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There's just something so irresistible about a woman with a gun.
"What's the Bush word for Renaissance woman?"
A handful of cranberries, glowing red in the afternoon sun, showered into the plastic bucket. Kate looked over at Jack. "What?"
He was leaning against the water pump housing, arms crossed over his chest, a speculative look on his face. "You're what, thirty-three!"
"Thirty-four next month," Kate said. "What's that got to do with the Renaissance?"
He grinned. "Nothing. It just seems like you ought to be older. You know too much for thirty-three."
"Uh-huh." Kate licked her reddened fingers. The juice was tart to the tongue. She made a mental note to buy more sugar on the way, through Anchorage.
"Being a Renaissance woman means you're good at more than one thing. If you lived in England in the fifteen hundreds, you'd be good at poetry, fencing and navigation. Move it up four centuries and west one hundred eighty degrees and what do we get?"
"Kabbibity-bobbity-boo?" Kate suggested.
He laughed, but shook his head. "You deckhand for Old Sam in the summer, you guide climbers up the Big Bump in the spring, you can skin a Cat, mine for gold, butcher a moose, fix an engine." He gestured at the bucket dangling from her right hand. "Make jam. And now here you are, fixing to guide a big-game hunt. You can do anything. You're a Renaissance woman, Kate."
"That's not ability," Kate said, disconcerted. "It's not eventalent. It's just ... geography."
"It's where I live. I'm not special, or different. Not from anybody who lives like me. When you live in the Bush, you do what you have to to get by." She shrugged. "I live two hundred miles from the nearest town of any size. If the engine off a 747 falls through my roof, there aren't any carpenters within calling distance, even if I had a phone. I do it myself or it doesn't get done. Same goes forwhat did you say?butchering a moose, fixing an engine. If I want to eat, I get my moose. If I want to drive, I service my truck. No big deal." She turned back to the berries.
"And that's probably what is most amazing," he said, more to himself than to her. "You actually believe that."
She cast a baffled glimpse his way. "What else would I believe?"
He held up both hands, palms out. "Nothing. Just talking to myself. How long have we got, anyway?"
"George said he'd be back tomorrow morning with the next party."
"Who this time?"
"A bunch of Germans, he said."
"Oh goody," jack said without enthusiasm, "urban cowboys, Euro-style. Do they speak English?"
"I don't know, but Demetri's coming back. He'll be one of the guides."
"Oh." Demetri Totemoff had spent twenty years in the military, most of it in Germany. Few people knew he spoke fluent German because he spoke as little of his native Aleut tongue as was humanly possible already.
The sun warmed her skin, the flannel of her shirt, the denim of her jeans. She wriggled out of her shirt and knotted the waist of her T-shirt so that several inches of concave belly were exposed above the snap of her jeans. She was not entirely unaware of her audience.
Jack said hopefully, "Why don't we lay a blanket next to the creek, catch some rays while they last?"
Kate looped her braid off her neck with a rubber band fished from one pocket. "You go ahead. I want to fill up this bucket."
Jack trailed off to the lodge, pouting. She smiled to herself and waded back into the berry patch.
Breathing martyrdom from every pore, Jack put away the breakfast dishes and swept out the lodge before fetching a blanket and a book and spreading out at the edge of the creek bank. Mutt flopped down next to him with a voluptuous sigh. "Don't get any ideas," Jack told her. Mutt, half husky, half timber wolf, stretched out her full 140 pounds so that every possible square inch was exposed to the sun, closed her yellow eyes and lapsed into a satisfied coma. She'd been doing her share to reduce the spruce hen population near the lodge, and her belly was tight beneath the thick gray pelt.
Kate waded deeper into the brush, fat globes of radiant red berries clustering together everywhere she looked, the rays of the sun causing them to glow with luminous beckoning light. The weather, incredibly, was still holding, although there was a wisp of something on the southeastern horizon that Kate was keeping an eye on. For now, there was the merest breath of a breeze brushing at her cheek. The berries fell into the pail by the handful. An errant wasp buzzed contentedly nearby, and in the polished branches of a tall, dead cottonwood two immature eagles sat silently, immobile, looking half asleep but no less fierce for that.
