Overview: ack, the gritty narrator of this dark, gripping novel by Elwood Reid, is a journeyman carpenter in his late twenties whose travels have led him to Alaska. When his pink slip arrives at the end of summer, he allows himself to be talked into an unusual job. Along with his best friend, Burke, Jack accepts ten thousand dollars from a dying Fairbanks man to travel into the northern wilderness and rescue his daughter from a cult.

It doesn't take long before their trip begins to go awry, and things only get worse once they reach the cult's camp, where they are received with a hostility that quickly turns violent. Jack soon realizes that Burke knows more than he lets on about their mission and he finds himself on his own, desperately seeking a way out of the camp. 

 

 Midnight Sun by Elwood Reid Book Chapter One

 

BEFORE

The best I can say was that I went to Alaska to build houses on an army base with my buddy Burke. We’d been chasing the buck together for two years, jobbing up and down the coast, never staying in any one place too long. All that mattered was the work, the coin and those brief moments just after punch-out when I walked back to my truck, bone tired and feeling like a king for having laid it down yet another day.

I was in love with Alaska—the trees and mountains; the rivers without end full of dying salmon and the grizzly bears ready to pounce on them. Everybody was searching for something—whacked-out Vietnam vets waiting for war, Christians praying for the rapture, hippies looking for paradise, strippers rolling dirty bills in their garters, backpackers trekking for that last untouched place. All this put to the soundtrack of sled dogs howling for winter from the back of pickup trucks.

And then there were the wolves—wolves that circled in packs where the roads ended and the maps became blank spaces.

This was the interior, not the sea-struck coast with its mild winters, but the vast middle where winters came early and hard—seventy below and dark by noon. Fairbanks, the Golden Heart of Alaska, former boomtown, now a flat, unremarkable grid of Native American gift shops, pipeyards, bars tricked out to look like log cabins, pull-tab parlors and dusty liquor stores.

The summers were long shadow-filled things. People wandered around, hungover from too much sun and not enough sleep. By June the Alcan was clogged with convoys of fat tourists in overpriced RVs chasing the last of the midnight sun, stuffing themselves at salmon bakes in between trips to Denali, Circle Hot Springs and dramatic reenactments of Robert Service poems at the Malamute Saloon. Locals dragged dead salmon through the bar and told bear stories to the RV crowd hoping to mooch drinks, while the midnight sun lasted. It was one big show until winter came.

I don’t know what Burke wanted or what he thought was at the end of it all. He was a tall, thick-chested man with blunt hands and deep work-haunted eyes; a journeyman who could walk beam dead drunk and drive nails with one swat. His face was scuffed and worn from bar fights and outdoor labor. When he spoke he made fists with his hands and jabbed his chin, daring someone to take a swing. There was nothing soft or false about him, just the dogged pursuit of the physical. He lifted weights, skied, hiked, fished and taught himself obscure things by poring through old books on knots, blacksmithing, beekeeping and metallurgy—anything he thought the common man might have forgotten. He was impossible to know, but I caught glimpses—small snatches of what made him tick, usually after too many beers or shots of bourbon. But then I was too far gone to put the pieces together and I’d wake the next morning knowing I’d forgotten something.

Burke always held the fact that I’d had a little college over me. I quit one morning after taking stock of the giggling, backpacked horde and realizing that I was hip-deep in a shallow pond. I felt like a fraud. Maybe it was some midwestern inferiority complex or perhaps it was the suburbs—but I felt soft and useless. I was smart, but not that smart. Women found me easily resistible. My hands were pale and unscarred and except for being tall everything about me screamed average.

I’d been in exactly one fight my entire life and lost—got my face rearranged by some frat boy. For some reason this began to eat at me. I reasoned that in ten years I’d be married, worried about money and what school to send my kids to or what color Volvo I should buy. Did I want leather seats? Cell phone? It was like looking slow death in the face and saying, “Okay, I’d like a piece of that.” The alternative was to sit and do nothing or worse, belly up to the treadmill and get taken.

One benefit of my underwhelming mediocrity was that I had options.

I could fight back. Or I could fail miserably at something and live in the shadow of that failure the rest of my life.

What I needed most was a temporary fix, a reprieve from the ruin and doom I saw coming if I stayed my pleasant course of college. So I tried karate and couldn’t get past the bowing and black belt crap. Boxing was no better. Got my nose broken by some old Croatian guy who said I punched like a fag. Several guys I knew had nutted out and joined the marines. But that was too obvious. I wanted to be blindsided and led down some dark extraordinary alley, where I might carve out a life.

