A Fine and Bitter Snow
By Dana Stabenow
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2002 Dana Stabenow
All rights reserved.
Mutt leapt to the seat of the snow machine as Kate thumbed the throttle and together they roared twenty-five miles over unplowed road to Niniltna, four miles past the village to the ghost town of Kanuyaq, and up the rutted, icy path to the Step. There, Kate dismounted, postholed through the snow to the door of the Park Service's headquarters, marched down the hall to Dan O'Brian's office, walked in without knocking, sat down without invitation, and said, "Now then. Would you mind repeating to me exactly what you told Ethan Int-Hout this morning?"
"Hi, Kate," Dan said, the startled look fading from his face. "Nice to see you, too."
Hard on Kate's heels, Mutt barked, one syllable, short, sharp, demanding. "All right already, nice to see you, too." He pulled open a drawer, extracted a slice of homemade moose jerky, and tossed it. Mutt caught it on the fly, and lay down, taking up most of the rest of the square feet of Dan's office, looking marginally appeased.
Kate was anything but. "Well?"
"I'm too green for them, Kate."
Kate's spine was very straight and very stiff. "Too green for whom, exactly?"
"The new administration." Dan waved a hand at the map of Alaska on the wall behind him. "They want to drill in ANWR. I'm on record as not thinking it's the best idea the federal government has ever had, and now everyone's mad at me, from City Hall in Kaktovik to the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. You should see some of the E-mails I've been getting. Like to melt down the computer." He ran a hand through a thick thatch of stiff red hair that was beginning to recede at his temples, then rubbed both hands over a square face with open blue eyes and a lot of freckles that refused to fade. "I've never wanted to be anything but what I am, a park ranger in Alaska. But hell, I don't know. The secretary won't even listen to her own employees. They want to drill. And they're looking at Iqaluk, too."
"I beg your pardon?" Her voice had gone soft, marred only by the growling sound caused by the scar on her throat. Mutt stopped chewing and pricked up her very tall gray ears and fixed Kate with wide yellow eyes.
He flapped a hand. "Nothing to get worried about, at least not yet."
"I'm always worried about Iqaluk," Kate said.
"So you've been fired?"
He made a wry mouth. "Not exactly. Invited to take early retirement is more like it." He sighed, and said again, "I don't know, Kate. At least Clinton and Gore had a clue about the environment, or pretended they did. This guy, Jesus." He thrust his chair back and stood up to wander over to the window to stare at the snow piled up to the top of the frame. "I don't know," he said, turning back. "Maybe it's time. I don't know that I can work with these people for four years, and maybe eight. I've got twenty-three years in. And hell, maybe they're right. Maybe it's time for a change of management. Not to mention point of view, because I sure as shit am out of fashion this year. Maybe I do need to move on, buy myself a little cabin on a couple acres, find me one of your cousins, settle in, settle down."
"Yeah, and maybe I need to shoot myself in the head," Kate said, "but it might kill me, so I guess I won't."
He grinned, although it seemed perfunctory.
"Whom did you talk to? Who asked you to quit?"
"Dean Wellington. The head guy in Anchorage. I'm not the only one. They're making a clean sweep, Kate, right through the ranks."
"Whom are they going to replace you with? 'Pro-development' and 'park ranger' don't exactly go together in the same sentence."
He shrugged. "If it was me, I'd replace me with a kid fresh out of college, inexperienced, malleable, easy to lead."
"Someone who will do what they're told without asking any of those annoying little questions like 'What are the adverse effects of a massive oil spill on a biome?' Without doing things like counting the bear population to see if there should or shouldn't be a hunt that fall?"
The grin had faded, and Dan looked tired and, for the first time since she'd known him, every one of his forty-nine years. "When's the last time you had a vacation?" she asked.
He rubbed his face again. "I was Outside in October." He dropped his hands and looked at her. "Family reunion."
She snorted. "That's not a vacation; that's indentured service. I mean a real vacation, white sand, blue sea, drinks with little paper umbrellas in them, served by somebody in a sarong."
"Gee, I don't know, that'd be about the same time you were there."
"I don't vacation," Kate said, "I hibernate. When?" He didn't answer. "Do me a favor, Dan. Don't say yes or no to your boss. Take some time off, and let me work an angle or two."
"Oh, for crissake." Kate stood up. Mutt gulped the last of her jerky and bounced to her feet, tail waving slightly. "I'm not going to sit around here and pander to your ego. Get out of town."
A genuine smile broke out this time. "That's good, since pandering to my ego isn't your best thing. I'm not going to get out of town, though, even though I am now officially terrified to say so."
"And why not?"
"I've got a girl."
"So what else is new?"
"No, Kate, I mean really. I've got a girl."