It was so still that she could hear the page in Jack's book rustle when he turned it, even over the sound of water flowing downstream, a flow diminished from spring torrent to summer gush to a comparative fall trickle. It was narrow and shallow enough to wade across, barely sufficient water for the last exhausted silver salmon to fight her way upstream to lay her eggs and her burden down forever.
Kate paused to flex her shoulders. She'd worked her way down to the edge of the camp, next to the last cabin, the one almost but not quite falling into the Nakochna.
The hunting lodge sat 125 miles northeast of Anchorage, 10 miles south of Denali National Preserve, 75 miles southwest of the mountain itself. It had been the rapidly deteriorating remains of a defunct gold mine when George Perry stumbled across it on a deadheader back from a freight trip/visit to a girlfriend in McGrath in June about twelve years back. His 180 started losing oil pressure, so he looked around for an airstrip and found this one jutting north from just before the confluence of the Nakochna and the Kichatna rivers. It was overgrown with alders, surfaced with round river rocks the size of dinner plates and sported a distinctly uphill grade, but there was enough clear space to put the Cessna down before the engine quit on him. He did, promptly, and if not quite without incident then without any permanent damage to the gear. Any landing you walked away from was a good landing.
When he'd repaired the oil line, he looked around for a reason for the airstrip and found one main building, a shop, a two-story garage and seven small cabins. None of the buildings had foundations, being temporary edifices constructed on skids made of twelve-by-twelves. The yard was a jumble of dumped equipment and supplies, ranging from a disassembled, rusted-out steam engine to rotting two-by-fours to discarded screws and nails. The undergrowth, consisting of a dozen tangled varieties, from alder to white spruce, was all but marching into the various doors.
He took off again and surveyed the area from the air. The strip and the camp sat on a wedge-shaped piece of land that began where the Nakochna ran into the Kichatna and gradually widened as it rose into the foothills of the Alaska Range, the first of which was the 3,020-foot Blueberry Ridge and escalating in vaulting, geometric leaps to the higher peaks of Gurney, Lewis, Agustin and Dall beyond. The Nakochna bordered the wedge of land on the west, the Fourth of July and Gagnan creeks on the east. There was faint evidence of a rough road that paralleled the river all the way up the foothills, probably leading to one of the mine entrances and, from George's point of view, the perfect place for a spike camp. He saw a grizzly with two yearling cubs swiping salmon out of the river, startled a pair of eagles out of a dead cottonwood, surprised a black bear with three cubs into stampeding for the sheltering branches of the nearest spruce, stopped counting moose after he got to ten and caught sight of a black streak that might have been a wolf, although he was too high by then to be sure.
He leveled the plane out and set a course for home. The buildings were in good enough repair to be salvaged, and a couple of swipes with the blade of a bulldozer would clear the yard. Best of all, the runway was long enough to accommodate a Herc.
A Lockheed Hercules four-engine turboprop was the archetypal Bush freight plane, with a capacity to haul twenty tons a trip, providing it had four thousand feet of runway to land on. George estimated that the gold camp runway was about forty-five hundred, if he could take out that stand of alders that had sprung up at about the twenty-five-hundred-foot mark. With a runway that would accommodate a Herc, anything was possible.
He stopped in Anchorage long enough to put a trace on the owner of the property. The gold miner was all too glad to be rid of it, and George understood why when, after he sold it to George for sixty thousand dollars cash and got on the first plane south, the miner's creditors started boiling out of the woodwork.
Eighteen months and a hefty legal bill later the old mine and the twenty-five acres surrounding it belonged to George free and clearafter two fishing trips to the camp for the presiding judge. George considered it fuel well spent, even if the judge had required an additional flight into Anchorage for more beer. Before rod, before reel, before tackle, beer was the indispensable ingredient for a successful venture into combat fishing, making the days you didn't catch anything easier to bear and the days you did a celebration.
Of course, it was also a primary factor in fishermen falling into streams and drowning, but no one was ever tactless enough to say that out loud.
