro boogies," he murmured, waving his arm, "Sick."
"Give him your palm again, Nick," Tom directed.
Nick reluctantly reoffered his palm to the burro, who came at it more slowly this time having learned his lesson the last time, and he started rubbing his face playfully along Nick's forearm. "He sure likes you," Tom observed as the burro nudged his face into Nick's chest. Nick looked petrified.
"Too bad we can't say the same for Nick," mumbled Brian to Amanda, who was stroking her burro's face lovingly. She smirked.
"And now we mount," said Tom, demonstrating the maneuver. He waited while Amanda and Brian struggled, trying a couple times to get on the burro's back. Amazingly, Nick mounted in one hop. Amanda had half expected him to slide right over the other side or get on backwards like Dudley Doright. She accredited his ease in loading to the length of his legs, rather than aptitude.
"Okay, so now that we're all seated," called Tom, "We're going to lightly tap the animal in the haunches with our heels and say 'ho' to move forward. To stop, it's a sharp 'nay'. Let's go."
The four of them set off with light taps and ho's and the burros began their slow trot along the steep path that led down the canyon wall. They walked with a lazy gait that swayed their passengers from side to side slowly as they moved into formation, following Tom.
The Canyon's ridge ended abruptly and the burros started picking their way carefully with a practiced accuracy along a narrow path filled with uneven ground, brush, and cracks in the rock. Nick was clinging to the burro's neck, having looked down to the side, and was now watching the ground directly in front of the animal as its hoof picked daintily which direction to move in over the clefts and dips in the ground.
Brian was snapping series of pictures, and, of course, did not miss the opportunity to capture a few of Nick's look of apparent seasickness as they burro's body swayed along down the path.
Amanda felt like she'd never had eyes before. She'd seen thousands of pictures of the Grand Canyon before, of course, but none of them could compare to the actual thing. Somehow the depth of the crevice - if you could call it that - was even more impressive from this angle than it had been from the ledge the night before in the Jeep, or even looking up from the bottom in the campsite.
"Eagle in flight on the right," called Tom, pointing out the bird.
Amanda looked up and watched, breathless, as the beautiful bird soared over the yawning lip of the Canyon, dipping and swooping through the air, its wings barely moving as the thermals carried it along. Then a gust of hot desert air caught him, and carried him up - almost straight up - seemingly into Heaven.
She glanced back at Brian, a grin on her face, and saw he, too, was smiling happily right back at her. She knew he was thinking of Piper, and somehow that made the moment even more special, having someone to share it with.
They got back to the camp without any trouble at all. The burro ride had gone smoothly and after taking a lunch break at a cantina halfway down the cliff-face, Nick had even bucked up and become more confident riding the animal. He started asking Tom questions about the history surrounding the Grand Canyon and about the animals and crags they passed by. Nick's enthusiasm improved the experience, and Amanda started to believe she'd never had a greater day in all of her life.
They ate salmon that Tom cooked on a spit over the fire that night, and sat on the logs talking again into the wee hours as the stars came up and spackled the sky with their pin-pricks of white light against the black backdrop. When they were finished, Nick made sure every crumb of food was in air tight containers and packed into the Jeep before he doused the fire with the bucket of water.
They crawled into their tents, calling good night to each other as they zipped up. Amanda turned on her lantern, and gasped. Sitting on her pillow, in a bed of dark red tissue paper, was the little stone eagle, his wings spread as though he were caught up in the thermals once more.
Amanda got up early the next morning, hoping Brian was up again like the day before. She found the campsite barren, though, even though Brian's tent was unzipped. He was just no where to be found. He probably wanted some privacy to do his devotional, she thought, remembering how he hadn't been upset about being interrupted the morning before, but imagined he would like to actually finish it.
She sat down on the log herself and dragged a stick through the sand, thinking about Piper. He would've loved the whole trip, especially Brian and Nick's company. Piper had never had the luxury of older brothers, only her - the older sister who never had the time to spend with him until it was too late. If she'd had it to do over again, she would've brought him here, she decided; she would've brought Piper to see the eagles fly.
"Hallo," Brian dropped down beside her suddenly, startling her out of her thoughts. He dropped his journal and Bible down to his feet in the dust and smiled, tilting his head to look at the drawing she'd made - an eagle's wingspan.
"Thank you, by the way," she said, "For the eagle."
Brian smiled, "I'm glad we saw one yesterday."
"Me, too," Amanda said, "Piper would've loved it."
"I'm sure he saw it," Brian said. He reached over and tapped the space below her collar bone. "He's right here, always."
Tears welled up in Amanda's eyes and she could feel her throat becoming raw.
"So, it was beautiful then?" Brian asked, picking up his own stick to draw in the sand.
"Extremely," Amanda croaked.
"It's on my list, too," he said. "I'm keeping a record of beautiful things."
Amanda smiled, "And the eagle is on the list?"
"So is Piper," Brian said, reaching for his journal. He opened it and flipped through the pages, then bent the book at the binding and handed it to her for her to read. Her throat burned as she looked over the words on the page.
She looked up at Brian through the tears that hazed her eyes. "That's beautiful," she whispered.
Brian's smile was gentle as he took the journal back. "Well, that's what we're here for, isn't it?"