Dalton Paine bronco bounced his new Kawasaki dirt bike over moss slippery rocks up a rutted trail leading into the Kuskokwim Mountains of the Yukon River basin. After six years in hell’s kitchen, it felt good to finally be back home, where nature had his six, and his time was his own. The air smelt sweet with pine. Summer promised uninterrupted day. And the mosquitos were too slow to keep up, choking in his exhaust spray. No one knew he was back. He wanted it that way for now. He needed time to be alone. He needed time to think things out.
Orphaned at seven, he had lived with his invalid Aunt Kate, his mom’s older sister, at the reservation outpost in Holy Cross, a community of just over two hundred, on the Yukon River, until finishing high school. Every morning was a hundred mile bush plane ride to class in Bethel, on the coast, four hundred miles west of Anchorage. She was determined he was going to get more than just a fifth grade education, and that was the closest settlement with anything more than a one room black board.
He could have gone on to take that full scholarship at Duke. The North Carolina university hailed as his football coach’s alma mater, and as an avid alumni donor, he knew all the right people there. Tall and burly, his mentor had them convinced, he would have been an asset in the Blue Devil backfield. That cagey, old, now pot-bellied, retired quarterback even had the scouts bragging there was the potential to go all the way and turn pro someday.
Sounded like a better alternative than logging out of a tent for six months on end or working off a fishing boat, where every wave threw up jelly fish to fry his face and coat his hands, so that a trip below to relieve himself felt like a case of clap. Coach had even arranged for him to work part-time and promised to look in on AuntKate every weekend, no matter what; that or his kin in Holly Cross, in case he got tied up or weather grounded all flights. Like many locals negotiating the rough terrain starved of roadway connections, he opted for a pontoon-fitted plane rather than four-wheel drive to get around, even though conditions were often less than optimal.
Then on the pier to greet another tour cruise, taking off his new shirt to help load cargo for a few extra bucks, that lady gave him her card, after not being able to take her eyes off his abs. With long blonde hair, a piercing green gaze, and a prominent dimpled chin, she thought it a shame, he had that scar over his right eye, denying him the full benefits of an all-round model. Yeah right, just the kind of sissy job he was looking for, doing underwear commercials in New York. Who wanted to live in a place without fresh air or mountains and rivers to hunt and fish anyway? Better to play for Duke and hope for the Cowboys, endorsements from Nike and Adidas, those were his dreams. That was what true grit was made of, a quality, thanks to coach and Kate, he had in spades.
No way could he make Aunt Kate feel guilty. After all, every time he looked in the mirror, the scar reminded him of her. She had him on her lap for the first time when he was barely two. Fumbling a glass of gin, not a drop was spilt, but she bounced him off the coffee table, getting a grip on it. She was so distressed, she never drank again. Everything she had done for him since then had more than made up for that indiscretion. All he wanted now was to make her feel proud.
Packed and ready to go, with coach pushing Kate up to the departure gate, their laughter was suddenly interrupted by the news flashing on every screen. Everyone went numb, but for tears and whimpers. A shocked terminal froze quiet. Not a cart rattled. Not a bag moved. Dalton knew then, school and football were no longer a viable option. The terror of the twin towers refocused, digging at his priorities deep. Honor and service demanded a longstanding family tradition. How could he not respond in kind?