So I took a job hauling lumber and running errands for the foreman on a housing development, figuring that at the very least the job would toughen me up if not force me to find something better. My old man pissed and moaned about how I wasn’t realizing my potential, wasting my life and selling myself short. But the pay was good and it wasn’t school. I got up every morning and knew my job. Hit a nail and you’ll know what I mean. There was an art to it and there were times when just setting nails into wood seemed a deep and important thing to do. I liked coming home smelling of pine boards, my palms stained with nail grease and tired in a way that seemed real.

Five years later I was a carpenter with a belt full of tools and a late-model Ford F-150. The soft college kid my old man wanted was buried under calluses and thick slabs of job muscle. I hit the road and headed west through Great Falls, Portland and Seattle, working jobs until they were done. I learned to walk away and leave everything behind—the long hours, the accidents and near accidents, foremen getting in my face, the nail-shooting contests—and move on to the next job where empty foundations waited like graves to be filled and built upon and then abandoned for families or factories. Either way it didn’t matter because I was letting it roll. Jobs. Friends. Life.

It was honest work. Clock in, clock out and don’t think about it in between. And I liked it. I figured that as long as I didn’t let the job break me, I could stave off the creeping softness that attacked men and forced them indoors to wait out the end of their dreams.

Most jobs were populated by zombies and God squadders who did what they were told and were easy to let go when the work ran out. The Christians chalked up the hard-luck nature of the job to the will of God while the zombies, drunks and ex-cons received the frequent layoffs and freak accidents as proof that it was a cold and cruel world out there. I didn’t believe in much of anything; God, country, dead Elvis and I’d read enough books to know that if you stared hard enough at anything it would turn into crap. Nothing lasts forever. Everybody dies—cue the tiny violins.

Then I met Burke and went to Alaska. I found a small apartment on the outskirts of town—a place I could pick up and leave at a moment’s notice. No attachments, nothing to keep me except the paycheck.

Burke rented a geodesic dome from an old hippie named Day-Glo Bob who grew hydroponic dope and said he’d fucked Janis Joplin when she was good, before she went lesbian and started ignoring her hair. Day-Glo spent most of his time listening to shortwave radio, drinking homemade beer and worrying about the Feds busting up his little paradise.

Our first job was a small subdivision called Bear View, which promised “Spectacular” views and “Amazing” wildlife. What the prospective buyer got though was cheap materials, nonunion hackwork, a couple of scraggly moose and a view of a small valley that had been clearcut. Corners were cut wherever they could get away with it; floors sloped, walls leaned off level. The units were stacked shit—the kinda work you crept away from at the end of the day with that sick feeling in your belly. But there was money and Burke and I were chasing it.

At night I saw moose grazing in front yards, heard wolves and sled dogs howling and listened to men tell bear stories. It put a blaze on things, made the work we were doing seem dangerous and important. We weren’t just building houses. We were building houses in Alaska—the last frontier. But after ten hours of beating a nail gun and humping 2x4s the mountains seemed as far away as Ohio; tall snow-covered ghosts taunting me into daydreams until the boss reminded me to pick up the pace. Winter was coming—men would be laid off. Alaska would be left to the Alaskans.

After work we drank, shot pool and blew our hard-earned money on strippers and pull tabs. Burke never backed down from a challenge even if it meant matching shots of rotgut with terminal rummies or arm wrestling pipe fitters in for a little R&R from Nome or Barrow; Puppy Chow to Burke. What he was after was the messy life-and-death stuff because the years on the job had dulled his pulse.

As for me, I wanted to work a little longer and then get out, maybe go back to school or see about a real job, one where I could grow old but not soft. I wanted to come away from Alaska with a pocketful of money and plot a course to some sort of life I could see living. In two years I would be thirty. I had friends who lived in three-hundred-thousand-dollar homes, drove BMWs and Porsches, took vacations in Vail and Barcelona. They were growing richer by the moment. They had families who counted on them. On the other hand I had nobody to answer to, no ties, no obligations, and there was nothing a little muscle or hammer couldn’t take care of. What I was searching for wasn’t on any map, it was inside—a soft and dark place I’d discover when there was nowhere left to go. But then one morning I got a glimpse of that soft dark place.

It was early and the beams were wet with dew. I had the beer sweats. The whitehats were on the ground barking at us to brace the trusses and Burke was giving it right back to them. I was at the edge watching a forklift crank over a Dumpster when the deck began to shudder under my feet, slow at first and then faster. I looked up to see the trusses coming down like dominoes, slapping toward me, braces flying as they picked up speed.

