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Village of the Ghost Bears
Copyright 2009 by Stan Jones
"The ghosts of dead bears have, it is said, their own village far off on the ice of the ocean." -- Nuligak, in I, Nuligak
“See why they call it One-Way Lake?”
Cowboy Decker rolled the Super Cub into a slow arc as Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active peered over Grace Palmer’s shoulder. One-Way Lake was a blue teardrop cupped in the foothills of the Brooks Range, with caribou trails lacing the ridges on either side. From the outlet, One-Way Creek, lined with stunted black spruce and a few cottonwoods gone gold, threaded south across the rusting fall tundra toward the Isignaq River. At the lake's head, wavelets licked a fan-shaped talus at the foot of a steep slope of gray-brown shale. More caribou trails cut across its face.
Grace was wearing the intercom headset, so Active was obliged to shout at the back of the pilot’s head. “Looks pretty tight,” he said.
“Yep,” Cowboy shouted back. “One way in, one way out. You land toward the cliff and take off going away."
Active lifted one of the headset cups away from Grace’s ear. “What do you think?”
She shifted on his lap in the cramped back seat of the Super Cub and turned her head toward him. “I’m game. Anything to get out of this airplane.”
“Let’s do it,” Active shouted.
Cowboy leveled the wings and flew a half-mile down One-Way Creek in the slanting fall sunlight, then swung back for the approach to the lake. He came in low, floats barely clearing the treetops along the creek, chopped the power, and dropped the Super Cub onto the water, throwing up spray that painted a brief rainbow in the air.
Cowboy slowed to taxiing speed and pointed the nose at a spot on the bank that boasted a tiny gravel beach and a stand of spruce on high, dry ground suitable for camping. The floats crunched into the shallows and Cowboy shut off the engine, ushering in a sudden and deafening silence broken only by the slap of their own wake following them ashore.
Cowboy popped open the cockpit's clamshell doors and let in the smell of the Arctic – the wet, fertile rot of tundra vegetation, a hint of resin from the spruces, and something else – something sharp and cool that Active associated with autumn in the mountains near sunset. Winter, perhaps, hovering just over the ridge. It was already a couple of weeks late and couldn't be far off.
Cowboy, wearing jeans and the usual bomber jacket and baseball cap, pulled up his hip waders and jumped into the shallows. He grabbed the nose of a float, tied on a yellow polypropylene line and dragged the plane forward a few yards, then walked into the trees and snubbed the Super Cub to a spruce. He turned and surveyed the scene with an air of great satisfaction. “You get into One-Way this time of year, you got caribou walking by, you got grayling in the creek, maybe some Arctic char, maybe some pike in the lake, and you got the best blueberries in the Arctic." He turned and looked at them. "And you got total privacy. There’s only a couple guys can get in here, and you’re looking at one of ’em.” He raised his eyebrows and grinned.
Not for the first time, Active marveled at the pilot’s intuition, and at his utter lack of grace in dealing with the insights it brought him. Cowboy might sense that fishing, berry picking and caribou hunting were the least of their reasons for coming here, but it was none of his business. “We probably oughta get unloaded,” Active said.
He helped Grace climb onto a float, then extricated himself from the torture chamber known as the rear seat of a Super Cub and clambered ashore, stamping and stretching to unkink his muscles.
Cowboy walked onto the float and began emptying the cargo pod under the Super Cub’s belly and the space behind the back seat: food in cardboard boxes, two cased rifles, two fishing rigs, a bright orange Arctic oven tent, a Woods Yukon single-double sleeping bag, camp stove and fuel, cooking gear, and all the other impedimenta required to support human life in the Arctic.
Active and Grace ferried gear ashore until finally the plane was empty. Cowboy untied the Super Cub, waded into the shallows, walked the plane back until it was floating, then swung the nose around to point across the lake. “Okay, you two, I’ll see you in a week. Enjoy yourselves, huh?” His eyes twinkled behind the steel-frame glasses and the grin reappeared.
It was not reciprocated.
Cowboy shrugged. "If you run into any trouble, just set off your EPIRB and somebody'll be along to check on you." They nodded and he climbed into the plane.