Two of his great great uncles had been at Valley Forge, with wives who traveled almost eighty miles from Harrisburg to supply blankets, medicine, food, and shoes, upon getting word. If only they hadn’t lingered, following the troops, they might have survived. Ethan’s wife got caught with a military dispatch and was hanged. Nathaniel’s wife met with a similar fate for trying to steal a couple of chickens. Both men unaware, trusting their wives had returned home, carried on. One was even in the boat, rowing for Washington across the Delaware River. Their muskets had been handed down. They still fired and graced Aunt Kate’s mantelpiece. A rebel great uncle, Ebenezer, with a cotton plantation in South Carolina, he died a decorated colonel at Vicksburg, both he and his horse, a prized golden mare that won every heat at the state fair. His silver sabre, blood still staining the leather grip, balanced the crossed muskets from underneath. The world wars, Verdun and Normandy, pictures of cousins, Ned and Jason, were how he knew them. A silver cross and a bronze star, draping their sepia Boy Scout looks on the mantel, they died as heroes. Korea, his kin was there, too. At the battle of Ka-son almost his entire bloodline had been wiped out. The three tier bookshelf next to the fireplace was littered with their pictures, marines and medals all. Then Viet Nam, his daddy got high, burned his draft card, and took off for Montreal. Mom was pregnant, couldn’t blame him for not wanting to leave her alone. A government amnesty, hell, he headed back for the hills of Alaska. Some drunk driver in a pickup, they’d been ice fishing and were just walking down the side of the road; he lost them both, his older teenage sister, too. Aunt Kate ended up in a wheelchair.
His auntie, they needed each other then more than ever. Since that fated day, they were joined as one. She taught him how to handle regret, how not to forget, how keeping family and ancestors in his heart let their memory guide him as their souls lived on. It was why his being there was so important to her. Those big green eyes always rolling with an elfish wink, the same funny quips always heard growing up, that furrowed brow with a twitchy nose when mad, the tucked golden locks behind a tugged ear ever a nervous response, just like his mom, it was the little things that helped her carry on. Everything about him was so familiar. Everything about him was a heartfelt comfort. But somehow she understood the day he left. Somehow she understood what he needed to do, what now seemed more important than school. She didn’t well up in tears. She didn’t complain or try to change his mind. With trembling hands, hugging him close, in a whisper, she was proud of him.
With those words of endearment, a patriotic response seemed all the more like an honorable quest for the times, having grown up instilled with the memory of selfless dedication to God and country. There was room on the mantel for another medal, a badge of honor to show it was his right to be part of the family. He had enlisted and ended up in a bug-infested boot camp, some place called Parris Island, in the swamps of South Carolina. Spitting sand and dodging snipers, he spent four years as a marine in the bowels of Iraq. Wounded in Basra while single-handedly saving his squad from impossible odds, he earned sergeant stripes showing off a bronze star. For two more years, he hopped helicopters all over the world as a Navy SEAL, until after twenty six successful missions, he was up for another promotion.
It was just supposed to be a simple in and out sweep, before a much looked forward to two week furlough, a night drop into Helmand province to pick up a CIA Afghan operative. But all hell broke loose just as he was about to pop a pick up flare. Not about to let the fire fight drag on with two helicopters hovering just out of range, waiting for an all clear lull, cut off, his squad headed for the hills and higher ground with RPG shells pounding just short and a hail of bullets nipping at their boots. A call for backup brought a pair of Blackhawks weeding out the entrenched insurgents with fifty caliber efficiency as their depleted ranks scattered, a frenzied retreat of light-struck cockroaches into the bowels of their mountain lair. In a matter of minutes, the battle was over. The scorched earth yielded seventeen dead Taliban, searched for intelligence, before heading to the choppers. That’s when it happened. In an IED flash, he lost two buddies, the two who had been with him since the beginning and were more like the brothers he never had. It was the last thing he remembered, before passing out. The stretcher straps tightening, the neck brace cradling, the powdered gauze making him sneeze, the draped IV bubbling, the morphine shot soothing, then the medic cursing as he shook his head, the stinging whirl of sand spitting, his stomach caving, the cockpit cross chatter confirming a bearing, the thud of two body bags left no doubt. Their loss was the only pain he felt as the carrier doctors brought him around with guarded reassurances his shoulder would heal as good as new. But the headaches, his tour was over, the Navy gave him an honorable discharge. Two purple hearts and a bronze star for the mantel were too dear a price to pay for lost friends and too dear a price to pay for what happened next.