She estimated the wattage of the glow on his face. "Why, Daniel Patrick O'Brian, as I live and breathe. Are you, by any chance, in love?"
He laughed. He might even have blushed. "Argghh, the L word — don't scare me like that."
"I don't know. I don't want to leave her, though."
"Who is she?"
"She's waiting tables at the Roadhouse. She's great, Kate. I've never met anyone like her. She loves the outdoors, she loves the wildlife, she hikes and mountain-bikes, and she's a good cross-country skier. She wants to learn how to climb and maybe take on Big Bump with me next summer. She's gorgeous, too." He paused. "I've got at least twenty years on her. I've been afraid to ask her how old she is. I don't know what she sees in me."
"Yeah," Kate said. "Don't worry. I do."
He grinned, a little sheepish. "I'm heading out to the Roadhouse this afternoon. I'll introduce you. And buy you a drink?"
"Sold. See you there." She stopped to survey him from the door. Reassured by the sparkle in his eyes and the reappearance of the dimples in his cheeks, she turned and left, Mutt at her heels, flourishing her graceful plume of a tail like a pennant of friendship.
His smile lingered after they were gone. He had been feeling besieged, and if he was not mistaken, he had just received a delegation from the relieving force.
Well. If his friends — it appeared he did have some after all — were going to fight for him, he could do no less.
His smile widened. And he knew just who to recruit for the front lines. He stood up and reached for his parka.
On the way back down the mountain, Kate thought of all the things she could have said in answer to Dan's question. That he'd been the chief ranger for the Park for eighteen years, after working his way up the Park Service's food chain fighting alligators in Florida and volcanoes in Hawaii. That Park rats knew him and trusted him as no Alaskan trusted a federal park ranger anywhere else in the state. That moose and bears both brown and black wandered regularly through her yard, and that a herd of caribou migrated regularly over the plateau, and that no one in the Park who knew how to shoot or any of their families and friends had ever gone hungry on Dan O'Brian's watch.
That Dan O'Brian had managed, sometimes single-handedly, to maintain healthy populations of every species of wildlife from the parka squirrel below ground to the bald eagle above, and had managed to do it while maintaining the good opinion of park rats Native and nonnative, sourdough and cheechako, subsistence hunter and big-game hunter, subsistence fisher and sports fisher and commercial fisher alike, and that he had managed to do it without being shot, or hardly ever shot at, was a remarkable achievement. If some wet-behind-the-ears, fresh-out-of-college kid wired through his belly button to the current administration took over, the Park would begin to deteriorate, and the population of the wildlife would only be the beginning. Mac Devlin would roll out his D-9 and start flattening mountains and damming rivers with the debris in his search for new veins of gold. Dick Nickel would start chartering sports fishers by the 737 into the village airstrip. John Letourneau would start bringing in European big-game hunters by the 747, if he didn't already. Dan O'Brian was just a finger in the dike, but he had it stuck in a pretty vital hole.
Besides, if he left, she'd miss him.
She stopped in Niniltna to talk to Auntie Vi, who listened in bright-eyed silence, her head cocked to one side like a bird's. "I'll start calling," she said, and displayed a cell phone with pride. It was lime green and transparent.
Kate recoiled, as if someone had offered her a diamondback rattlesnake. "Uh, great, Auntie. I'm going to talk to Billy now. And I might go to Anchorage."
"You know somebody there?"
"I can get to know them."
Auntie Vi grinned, and the evil in that grin kept Kate warm all the way to the Niniltna Native Association offices. Billy looked up when she walked into his office. "Ah, and here I was just inches from a clean getaway," he said.
Kate was known in the Park and, indeed, across the state of Alaska for many things. One of them wasn't finesse. "You hear about Dan O'Brian?"
She told him. As a clincher, she added, "Dan says the feds are interested in selling exploration leases in Iqaluk, too, Billy. We need him."
Billy frowned but said nothing.
Kate was incredulous. "Don't tell me you want to let them drill in Iqaluk!"
"It'd mean jobs, Kate."
"None for us! Nobody here knows how to drill for oil!"
"They could be trained. We could get the feds to make it a condition of the leases."
A hot reply trembled on the tip of her tongue. From somewhere, she found the strength to repress it. "Then," she said, with tight control, "you'd better make sure that we've got the ear of the top spokesman for the feds in this Park."
He frowned. "What do you want me to do?"