The nearest neighbor to the gold mine was a man named Crazy Emmett who lived in a Cabin on a tiny lake five miles away. Crazy Emmett, an ex-history teacher from West High School in Anchorage, had retired at his earliest possible date of eligibility and fled the city for the peace and security of Bush life. Years of teaching indifferent students had inured him to loneliness, while his study of history had led him to a deep-seated belief in the hidden agenda of the United Nations in collusion with the Trilateral Commission to take over all the world's governments, thereby jeopardizing his Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. He believed that secret operatives working on behalf of the U.N. had put directions in invisible ink on the backs of all government highway signs, readable only by U.N. troops wearing special government-issue goggles. Crazy Emmett saw everyone as the point man for the invasion and if you didn't want to be used for target practice you kept your distance. George kept his distance.
George's day job was the owner and operator of Chugach Air Taxi, flying freight, passengers and the U.S. mail in and out of Niniltna, the village twenty-five miles up the unmaintained road from Kate's homestead. It was no sinecure; he was in the air more often than not. But over the years, when he could snatch a day here or a weekend there, he would fly to the gold camp site with the girlfriend or wife du jour and put them to work replacing the windows, painting the walls and cleaning the yard. Not to mention clearing the airstrip, which, it was speculated, may have been indirectly responsible for the failure of his fourth marriage.
Once the alders were gone, he loaded a borrowed Herc with a backhoe and flew it into the gold camp. A small bulldozer required wings with a bigger payload, and after some dickering with the same people who owned the Herc, he traded four hours' use of a Sky Van for a week's fishing. This had proved so successful that he got an offer of a trade every subsequent year, and this year used the Herc to haul in, among other things, two snow machines and two four-wheelers.
With the backhoe, George convinced a small tributarial creek not to run straight down the airstrip, and with the dozer, he built a dam to bolster the creek's conviction and to level the brush around the buildings and to plow the strip in winter. The snow machines and the four-wheelers would take care of local transportation year-round. When someone pointed out that the snow machines were liable to scare off more game than they snuck up on, George replied laconically, "There's always a choice. We can ride our snow machines when and where we please, or we can have caribou to hunt." But Kate had noticed that the most common means of transportation from Taiga Lodge was on foot.
After eight years of work undertaken in fits and starts, he had a rough but serviceable hunting lodge, with one big main house for eating, six smaller cabins for sleeping, two bunks each, one shop, one garage, and two spike camps. One of the spike camps was four miles northwest of the lodge, reached by four-wheeler via the rudimentary road that ended in a secondary mine entrance. He had used the dozer to extend the road to the plateau-like surface of the ridge, from which there was a breathtaking view of the Alaska Range and the Skwentna-Yentna-Susitna river deltas. The second spike camp was on another ridge three miles east of camp, the only geographical hump of any size between the camp and an enormous and extensive swamp, an area rich in moose.
Alaska big-game guides made a ton of money and wanted to keep on making a ton of money, and big-game guides' licenses became available only when a current licensee died, and sometimes not even then. George had never volunteered an explanation and Kate had never asked, but she had long suspected his license had had something to do with ex-wife number four, Ramona Halford, the right-wing state senator whom no one admitted voting for but who was reelected every four years by an embarrassing majority of Park residents. Ramona knew where all the bodies were buried and how most of them got there, and if she were married, however briefly, to someone who wanted a big-game guide's license for a wedding present, she was one of the few people in the state who could get him one.
Having a big-game guide's license meant you could sign off on someone else's Class A Assistant guide's license, which George promptly did, for Kate Shugak, Demetri Totemoff, Jack Morgan and Old Sam Dementieff, his stable of assistants. This entitled them to a pale blue square of paper with the state of Alaska's seal on the watermark. It bore the license number, the effective and expiration dates, two years apart, and the game management units in which it was valid, and if such a thing had been allowed, these could have been auctioned off on the open market for a fortune.