Kate passed away while he was still recuperating those three long weeks in a Honolulu naval hospital. If only he’d been on furlough, he could have been there by her bedside to comfort her in her darkest hour. He could have held her hand and stroked her cheek and told her how much he loved her, how without her tender rearing he would have grown up angry and lost, not caring half as much about life as he did now. Why was everything always so damned classified? There had been no way to let her know why he was running late. Timing all around wasn’t on his side. A blood clot in her shriveled legs had worked its way up to her caring heart. At least, that senseless accident from so many years ago had been mercifully slow in taking its toll, giving them the precious time they had together. That’s why he was here now. He turned to the past. There was nothing else left. Everyone was gone. He had no living family to come home to, just Kate’s haunting words, how to cope with loss, keep the memories alive, live through them. Let them show you what to do next. He trusted that was her final wish.
So his other ancestors, now it was time to check them out. He’d heard the stories. He’d seen the pictures. Was the cabin still there? His mind was racing with anticipation. Aunt Kate used to tell about epic turn-of-the-century adventures. Daring deeds after the Civil War, another generation, the family was destitute. The ship voyage from Boston that took them around the Cape of Good Hope, the smells and bustle of San Francisco, stopping off in Seattle for eight months’ worth of supplies, they were heading for the Klondike gold rush in Dawson City, up the Yukon River, into northwestern Canada.
Enduring another four months of drudging through waist-high snow, losing two mules and three of their party to an avalanche, since the river was frozen over and a minefield to walk on, they arrived just after the great fire of 1899 had consumed most of the now lawless town. Mosquitos and flies blackened the sky. Typhoid, scurvy, dysentery, and malaria were rampant. An apple cost more than a week’s wages. Eggs commanded their weight in nuggets. Permafrost hindered mining efforts. But, worst of all, rumors were spreading; the gold seemed to be running out.
Barely there six weeks, news arrived of a strike in Nome, a seaport without a harbor, the biggest town in Alaska, at the outlet of Snake River, on Seward Peninsula, at Norton Sound, facing the Bering Sea. Inupiaq Eskimos had camped there for centuries before Russian seal hunters came and almost wiped them out.Much of the gold was lying just under beach sand and could be recovered without any need to stake a claim, so they no longer had to worry about an elaborate system of water sluices or digging through layers of stubborn permafrost.
Trading all but a month’s worth of supplies for a double-lashed canoe, they followed the river around and down into Alaska. The last stretch overland, they planned to trade what was left of the wretched thing for a pack mule and supplies. Along the way, there were plenty of caribou and fish or so they figured. In a month’s time, they’d arrive at the height of summer in plenty of time before the lower forty-eight got word, getting rich beyond their wildest dreams, before anyone else showed up. Trouble was, they didn’t figure on the rapids and didn’t know the caribou migrated north that time of year. Armed with shotguns, they couldn’t have gotten close to anything, but a bear, anyway. And buck shot had a way of only pissing them off. They had to cut down trees to buoy the canoe and walk it around rapids and falls. The river was too high to fish. The salmon wouldn’t be running for another three months. They didn’t know to heat the water or use mud to ward off mosquitos and flies. Their powder was wet and useless most of the time. They almost starved.