He cranked up and taxied to the face of the cliff, then turned and put on full power, filling the bowl with the roar of his engine as he accelerated toward them. They watched as the pilot got onto step, hoisted one float clear of the water, then the other, and cleared the trees at the end of the lake.
As the red and white plane shrank to a dot in the sky, Active put his arm around Grace's shoulders, breathing in the scent of lavender. “What do you think?"
She shrugged stiffly. “I don’t know yet.”
He gave her a squeeze. “Don’t sweat it. Good fishin’, good huntin’, good berry-pickin’, good weather, good company - - who needs the other?”
She looked at him with a quicksilver flash from the corner of her eyes. “Every couple does. Otherwise they’re just . . .”
“Don’t say that. I hate that word.”
“It’s all right if we’re roommates for a while. It’ll happen when it happens.”
“Feel free to shop elsewhere."
“Thanks, but no thanks.”
She turned into his arms and pulled him down for a kiss. “Thank you,” she said after a long time.
When they separated, he cleared his throat. “I guess we should do something about getting a camp together.”
She nodded. “I’ll see if I can organize some dinner if you want to set up the tent.”
She busied herself putting up a Visqueen awning for the camp kitchen while he stamped about the mossy floor of the spruce grove, looking for the flattest spot big enough for the Arctic Oven. He found one a few yards from Grace’s camp kitchen, requiring only that he dig out a few rocks and pitch them aside. Then he tugged the tent out of its pouch and spread it on the moss as the sun drifted below the ridge above them and the basin sank into blue shadow.
Later, in the tent, came the conundrum of the Woods single-double. Each half could be zipped into a bag for one person, or the two halves could be zipped together for a couple.
“One bag or two, Madame?” he asked, without much optimism.
He studied her face in the buttery light of the propane lantern as she turned it over in her mind. That hunger for normalcy showing as always in the quicksilver eyes, the desire to please him, and the terror.
“One, I think, kind sir, but no guarantees.” Like him, she was playing it light, keeping the escape route open.
He unrolled the bag and zipped it together, peeled down to his shorts and tee shirt, and crawled in. Then he watched her next internal debate: undress with the light on, or with the light off? Put on the long johns, or go for broke in panties and one of his tee shirts?
She looked at him, stuck out her tongue like a twelve-year-old, and closed the valve on the lantern. He listened in a kind of fever-dream as clothes whispered off in the darkness and something was pulled on. Long johns, or a tee shirt?
She rolled into the bag and he felt a smooth, bare, thigh, hot against his own. She turned toward him for a kiss and that was all right. Lips soft and wet, the tremulous flicker of her tongue. But when he slid his hand under her tee shirt, that was not all right. The sudden quivering rigidity, so painful and familiar.
He eased his hand off her breast, stroked her hair, felt her relax. He kissed her cheek, tasted salt.
“Sorry, baby,” she said.
“It’s all right. All in good time.”
“You know I’ve started seeing Nelda Qivits again.”
She put her hand on his chest, scratched him lightly, sighed, and let the hand trail southward. “Liar.”
“I see things are not altogether all right down there.”
“What are you - -”
“I think I could - -“
“Mmmm, oh, God . . .”
“You should register those hands with the FBI,” he said a few minutes later. “They’re lethal weapons.”
“That would explain why I won the shoot-out,” she giggled.
He laughed out loud, pleased that her joke was so much dirtier and more original than his own. But how to get into the real issue? “Am I imagining things, or did we just have a breakthrough?”
“Progress, at least.” She shifted to put her head on his chest.
He was silent for a time. “What do you think accounts for it?” he asked at last.
“It’s just different out here. I don’t know.”
“Maybe it’s being out of that house.”
She stiffened. “Don’t overanalyze it. Leave it be.”
“I withdraw the remark, your honor.”
“Noted.” A long moment passed. Then she relaxed again, and rolled towards him a bit. The tent was filled with the smells of lavender, sex, and his own sweat, now cooling.
“It was nice, but it does seem a bit one-sided,” he ventured at length. “Anything I can do to reciprocate?”
She shrugged. “Someday, maybe. For now, your pleasure is my pleasure.”