I froze.

Then I saw Burke racing through the jungle of half-built walls and braces, hatchet held over his head, face burning like a star as the trusses snapped at his heels. And there I was letting it run down my leg. He shoved me over the edge where we seemed to hang forever in the empty blue sky.

Then we crashed hard with two dull thuds on the ground, followed by wood cascading off the deck. Burke was up before I could figure out what had happened, tugging at my tool belt asking if I was okay.

Work came to a halt as the whitehats swarmed and started asking questions, getting up close and personal, sniffing for booze or dope on our breath.

Burke backed the foremen away with his hatchet. “I wanna know who set the trusses,” he demanded.

Some fat-ass whitehat in pressed jeans checked his watch. All the rubbernecking was making him nervous, his company brain silently toting up lost work time.

“Leave it to us,” he said.

One of the sheetrockers started coughing “asshole” loudly.

“We could have been killed,” Burke said.

“Take a minute if you have to,” the foreman said. “Then get back to work, let’s all get back to work.”

Two other bossmen stepped up tapping clipboards with gold pens. One of the laborers everybody called Dog Dick groaned, stuck his arms out like some sort of zombie and said, “Time to make the donuts.”

The sheetrocker kept coughing, “Asshole.”

“Get back to work!” the whitehats shouted in unison.

That was all Burke needed. He swung at the tallest bossman in the bunch and they came at us, white men in white hats with lots to prove. I threw a few punches—halfhearted jabs because there was no fight in my heart, just the thought that I should have been up on that deck, smashed to bits, jabbed full of wood and nails: dead or maimed at twenty-eight.

Before I knew it we’d fought our way to the parking lot. Dog Dick was right behind us, his eye opened up like a smashed frog. I could tell it wasn’t the first time he’d been booted from a job and it wouldn’t be the last.

“At the tone the time will be beer-thirty, and I’m buyin’,” Dog Dick said. “You guys comin’?”

He grabbed a used tissue that had been fluttering around the parking lot and stuck it to his wrecked eye where it just kind of hung there getting redder.

Burke shook him off. “We just snatched one away from the job,” he said.

“What about me?” Dog Dick asked, pointing at his eye.

“You’ll live,” Burke said. “Go on, we’ll catch up to you.”

Dog Dick shrugged, climbed into his Hornet and took off, music blaring through a shattered window, tailpipe dragging.

After he was gone I looked at Burke. “You wanna go?”

“With the way that boy’s luck is running some of it’s bound to hop off and stick to us.”

I laughed.

“Let’s go drop off some résumés,” Burke said, holding up his callused hands. “Before we end up like Dog Dick.”

So we hit the road with our tools and went looking, knowing that unemployment had a way of growing on you.

By lunch we’d found work on the army base, a government job. Government jobs were referred to as the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The good—tall wages and plenty of OT. The bad—periodic piss tests to make sure you weren’t doping it on Uncle Sam’s time. The Ugly—not much pussy to stare at on an army base. So we split a bottle of vinegar and pickled our kidneys. The next morning we pissed in a cup, filled out W-2s and went to work building three-family condos.

On the weekends we drove north on the private haul roads owned by oil companies and the government: the places not on any map. We fished for salmon and grayling until our arms ached. Walked mountains with no names searching for hidden lakes, venturing down logging roads that didn’t end so much as go wild. We used shitty, second-rate gear because the trip was the thing, it was the only thing and all those outfitted jag-offs with their slick gear were missing the point. They were trip yuppies, not above calling their wives or girlfriends on cell phones from the middle of nowhere. They navigated with GPS units and buried their trash in messy fire pits while we on the other hand used compasses and never left a mark on the land.

Once we came upon a herd of caribou that stretched across the whole valley, their caramel-colored backs blotting out the hillside. Burke laughed and ran at them, spooking the herd farther into the valley until their hooves drowned out his shouts.

He came back panting and sweating.

“Hey, Dances with Caribou,” I said, “you wanna set camp?”

“You shoulda tried it.”

“Chasin’ after a herd of caribou?”

He nodded.

“I prefer not to,” I said in a flat, dead voice.

Burke started to say something then stopped, his eyes narrowing, not wanting me to know he’d gotten the joke.

“You savin’ yourself?”

“It’s just that chasing after caribou somehow don’t seem all that much fun.”

“You’re wrong, Jack,” he said. “It felt like the ground was coming up and for a minute I lost myself. I mean I had no goddamned idea who I was or what the hell I was doing.”

“You were chasing caribou and screaming like an idiot.”