“It was your great uncle Jeb,” Kate had said. “He always was a lousy shot. Never would admit he needed glasses. Damn fool, 42 years old, eight years later, he thought he was picking up his lighter to light a cigar. Picked up his derringer by mistake and shot himself in the face, point blank. Good riddance. What a waste. Serves him right. Just blind luck, what happened that day. Stricken with dysentery, Ethan and Jacob couldn’t go any farther. Even back then, it wasn’t safe to drink the water without boiling it first, something about bacteria native to the region. Jeb decided to do a bit of hunting while the other two built up a fire and started on a lean-to. He swore it was a deer. That’s how bad his eyesight was. Came back with a damn rabbit. Thing was, he had wounded it first and couldn’t figure out how the damn thing slipped down a hole next to a tree. He rolled up his sleeve and reached in to grab it. Got himself bit and, at first, came out with a nugget the size of his fist that covered in dirt looked no more than a worthless rock. Pissed, he stuck the barrel of the shotgun down the hole and let loose with both barrels. That boy almost came in his pants. Gold, Dalton, nuggets were scattered all over the place. Filling his pockets, after they hadn’t eaten in three days, he almost forgot the rabbit. Wasn’t until he stumbled backwards over the rock that he found out what it was. So, there they stayed and built a cabin, off a river tributary, on the side of a ravine, next to a waterfall, where they could construct a water wheel sluice. Sad what happened in the end. Two years later, they headed down to Seattle to settle up. Ethan and Jacob got gunned down in a card game. Jeb missed and shot a show girl, getting eight years in Bethel prison after they finally caught up with him. Would have gotten forty years or hanged if he hadn’t slipped out of town. Mary Belle was the judge’s favorite. Was only out a week before, you know. I have all their correspondence and some crude maps passed down through probate. The land deed for five hundred feet up and down either side of the river is sketchy but maybe you can find the claim. Those boys used to be builders before they came out west, so whatever they built was surely sturdy enough to last. It’s on a tributary of the Yukon, but back then, before the survey, they didn’t have names, especially the smaller creeks that might help give you a bearing.”
Dalton trimmed the brim of the mountain’s precipitous ledge, still thinking of Aunt Kate shawled in front of their cabin’s embered hearth, sharing hot cocoa and that haunting story, while he rolled around in his imagination on the bearskin rug. Seeing a clearing with a view of the valley, he pulled in, hoping it was the vantage point that would bring back a flood of those fond felt memories. With the old photos and a topographical map from the forest service to compare with the claim sketched one, it would have been as far as his uncles would have traveled downriver, before heading the two hundred and sixty miles cross country to Nome.
But first things first, he needed a good stretch and something to eat. It had been a hundred and sixty mile ride from Holy Cross, and his shoulder was acting up, bringing back the very memories that he was trying the hardest to forget. He reached in his pocket for his regimen of pills as his head began to throb with what he had now christened an Afghan migraine. Ken and Randy had been his best friends. They had both been married. They both had kids. Ken had seen it first. He pushed Randy back. Randy covered him from the blast. He woke up in a Honolulu naval hospital four days later, mumbling over and over. Their kids, their names, he swore never to forget. Amie and Bobby, two and four, Owen, just eight months, Montpelier, Vermont, Atlanta, Georgia, wives, Iris and Mandy, just this first, then he would go pay his respects. Maybe there was something he could do to eases their loss. He still felt guilty. Every night the headaches and another nightmare haunted with ghostly faces until he woke up drenched in sweat. Why couldn’t he have been on point? The lieutenant had pulled him out of rotation. Aunt Kate had to see him pretty. Ken and Randy had pushed him back another two positions. May seventh, he’d never celebrate that birthday again.
While the pill concoction massaged pounding temples numb, and the travel mix sated gnawing cramps hushed, another throbbing roar still grumbled for attention. Pulling himself up from a scented pine needle berth, he reached into the saddled backpack for his government-issue sniper rifle scope. Where the southbound Koyukuk and westbound Yukon Rivers met was like two lost lovers in a fond embrace. Rapids churned in a prolonged deafening climax. Wildlife came to watch, dotting the river bank. A noble sixteen pointer with a doe and a fawn, the stag first came down to drink. Dalton fought hard not to dwell on his sister Rachael. Another one of Kate’s Eskimo stories, they believed spirits born before their time came back to mingle as forest creatures. He laughed, wondering about a river-crossing moose. Woops, half way across it changed its mind. Before he could conjure up who that might have been, he swung back to the opposite bank where the rivers forked to do a double take. It was in his backpack. He had that picture.