He flipped back the sleeping bag to cool off, and -- now that his eyes had adjusted -- to admire the curve of her calf thrown across his thigh in the dim light seeping into the tent from the evening sky.
“You know something?” She was serious, suddenly.
“Mmmm?” He was drowsy, hoping this wouldn’t get too deep.
“You’re so polite.”
“Mmmm.” He tried to stay drowsy, thinking they could work this out tomorrow, whatever it was. But 'so polite,' she had said.
He opened his eyes, resigned to it. “Meaning?”
“I mean, you keep trying, but not too hard. Sometimes I’m not sure how much you want me. With my past, I could understand . . .”
“Well - - I mean, my god, look at you. You’re the most beautiful . . . what man wouldn’t . . . ”
She was silent, slightly tense against his side and chest.
“I - - are you saying you want to be taken?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it's what I need. Some women do.”
“Sometimes. If it’s someone they trust. They want to be wanted that much.”
“Are you one of those women?”
“I don’t know. I want to be normal, is all. I just don’t know what it is.” Her hand drifted south again. “But I see the idea interests you at least a little?"
“Of course.” He moved the hand back to his chest. “But I’m not the cave man type. For us, what we have is normal, for now.”
“Well, then, have some more of it, on me.” She rolled over and kissed him, hard, her hand moving south again. This time, he let it roam.
# # #
Active awoke when the sun got high enough to heat the tent, then spent a few minutes studying her face, the foxlike set of the eyes, and her hair lying against the honey-dark skin of her neck in the orange half-light of the tent. Finally he eased outside, clothes in hand, everything looking blue until his eyes adjusted to normal light, and did a hop-dance on the damp moss as he dressed. At least there was no frost yet. Maybe Indian summer would last out their week at One-Way Lake.
He was scrambling eggs and frying bacon on the camp stove when she came out, yawning and pulling on a jacket against the fading nighttime chill. "That smells good." She sniffed hungrily. "What time is it?"
He shrugged. "I wouldn't know. My watch is in my pack and that's right where it'll stay till Cowboy picks us up."
"You put away your watch? I'm amazed."
"I'm smitten," he said. "And I cook." He waved a spatula at the eggs and bacon.
"Where you been all my life?" She squatted, stole a rasher out of the pan, and ambled to the shore. She stood looking out over the water, chewing as breakfast popped and sizzled in the skillets. "Nathan, you think happiness is achievable as a permanent condition, or do we just have to be content with a random series of singularities and contingencies?"
"Say again, please. In English?"
"This is pretty nice. Think it'll last?"
"I wouldn't know," he said.
"Even if it doesn't, I can't complain. I slept like a zombie.”
“Me, too. I felt oddly drained.”
He dumped the eggs onto their plates, tossed two slices of bread onto the skillet, and was turning down the gas when she called out.
“Hey, look at that!” She was pointing across the lake.
He turned and scanned the water, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. “What - -”
“Up on the ridge.”
He scanned the crest and saw them, a string of caribou filing south toward the Isignaq, headed for Jade Portage and the wintering grounds across the river. From this distance, they looked like bugs crawling along the edge of the sky. He was reminded of a phrase he had once heard an old Inupiaq hunter use for caribou: earth-lice. There was indeed that resemblance, Active saw now. Plus, as the old man had pointed out, the Inupiat of early days ago ate their own body lice as well as earth-lice. Now that everyone was civilized and bathed regularly, the old man had reflected somewhat gloomily, body lice were no longer on the menu. At least the earth-lice were still plentiful, and as tasty as ever.
Active returned to the tent and fetched binoculars for a closer look. The males were in full fall regalia, with towering antlers and thick coats of gray-black fur except for the white capes burning practically incandescent in the morning sun. The females ran more to brown and gray, with spindly, twig-like antlers.
“How about some caribou for breakfast?” she asked. There was fire in her eye of a kind he had not seen before. Her Inupiat half coming out, surely.
“You bet,” he said, hurrying to the tent to uncase the rifles. “We’ll have to cross the creek and come up the other side to get ahead of them.”