From that time forward, George's gold camp was set for guiding big-game hunters to meat, trophies and, if they were lucky, fame of a kind, at least in Boone and Crockett. Officially called Taiga Lodge (taiga was Athabascan for bear shit), George had been doing business for four years now. He specialized in Europeans who had read a lot of Ernest Hemingway when they were young and impressionable and their parents should have known better. They had the armament to prove it, and, more to the point, a shitload of money.
George was happy to help them spend it, or he was for four weeks out of the year, the last two weeks of September (moose) and the first two weeks of October (bear). Guiding hunters from the lodge for four weeks out of the year meant he could write off the expenses for the other forty-eight, when it served its primary purpose as a romantic getaway a deux, and sometimes trois. The rest of the time he left the main house stocked and unlocked, as per Alaska law, in the event some yahoo on a snow machine got lost and needed shelter.
It was George's contention that owning and maintaining such a wonderfully romantic getaway was worth any amount of trouble, even guiding hunting parties with more money than brains, although there were hunts that did severely test that premise. There were hunts when the clients were pleasant and good sports and helped pack out the meat, but there were also hunts when the clients' most important piece of equipment was the tape measure and who shot at everything that moved regardless of size, sex and sometimes speciesonce he'd had to physically disarm a British hunter who had taken his rifle down to the creek to blast away at a king salmon. These hunters took their trophies and left the meat for carrion, or would have, given the chance.
This irritated George and infuriated Kate, especially when they had to make the long trek back to the site of the kill to recover what wasn't spoiled or hadn't been eaten by bears, wolves and coyotes. The trophy hunters, Kate was quick to point out, were always the same hunters who left their trash scattered the length and breadth of the campsite and who looked impatient when George made them clean up after themselves. Some refused. Some were invited by George to walk back to Anchorage. These were not likely to be repeat customers.
Back in Niniltna, Kate could always tell how irritated George was with his current hunting party by how much her checks were, which represented forty percent of his gross divided by the amount of assistants. Hunters George liked paid through the nose; the ones he didn't were lucky to escape with enough for cab fare from Merrill Field to Anchorage International Airport. "The charges are dependent on the customer's attitude," he told her once. "The more they piss me off, the higher the price."
It was a sentiment Kate understood and embraced wholeheartedly. She wouldn't guide for anyone but George.
And then there were hunts when they couldn't find anything to shoot, miserable stretches out in the woods when the only living things present were themselves and the mosquitoes and an occasional porcupine. It always seemed to rain on those hunts, too, not a torrent, which might end when the clouds ran out of water, but a steady drizzle that went on and on, dampening the underbrush and the spirit in equal proportion.
It wasn't going to happen this week, although that wisp seemed almost imperceptibly larger than it had the last time she'd looked at it. She shrugged. Wasn't here yet. Here, it was still sunny. Here, it was still hot. She picked berries steadily until the bucket was almost full.
She returned to the yard around which the shop, the garage and the main house were built. There was a twenty-foot log two feet in diameter lying on its side, the upside worn smooth from years of fannies sitting on it while their owners knocked back cases of beer and lied about rack widths. She got another bucket and went down to the well, the old-fashioned pump handle sprouting from the square, flat-topped wooden well housing. She worked it a few times, bringing up water, and shoved the bucket underneath the spout when water began to flow.
The bucket was almost full when two arms slid around her waist and started working at the buckle on her holster. "There's just something so irresistible about a woman with a gun," a voice growled in her ear.
She laughed, and let her head fall back against Jack's shoulder and his hands go where they would. He turned her around and took her there, sitting on the well housing, the sun dazzling his eyes and gilding her skin. It was urgent without being desperate, both of them so in tune that they came almost as one, and when it was over Kate sat with her legs wrapped around his waist, his hands cupping her ass, her ear against his thudding heart, satisfied, drained and incapable of movement, even of bolting when he said, "I love you, Kate."
She nuzzled her face against his chest, and felt it rise and fall in a sigh.
"I know. The three most terrifying words in the English language."
The tone of his voice was light-hearted and accepting, but before she could respond to the feeling beneath them he had reached behind her to work the handle of the water pump, causing a stream of ice cold water to cascade down her back. She yelped, and he ran for his life.