The roof on the trading outpost had been extended. There was an extra chimney. The oak trees in front were gone, but the writing on the sign in Russian was a dead giveaway. His uncles had been standing in front of it, on the porch, with a brown bear they had downed. Native hunters were gathered around. A couple of bearded burly characters had been leaning on rifles, smoking pipes, eyeing the skin-clad lot. He was close; he could feel it; just one problem. How was he going to get across the river?
He looked at his watch. It was just after midnight. That was the thing about Alaskan summer, it never got dark. About to unravel his sleeping bag, he smelt something familiar, barbecued caribou simmered over pine cone. With barely a breeze, it had to be near. He pulled out his SEAL knife, stuck it in the ground, and lowered his ear. There was someone else up on the ridge with him.
Walking his bike, he listened.
Ten minutes later, he stopped and leaned on the seat. He knew he was being watched. “Okay, you can come out now.”
“Hey man, you have a smoke?”
“What are you, about ten?”
“No way, I’m fifteen. Next week is my birthday.”
With a New York Ranger jersey down to his knees, in neon high-top sneakers, sporting shoulder-length hair, the native kid looked like a midget. Dalton knew this was tribal land. Nomadic hunters, they followed the migrating caribou and camped out around here during the summer months. Almost wiped out by the Russian traders, there were maybe a hundred left, who still held on to the land and carried on with their traditional ways. “Athabaskan?”
“American-Athabaskan.” He crossed his arms and lifted his chin, as if the more accurate designation hinted of royal lineage. His heritage had been passed down around the tribal campfires. His warrior forefathers had been the patriotic first to withstand the Russian onslaught. He would one day be chief and carry on that noble calling.
“Okay, okay, lighten up. Do you have any idea how I can get across the river? Is there some sort of raft service nearby?”
“Well, for you, no problem. You can use the zip line in camp to pulley over, as long as you’re not afraid of heights and have a strong stomach for an abrupt high-speed landing.” He stroked his fingers across the crimson gas tank. “Your bike, I can take care of it until you get back.”
“Nice try, kid. But I need to stay mobile.”
The boy sighed as droopy shoulders dug defeated hands into baggy pockets. ”Upstream, about fourteen miles, the mountain grades down into a clearing. My uncle runs a raft service there.”
“Yeah, that’s another thing. That outpost over there, can they sell me some gas?” Dalton’s stomach started to growl. It had been years since he tasted caribou.
“Sure. Hey, you hungry? Married? I have two older sisters about your age.”
“Listen, sport.” Just then Dalton noticed the camp and the pulley. The smell of buttered sweet corn, grizzled fried onions, and garlic baked potatoes was more than he could stand. “Yeah, sure, why not? Just let me pay my respects to your father first.”
“My name is Little Bear.”
As if that name was the crack of a starter pistol, Little Bear suddenly sprang back to life and went running on ahead. By the time Dalton caught up, pushing his bike into camp, a small crowd had gathered with Little Bear out in front presenting his arms around, who else, two buxom sisters, as kids came skipping up to get their first look at a motorcycle. Behind them, a fire cackled in the grease from a caribou spit rotating as it churned out plumes of smoke. Old women fussed around a nearby outside community table, lingering over mud oven baked bread with goat churned butter and bacon cured beans sweetened in maple syrup. Seven tarped lean-tos with pelt-draped wood floors peeked out from under pine boughs set back behind a lone log cabin that echoed the crack of wood chopping. Except for a generator humming alongside, they otherwise had no need to be mechanized. Not even a pickup or a horse, these were the last of a breed, dedicated foot trackers who could keep up with their prey, denying it a stop for water, until exhaustion set in.
Dalton forced a weak smile as his new young friend made his match making introductions. Mercifully, his sisters only cooed and giggled until a bow-legged old man called them off in drooling gestures to take over behind the wood shed. Ponytail grey framing a wrinkle leathered face, toothless and lips quivering, with piercing grey eyes, his vice grip betrayed a vigor not the least bit apparent. But more surprising than that was what he murmured in an almost trancelike whisper. “They’ve been waiting for you. Your search is just about over and soon will begin again. The forest will find you and point the way. Your ancestors blow a cool breeze, knowing you kept them alive in your heart. They watched over you eager to share what to them was a heartfelt quest.”