“You don’t get it, do you,” he said.

“Get what?”

“Fuck it,” he said.

“No, get what?” I asked.

He grinned. “I don’t know what. I just did it—you either get that sort of thing or you don’t.”

I stared at him and said flatly, “Chasing caribou?”

He started laughing. “Just shut the fuck up before I start chasing you.”

I laughed and looked out over the valley. The dust the caribou had kicked up hung in the air glowing in the sunlight like some low fire. I could still hear the distant thrum of their hooves and started to say something to Burke, but he was already spreading the tent on the ground.

On Monday we were back at work, staring at the mountains again. The walls went up, trusses boomed in and slowly we worked our way through the one hundred and thirty-five units. Each day, a little closer to working ourselves out of a job. Leaving seemed inevitable. There would be another job and then one after that. It was life on the punch card.

During a break Burke explained how he’d chased enough work.

“I been ratting away money,” he said.

“What for?”

“Homesteading.”

“Forty acres and a mule type shit?”

“They’re opening up some parcels down by McCarthy next spring.”

“And?”

“And I’m gonna live off the fat of the land. Five acres and a cabin. Kill my own food, chop wood, fish, run a trapline. Take life on its own terms. And best of all, no bossman holding a paycheck over my head.”

“You’re forgetting a few things,” I said.

He turned. “Yeah?”

“No women, not to mention the bears and bitter cold. The months of darkness. That doesn’t sound all that fun.”

He shook his head and then put a finger against my chest.

“Depends how you look at it.”

“It looks cold,” I said. “Or maybe this is like chasing caribou.”

He didn’t smile. “Yeah, well, it’s a shitload better than stoopin’ to the job with all that romantic working-class crap swirling around your head,” he snarled.

He jabbed me again until I grabbed his finger and twisted.

“What’s this got to do with me? You’re the one who wants to do the Jeremiah Johnson thing, not me.”

He doubled over, wrenched his finger free and drew his framing hatchet, laughing. “I should just bash your head open right now, you stupid bastard.”

I picked up a nail gun, its compressor cord hissing, and pulled back the guide. “Bring it on,” I said.

“What’s a matter,” he said. “Scared you’ll end up like your father?”

I thought of my old man then, trudging through life. Twenty years at the same job, working his way up until he had an office, a secretary named Donna and the occasional corporate golf outing. He was a man going to work on Saturdays, taking phone calls that pulled him away from the dinner table and sent him to the den with a glass of scotch.

But he’d been to Vietnam, shot and killed men. He was sort of a hero, though he never talked about it. Mom was in on it, hiding his medals in her underwear drawer, distracting me with questions about school whenever I came home and asked about the war.

Once, when I was sixteen he took me fishing and told me he’d saved three men and killed six others and no amount of thinking could balance the sheet in his favor. He said he could still see the eyes of the dead men, the way their hands shook white against the muddy ground.

“I was this close,” he said. “Some of their teeth had been shot out.”

I looked into the water at his line, hoping no fish would bite and interrupt him.

“They smelled like jungle and blood and all I wanted was to take my bullets out of them and go home. When it got dark and we were waiting for a Medevac a tiger came into the clearing and dragged one of the bodies into the woods. The guys wanted to shoot it, but I wouldn’t let them. I knew the tiger had to live. It was the only thing that made any sense in that war.”

We didn’t catch any fish. My father just stopped talking as if he was embarrassed or thinking about the tiger. And that was my big father/son moment.

I thought about that tiger though. It came to me in dreams lit up with gun flash and flare, slipping in and out of the jungle, purring, trying to tell me something.

Burke laughed and then swung the blade side of the framing hatchet down on the air hose line, severing it. The hose slapped and hissed between us. “I’m right about your old man then?”

I shook my head. “He did what he had to do, nothing more, nothing less.”

A whitehat named Anderson was making his way toward us across the muddy lot, jaw clenched tightly, clipboard under his arm.

“Fucking the dog again?” he shouted at us.

Burke saw him too and made for the cut line through a cloud of sawdust.

“I got it, Anderson,” he said, reaching down and snapping the cut hose off at the joint. In the basement, the compressor caught its breath and stopped laboring.

We put on a show. Burke bent a few shiners and I revved a Skilsaw until Anderson stomped past us but not before he’d marked something on his clipboard.

“I shouldn’t have saved your ass,” Burke said, after. “Maybe those trusses would’ve beat some sense into you. Take a look around and tell me how many fifty-year-old carpenters you see?”