They loaded quickly, slung the rifles over their backs, and sprinted along the lake shore to the outlet, then worked down One-Way Creek till they found a spot shallow enough to ford.
He was halfway to the opposite bank, eyes on the ridge, measuring their pace against that of the caribou, figuring the odds of getting up the slope in time, something about the creek trying to get his attention, when she called out behind him.
He turned. She was pointing at a dark object a few yards downstream. He had caught it from the corner his eye before, but in his hurry had passed it off as a rock or a log. Now he saw what she had seen: A backpack, still strapped to a figure face-down in the stream.
They splashed through the creek, their Sorels taking on water, and rolled the corpse onto his back. The head flopped toward them as if the neck were without bones, and they recoiled together.
"Oh, God," she said. "Where's his face? And look at his hands. The flesh is just . . . gone. What would do that?"
"I don't know," he said. "I've never seen anything like -- wait, didn't Cowboy say something about pike in the lake back there?"
She nodded, and Active eased up closer to the head of the corpse, now lying on its side in the shallow water. "Pike supposedly eat everything. Even their own young."
Grace looked nervously at the water rippling over her Sorels, then at Active, and edged toward the bank. "You think they're in this creek now?"
"I don't think this happened to him here," Active said, feeling himself shift out of vacation mode and back into work mode. "He must have been in the lake for a while. That’s when the pike would have gotten at him. Then he drifted into the outlet and finally stuck here in these shallows." He studied what was left of the man's face. Nothing but grinning bones with a few shreds of flesh still attached, but he still had his ears and most of his straight black hair, probably because the hood of his anorak had protected them from the pike. "Anything about him seem familiar?"
Grace edged a little closer and studied everything but his missing face. "Not really. But he’s obviously from around here.”
Active nodded. The anorak had a duct-tape patch below one shoulder, and the man wore a faded Nike sweatshirt underneath, plus insulated Carhartt jeans and Sorels like their own. "Not a stitch of Eddie Bauer or Patagonia on him. But nobody's been reported missing."
"Maybe he's not overdue yet. I wonder how long he's been here."
Active shook his head. "Not long, probably. He's dressed for cool weather."
“But how did he die?”
Together, they stared out over One-Way Lake to the cliff looming at the upper end.
“Beats me.” Active scanned the lake shore for any sign of a camp or boat, then shook his head. "Well, I'll go through his pockets and pack and see who he was. Let's get him over to the bank." At Grace's look of reluctance, he added, "You can take the feet."
Ten minutes later, Active shook his head in mystification and began stuffing the hunter's belongings back into his pack.
"No I.D., huh?" Grace said.
"Nothing. No wallet, no name on his clothes or tent or sleeping bag, nothing. Weird, huh?"
"Not that weird. A lot of guys from the villages don't carry I.D. when they're out in the country. Just one more thing to get lost."
"Good point," he said. "What do you make of this?"
He pulled out the soggy remains of a box of two-seventy ammunition he had just dropped back into the pack and held it up for inspection.
"I guess he was hunting," she said. "Why else would he be up here?"
"Exactly. Caribou probably, or maybe sheep. So where's his rifle?"
They looked up the lake again, then at each other. "All right, you take the right bank and I'll take the left and we'll meet at the upper end," he said. "Give a shout if you find his gun, or anything else man-made, or anything that looks like a campsite that’s been used recently."
Forty-five minutes later, they were standing together on the rubble at the foot of the cliff, as mystified as ever. Active looked down the lake to the outlet, then at the mountain behind them, and swore softly to himself as he pulled his binoculars from the folds of his coat and raised them to his eyes.
"You think?" Grace said.
He nodded, keeping up his methodical sweeps across the mountainside with the glasses. A relatively gentle slope at the top, where caribou trails cut through the tundra carpet. Then bare gray and brown rock steepening to a near-vertical cliff that ending at the talus fan. "There we go," he said finally, pointing at a spot uphill and to their right, a few yards above the talus.
He handed her the glasses and she swept the slope where he had pointed. "I don't -- oh, yeah, I see it. What --"
"Water bottle, maybe."
"Umm-hmm." She handed him the glasses.
"You wait here," he said. "I'll go up and have a look."