Caught off guard, before he could think to reply, the old man walked over and sat at the head of the table, gesturing for Dalton to join him.
“May I see what has led you here?” he asked, one hand outstretched, the other thumbing his shirt pocket for glasses.
Dalton, still dumbfounded, as if under a spell, walked over, sat down, and emptied his bag. He swallowed hard but didn’t utter a word. How could he? After being brought up immersed in Aunt Kate’s fireside tales about the mystical powers bestowed on the Eskimos, there was a longing need the legends were true. Ancestors taking animal form to reward unforgotten memories, secrets blowing in the wind that only someone close to nature could understand, how animals could be charmed to sacrifice their own lives so that a worthy soul might live were all fantasies close to his heart.
The old man’s eyes creased, looking at the cabin picture. “About five miles upstream on the Koyukuk River is Dead Falls Creek, but you could never get your bike up there. The incline is too steep. From the Yukon side maybe, though you’d have to ditch at the top. Can’t remember how far up it is. Best bet is to hike the creek. Ten miles give or take. I seem to remember an ornery bastard using it. He comes up here hunting every so often. Can’t say if he’s up there now or not. I haven’t seen him in about three months. Just be careful. He’s the type who shoots first and asks questions later. Damn fool was drunk one time and nearly shot my husky walking a foot in front of me.”
“So, it’s still there. You’ve definitely seen it?”
“Oh yeah, it was built sturdy with a stone foundation and four inch square supporting beams. Damn thing even has a root cellar. That kin of yours knew what they were doing. Too bad the gold ran out. The water wheel and sluice still look usable. What ever became of them?”
“They weren’t as lucky at poker as they were at finding gold.” Dalton looked off to the valley. The old man sensed his thoughts and didn’t interrupt. “Would it be okay to leave my bike with you? I shouldn’t be gone more than a day or two.”
“I’m sure Little Bear will have it looking like new before you get back.”
“He doesn’t know anything about hot wiring, does he?”
The old man laughed. “Don’t worry; he can barely tie his shoelaces with those god forsaken sneakers. You just take care of yourself up there and watch out for bear. Quite a few roam around there abouts. But then again, with that cannon of yours, I can see you have that covered. If we don’t hear from you in three or four days, I’ll send over someone to check on you.”
“I appreciate that. Is there anything you need at the trading post?”
The old man leaned back, stroking his stubbled chin. “Well, that redhead working at the outpost would be nice for a night. Other than that, can’t think of a thing. Got most everything we need right here. Speaking of which…” He turned around, nodding at one of the bent over women carving slices of caribou off the smoking spit. It was the signal all of the kids had been waiting for. Dropping everything, they came running.
Screaming and laughing as dishes rattled and silverware clamored, they scooped and slurped in playful delight. For Dalton, it was not only his first taste of home cooking, but his first taste of feeling connected again. Prodded and pinched, he stood up to stretch with a satisfied belch, a native sign, his compliments to the chef. Still feeling playful, he plugged in his I-pod to special-order factory bike speakers, piping Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix to whirl the kids on benches, frenzied dancing. It was best how he remembered his mom and dad. The old chief frowned until Dalton showed him an ap on his phone and Little Bear tried to butt in. They quarreled who could best play the game as Dalton thought back to the time when those records were never ending.
Then came dessert, definitely not Dalton’s.
Strapped into a jump seat, five hundred feet over the raging Yukon, he felt like an early Christian in the Roman coliseum about to be led to the slaughter. Little Bear and two of his friends were about to test his resolve. He looked up at the rusted pulley as the wind started to pick up. It moaned, as if trying to apologize his epitaph.