"Do you want to have to break in a new ranger? Somebody who's going to go around burning out squatters, even if they've been squatting for twenty years? Somebody who doesn't know a moose from a caribou and won't look the other way when somebody shoots one to feed his kids after the season is closed? Somebody who'll let all the fish go up the river because the lobbyist for the sports fishers has a bigger bullhorn and a fatter wallet than the lobbyist for the commercial fisher?" She paused and took a deep breath. "I'll fight against any kind of development in Iqaluk, Billy, barring the logging leases we've already signed, but if you decide you want to go after subsurface mineral development and you get your way, it's better for all of us to deal with Dan, someone who knows us and knows our ways, than some yahoo with a diploma so new, the ink isn't dry on it yet. At least Dan listens to what the elders have to say about the history of salmon runs. The seals are coming back to the Sound today because he did." She paused again. "You know you don't want to have to break in somebody new."
"Well," Billy said, a defensive look on his round moon face. There was only one right answer, and they both knew what it was. "No."
"All right, then. Call everyone you know in Juneau and then start in on D.C. NNA's got a lobbyist, doesn't it?"
"Call him and tell him the Niniltna Native Association, the largest private landowner in the Park, has a good working relationship with the current chief ranger and how you'd hate to see that change. In fact, you'd hate it so much that any new ranger appointed in his place would very likely meet with resentment and possibly even active opposition. You can't vouch for his or her safety. Mention tar and feathers."
Billy laughed. Kate stared at him. The laughter faded. What Kate Shugak lacked in finesse, she more than made up for in force of personality. Besides, Billy was, above all else, a smart politician and he knew what a poll of Park rats would say about Dan O'Brian leaving office. He cleared his throat and reached for the phone.
Kate made a couple of other stops to talk to village elders, and she was satisfied with their responses. Screw with one of us, screw with all of us, and Dan had been a Park rat long enough that he was definitely on the inside looking out. Mutt, riding behind her, nose into the wind, seemed to sense her feelings and took a swipe at Kate's cheek with her tongue, nearly dislodging the bright red knit hat crammed down over Kate's ears.
On the way to the Roadhouse, she had an inspiration, and five miles short of her goal, she took a turnoff that led down to the river, a mile from the road at this point. Spruce trees stood tall and thick next to a narrow track, snow up to the lowest branches, only to fall into deep declines nearer the trunk. It took some doing not to slide into them, and after the second near miss, Mutt decided to get off and walk. Kate slowed the machine to a crawl and thought about the man she was going to see.
John Letourneau lived on the Kanuyaq River, about a mile downstream from Niniltna. Home was an immense lodge built of peeled spruce logs, with the wall facing the river made almost entirely of glass. He had his own septic system, so there were flush toilets. He had his own well, so there was running water. He had his own generator, so there were electric lights.
It slept twenty in single rooms, each with a private bath, in season, which was as large as he allowed his parties to get. In season was from late June, when the kings started hitting fresh water, until mid-October, when the hunting season ended. There was a miniseason around breakup, when the bears woke up and their coats, which had been growing all winter while they were hibernating, were at their best. He was thinking of starting a second miniseason in January, to take advantage of the prolific tendencies of the Kanuyaq caribou herd.
Letourneau Guides, Inc., offered the thrill of the chase and the satisfaction of the kill, a trip into the primal past, where men could get back in touch with their inner hunter, who killed the night's meal with his bare hands — and a .30-06 — and bore it home in triumph, to be awarded the best seat next to the fire and the choicest bits of meat. Not to mention best pick of whatever young virgins happened to be handy.
Young virgins, John couldn't provide, although there were occasionally women among his hunters. He couldn't keep them out because he couldn't necessarily tell from a letter who was a man and who was a woman, and as long as their Visa cards went through and their checks didn't bounce, he didn't care. He cut them no slack, however: They had to keep up, and no whining. If it came to that, he'd had a lot more whining from his male clients, not that he was ever going to say that out loud to anyone. Especially the ones who, because they'd outfitted themselves at REI before they came, figured they had the backwoods about whipped.
It was his pleasure, Kate thought perhaps his very great pleasure, to show them, at their expense, that they didn't.
She'd never heard him go so far as to say that he was in the business of making men from boys. But he did not deny that it sometimes happened. He housed them well, he fed them very well, and he ran their asses off all over the taiga. They came home most nights to a hot shower and a soft bed, and sometimes, if it was that kind of party, a woman in that bed, on the house. He wasn't averse to a little of that kind of entertainment himself. No loud parties, however, no boozing, and everyone behaved themselves and treated their companions like ladies or they were on the next plane out.
Usually, his clients went home with at least one trophy, and the smart ones took the meat, too. When they didn't, he handed it out to elders in the Park, because he was a man who could see the value in getting along with one's neighbors. Next to the Niniltna Native Association, he was probably the village of Niniltna's biggest taxpayer, and he paid up in full and on time. (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Fine and Bitter Snow by Dana Stabenow. Copyright © 2002 Dana Stabenow. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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