"Careful. You don't want to end up like him."
He grunted, handed her his rifle, and started up the slope. The going was bad enough on the talus fan, and became impossible when he reached the steeper slope of the cliff itself. He glassed the object again, now much closer, determined that it really was a water bottle -- actually, a plastic Coke bottle -- and started back down.
He was half-way to the lake when he spotted the two-seventy Winchester, wedged muzzle-down in a crevice between two rocks. He pulled it out and studied it. The scope was gone, the barrel was bent slightly and deep gouges scarred the weathered wooden stock. The sling, if the rifle had ever had one, was gone.
He clambered down to where Grace was waiting and showed her the gun. "He must have been crossing the slope on those caribou trails and lost his footing," Active said. "Looks like he bounced all the way into the water. That would explain the broken neck."
Grace gazed at the slope, then down the lake to the where the brush concealed the hunter's body. "Poor guy. Can you trace the gun and figure out who he is?"
"Not likely. There's a million of these old Winchesters around, and most of them were bought before there was any kind of gun registration. We'll put the word out to the villages and wait for somebody to realize they haven't heard from this guy in a while."
"What now?" she asked as they started back down the shore.
He sighed. "I'll set off the EPIRB and somebody'll show up in a day or two to see what the problem is."
She shivered. "We have to stay on this lake with him?"
"'Fraid so," he said.
# # #
A dead man for a neighbor, they discovered, didn’t affect their appetites. So, after Active found the EPIRB in one of their bags and set it off, they reheated breakfast and began wolfing it down on the lake shore.
"How long does that thing take to work?" She waved at the bright yellow EPIRB hanging from a spruce tree. It looked like a walkie-talkie.
"I'm not sure," he said. "Never had to set one off before. A satellite picks up the signal, then it tells the Rescue Coordination Center, then they have to decide if the signal is for real and where you are . . . several hours, probably. A day, maybe."
"I thought they could tell the satellite exactly where you are."
"Some do," he said. "But, ah - -"
"But they cost more."
“So you bought that one over there on the tree. And here we sit."
“So cheap.” She shook her head and took a swallow of coffee.
"We should probably wrap him up," Active said.
"You should," Grace said. "While I clean up here. And we should stop calling him 'him'." He needs a name."
She nodded. "It's disrespectful if he doesn’t have one. Also, it might jinx him in the afterlife."
"I didn't know we Inupiat believed in the afterlife," he said.
"When it suits us."
"All right," he said. "A name. How about Henry?"
She grimaced and stirred her coffee with a twig. "How about One-Way? In honor of the place of his demise."
"Why not? What’s wrong with One-Way?”
"No, I mean how about No-Way for the name?"
"No-Way? Wha -- oh, I see. Once he got into One-Way Lake, there was no way out?"
"Uh-huh." He nodded.
"Excellent. No-Way it is, then. You go bundle old No-Way up for transport and I'll take care of the breakfast dishes."
She stacked the plates, coffeepot and skillet, and started for the lake shore. He didn't move.
"What?" she said.
"It strikes me the division of labor here is very much along traditional gender lines all of a sudden. Maybe I should do the dishes while you - -"
"No way," she said with a huge grin.
"Precisely," he said with an equally huge grin.
He dug into the duffel pile again, came up with the roll of Visqueen and a hank of nylon camp cord, and set off along the shore toward No-Way's resting place.
He was knotting the last loop of cord around the Visqueen-wrapped remains when he realized the buzz poking at his subconscious wasn't a late-season mosquito, but an airplane -- a Super Cub from the sound of it.
He stood, made a visor of his hand and peered southward, toward the sun. A Super Cub swam out of the glare and into focus. A red and white Super Cub on floats, in fact, unmistakably the Lienhofer Aviation Super Cub flown by Cowboy Decker. Active checked his watch, realized he wasn't wearing it, and started for camp.
Cowboy came straight in over the trees at the outlet and splashed down, then taxied toward their camp, cut the engine, and grounded the plane in the gravel shallows. He was climbing out as Active hurried up.
"That was fast," Active said. "It can't be more than an hour and a half since I set off the EPIRB. How'd you get here so soon?"