“It’s a piece of cake. Fifty feet before the other shore, you’ll hit a spring that slows you down and locks as you land.” Little Bear laughed as one of his friends walked up with a burlap sack. “Need an air sickness bag?”
Without warning, the loop lock pinged loose and the zip wire slurred raspy. A human cannon ball from nearly three hundred yards out, Dalton flew in an armchair saddle bouncing like a rodeo bronco. The rusted pulley rattled nervously while the sagging cable screamed louder. The rapids reached higher, as if showing off hungry shark-bared teeth. Almost there, he kicked off a rock as the wire reeled hot and the seat swayed sideways into a skidded dock. Little Bear and his friends cheering up and down on the ridge, he gave them a thumbs up. It was the most fun he had had since strapping a belt around a rooftop cable to disappear unnoticed after a covert mission; one he had been charged with alone, involving black ops, code for Iraqi wet work.
Walking through the settlement with no other facilities than an open shed of canoes and a gas pump pier, he noticed old red rocking away as she did her nails on the trading post porch. Her buxom nature made it hard to imagine what the old chief had been thinking, bosomly pushing at least two hundred pounds. He shook his head, concluding, it must be the crimson hair, some tribal portent with unfathomable origins. She hesitantly waved with a disappointed look when he walked on by. He tapped his diving watch, on the way back.
The river rapids roar drowning out the crackling crunch of a cobblestone walk, a curious snorting moose nibbling on maple leaves ten feet over head, then a woodpecker drill, and a beaver dam, two sunning on a log under cascading falls stretching eighty feet across, they call this a creek? Dalton sighed as he began the near vertical climb, stopping every so often to nibble ripened blackberries and gaze up at stalking hawks currenting the valley. Finally, two hundred feet up, the trek leveled off into a gradual stepped slope with a tiered curtain of falls gargling into a distant pine cloak. A deep pool floor mat, surrounded by a crust of mica flecked sand, was also there to meet his arrival in an aerial trout feeding display. It was one of the wonders of nature he could never figure out, how they managed the falls to get up this far. Maybe when he got back, the old chief could answer that age old question, even if it was with a time honored myth.
Breathing deep a second wind, he moved out, carving a trail around knee-high boulders and over fallen tree trunks, with an eye focused on the avenue of mountain washed steps yet to vault and a heart haunted by the elixir of ancient folklore nursing his doubts. Just like the old chief had revealed across the river, just like Eskimo kin had foretold on the trading post steps in Holy Cross, just like Aunt Kate had consoled around the intimacy of an embered fire, when no logical explanation sufficed, a romantic interpretation made anything possible. The stag, the doe, the fawn, his family, Aunt Kate had left clues how to find them, safe and sound, surrounded by ancestors. The golden hawks lighting up the sky, Ned and Jason were on night patrol. The drilling woodpecker was Uncle Jeb still beating his head against the wall for being so stupid, while the river rats, Ethan and Jacob, planned another downstream adventure. Ebenezer, now a moose, shouldn’t have loved his horse so much. The jumping trout were those that died on a senseless beachhead eager to greet his long awaited arrival. That cool breeze, the old chief had only half been right; it was Aunt Kate’s fond caress welcoming him back. Anyone else, he was sure to meet in the next couple of days. He just hoped they came with an agreeable disposition and were happy he had come all this way. Luckily, he hadn’t seen a fox. An Eskimo had nicknamed him, Sly Dancing Eyes. To see one now might be a premonition of his own imminent demise, or…his brothers, only if they came as a pair. Dalton, drenched in sweat, after three hours more of hiking, looked around anxious to get a glimpse of them, but only saw what he had been looking for.