"EPIRB?" the pilot said as he waded ashore. "I don't know anything about an EPIRB. You got a problem up here?" He scanned them up and down. "You both look all right."
"We're fine," Active said. "But we found a dead hunter in the creek." He pointed at the cliff behind them, then toward One-Way Creek. "Looks like he fell up there and broke his neck, then floated down the lake till he got caught in the shallows in the outlet."
Cowboy waved it off. "Never mind about that. Carnaby sent me to get you. The Rec Center burned down last night and, ah, well, ah - -"
"And what?" Active said, noticing now that the pilot was red-eyed and grimy, and smelled of smoke.
"We've got maybe eight people dead and two in the hospital and one that's not expected to live being medevaced to the burn unit in Anchorage."
"Jesus!" Active said. "Anybody I -- Who's dead?"
Grace didn't speak, but pressed a hand over her mouth.
"They haven't identified ’em all yet, or even counted ’em for sure," Cowboy said. "But one of ’em was Jim Silver."
Active was silent for a long time, gazing sightlessly at the hillside across the lake. “And was it arson?"
"They don't know yet,” Cowboy said. “Call came in around ten-thirty last night. I rolled out with the Volunteer Fire Department, but by the time we got there it was already too hot to go in. All we could do was try to keep it from setting off the Center’s stove-oil tanks or spreading to the other buildings around there — what we call a surround-and-drown. The city cops are all on it, and the Troopers, and one of your arson guys is coming out from Fairbanks. And Carnaby wants you back to work on it."
"Of course, yeah."
"Come on, I'll help you pack up," Cowboy said. He walked over and began breaking down their camp kitchen.
Active and Grace went into the tent together and began cramming clothes and books back into nylon stuff bags.
"Jim Silver," Grace said.
"I'm so sorry."
"Is that it? 'Yeah'?"
Active shrugged. "He, he . . ."
"He made sense."
"I don't know that he was the best cop I ever met, but he was the one that made the most sense. Of Chukchi, you know. When he explained Chukchi to me, I would think I got it. It was like, life was a story for him and Chukchi was the most fascinating chapter he ever ran across and being police chief was the best way to appreciate it. You know what he said to me once?"
"We were out on the ice when old Victor Solomon was harpooned at his sheefish camp that time and I was whining about the cold and Jim says, 'If you weren't suffering, how would you know you were alive?' And then he laughed that big belly-laugh of his and, you know, all of a sudden, it made sense. The ice, the cold, the west wind, Chukchi -- even the bad stuff. But this." He stopped and shook his head. "I need to get out of here. We need to."
Her face tightened in the familiar way, but she said nothing.
“Listen to me. I’m sorry.”
"It's all right."
"Nah, I gotta act like a cop now," he said.
"Not with me, baby. You can act however you like."
He pinched the bridge of his nose. He wasn't crying, exactly, but the corners of his eyes were wet. Grace looked away while he wiped them. "Thanks," he said. And kissed her.
They crawled out, hauled out their gear, and collapsed the Arctic Oven as Cowboy ferried loads to the plane. Finally, everything was aboard and Cowboy told them to climb in.
"What about our dead hunter?" Active said.
"Sorry," Cowboy said. "No can do."
"What if something gets to him? A bear or foxes or something?"
"Ordinarily, I'd tie him on a float and we'd be fine," Cowboy said. "But not on One-Way Lake, not with you two and your gear in the plane. We'd never make it over the trees."
"I wrapped him up pretty good," Active said. "I guess he'll keep."
"Yeah, with the weather this cool," Cowboy said. "I'll get back in here as soon as I can."
As they took off over the trees, Active peered down at the shiny bundle of Visqueen on the lake shore and wondered again who No-Way had been.
Do I have to read the series in publication order?
At this point, that question may be on your mind. Well, I'm happy to report that, no, you do not have to read the series in publication order to make sense of each individual book. You can start wherever you like!
Each Nathan Active novel is a fascinating self-contained mystery with enough background on the colorful characters of Chukchi and the exotic Arctic setting to be read without reference to its predecessors. So pick a title and enjoy!