The riverside one-room log cabin fronting a mudslide ravine tiered back where Jed had originally discovered the nuggets with a treetop waterfall to power the waterwheel sluice appeared just as in the picture Kate had left behind, except for a spruce-smashed roof and a change of seasons. Constructed close to the bank, the enduring refuge with its shuddered windows reflexed ghostly images off a deep water pool. Dalton’s boots crunched on the cobblestone beach as he made his way closer, slapping mosquitos gorging on his neck with every step. Closing his eyes and taking in a glut of crisp mountain air, he tried to imagine his great uncles’ love affair before those last three steps up onto and across the moaning porch. A blue jay mimicked. Go ahead. You want to. You need this. The door hesitated and then gave way. Musty, streams of light lanced through where the mortar between logs had been. The spruce skylight haloed the floor in dancing shadows. Dalton had to laugh at all the pegged up rabbit hides. Poor Jeb, he never got his trophy antlers. Then tears welled in his eyes as he remembered, why hadn’t the stubborn fool just bought glasses? Two chairs, a table, a ladder leading up to a spectator sleep loft, something that looked like a rope meshed bed, maybe a couch, and a pot belly stove were all that was left. Squatter rats scampered around, chirping and skirting to sniff his boots, while their stale urine and decaying droplets played havoc with his senses. An old 1939 newspaper warned Germany was about to invade Poland. Vines growing in from the roof were restaking their claim. His stomach churned. Time for a bit of fly fishing, some fried trout, and then a nap; his eyes were sandy from not having slept in almost two days.
After propping up the slats to pry open the shudder eyelids and get rid of the gutter smell, Dalton sat down with his back to the door, admiring Jeb’s patterned handiwork as he unpacked his gear. There was something about the brown, black, white striped pelts, the way his uncle had arranged the flow of color that held his attention. From a center point on the wall, their parallel bent spiraled out, creating a hypnotic illusion. As if being almost totally nearsighted didn’t handicap him enough, by the time the entire wall had been covered, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine, the poor guy ended up cross-eyed as well. Even Dalton had to squint dizzy after only a few minutes, deciding it was better to concentrate on the task at hand
He emptied the contents of the three-foot-long aluminum tube onto the table, as if about to play a game of pick-up sticks. Made of lacquered bamboo cane, the four pieces sheathed together into a twelve foot fly rod, the best money could buy, or so his dad had said, proud his son’s eighth birthday would be one never to forget. The two optional reels, one wound with floating line, the other sinking, were hard to tell apart or remember which was which. He did remembered though that last summer together, before he lost them to a drunk driver three months later; that last trip with his family in a motor home up the Yukon River; the fun he had with his dad, learning how to cast. But too small to wade the fast running current, he was always tangling his line in overhanging branches, looking on as even his sister caught her share. Joined by two of her girlfriends, along for the ride, who had nothing better to do whenever they weren’t putting on makeup or flirting with boys except to hassle him, made giving up to hang around camp a torturous option. Down to throwing rocks at a redheaded woodpecker pounding a dead tree trunk, his dad came from behind, hinting a surprise, as his hand opened to reveal his newest fly; one he had tied especially for the trip that he dare not try. A red body the color of roe, gold tail feathers and silver wings, green eyes whispered a secret oath, after an Eskimo mystic had added a spell to make its dance irresistible. There was more. The magic would only work for someone who had never caught a fish. And it involved a secret ritual if his son dared trust the spirits. Dalton nodded, wide-eyed with anticipation. First, he had to tie the fly himself, before hopping on his father’s shoulders to wade out into the rushing current. Ten o’clock to two o’clock, the Chinook took the first looped cast, yanking him off his father’s shoulders, right into the raging river. His father’s frantic words, no way was he, coughing and choking, about to let go. Other fishermen lifted their poles and tried to grab him to no avail. It wasn’t until snagging on a log jutting out from the shore that he caught his breath. The pole bent all the way to his fingertips but he hung on for dear life. He had to; this was Eskimo magic. His father and two others caught up in a matter of minutes, but, seeing him wedged in tight, let him carry on with the fight until twenty minutes later the battle was over. Two exhausted warriors, both around the same height and weight, gasping for breath, stretched out in the sand, how could Dalton ever again resist the allure of native folklore?