I looked at the men bent over their work, hammering and sliding walls into place. Sun beat down on the deck. Heat rippled off in waves. And there was the ever-present thunder of generators and forklifts. “Well, there’s Harry Lime on the garage crew and Pete with the siders.”

“Okay,” he said. “Two, maybe three guys. Next time you’re talkin’ retirement with Lime look at his hands and tell me how many fingers he’s got left. Or Pete, the motherfucker can’t even straighten his back he’s been hunched so long.”

“That’s not the point,” I said.

“You think the people who move in after we’re gone are gonna think about how we sweated and lost fingers to give them a house? Fuck no, man, this ain’t no monument to your labor, it’s a tar baby and nobody gives a shit what we do as long as we keep doing it.”

“Now you’re the jobsite philosopher?”

He stepped out to the edge of the deck.

“Before you flap your wings out of Alaska I’m gonna find us one last big-time adventure.”

He shook his head and cracked a smile before he disappeared down the ledge and left me staring out through a glassless window at the sun on the mountain.

During the off-hours I followed him up rivers for hours, looking for the wild untouched spots, thinking that at any moment Burke would turn around and release me from his promise. And that would be okay with me, because he was right—there weren’t a lot of fifty-year-old carpenters around.

By the end of July the first pink slips began to flutter onto the jobsite. The drunks and half-breeds were the first to go, sent packing with complimentary thermoses and promise of work next season. There was a lot of talk about who would be laid off next. The basement rats were sweating it out. Burke was already looking for something to take him into October while I’d made plans to work the winter at a truss factory in Texas. The pay would be good and I could return in the spring with coin and spend a little time finding the right job. I kept quiet about this fact, because most of the blather about cake jobs turned out to be bullshit as did most of the talk about leaving and coming back. The carpenters I knew spent off-seasons on unemployment, getting fat, staring at beer bottles and satellite television, going back to work in the spring only after they’d drunk up all their money.

A couple of the guys had already quit, run off with pretty Eskimo women to Anchorage or taken jobs as maintenance men in Seattle. Each day there were a few less pickup trucks in the muddy lot. Sometimes I had a whole building to myself, the floor littered with crushed Marlboro packs and empty soda cans, evidence that other men had leaned, tired and sore, against this very same wall, talking about their dreams—how they hated work but loved the money and how lunch was too short, the whitehats were jobbing them, stealing minutes, days of their lives, so fuck ’em, fuck ’em all. By then I was too tired to care that other guys had been unfairly pink-slipped because somewhere there was one with my name on it. And I would move on, leaving the ghost of my labor behind, maybe some blood on a dusty plywood subfloor.

Then Bryce, one of the bad-luck boys, killed himself in a basement. Bryce had put into the job late, worked like a demon and then started fucking up, hurting himself and others. Guys got superstitious and refused to walk beam with him or stand nearby when a forklift set a bunk of lumber on the deck, fearing that Bryce’s bad-luck pull would get them killed. They talked behind his back, called him an accident on two legs, Job with a hammer and a step dick. So the whitehats stuck him on basement detail where he picked up scraps and braced joist. It was retard work and nobody gave him any respect. He became a troll with tools who ate by himself. He grew pale and fat. Sometimes you could hear him under the plywood floors, talking to himself, crying, pouring his life out to the dank basement. At punch-out time when the crew would gather around the tool crib Bryce would lurch out of one of the basements shrinking from the light like one of those blind cave frogs.

Then one morning he just snapped. He pressed a nail gun to his skull and pulled the trigger—three times. He didn’t die fast or beautiful, but slow and alone with the whine of Skilsaws and the whump of nail guns above.

One of the laborers found him when he went down to take a piss and tripped on the body. Work stopped long enough for the state troopers to question the remaining crew and lecture the whitehats about job safety. His body was hauled out of the basement and into the sun where it was loaded into an ambulance and driven off the jobsite.

At quitting time Burke grabbed Bryce’s time card and punched it out and then hung it above the clock. Guys waiting to punch out stared up at the card. Some even fingered that last clock-out, their fingers tracing the ink like Braille.

The next day Bryce’s girlfriend showed up and collapsed by the tool crib, crying. She was a chubby woman with limp brown hair and wide-set eyes that Bryce had met a month before at the Boatel Bar during Mexican night, which meant free chips and salsa with your shot of tequila. The bartender had on a sombrero and was pointing cap guns at the drunks, pretending to shoot them. Somebody had strung red-pepper lights on Eddie the dead elk’s rack to go along with the faded lei left over from Hawaiian night.

Bryce had been limping around, sozzled to the gills, yammering about how the company had it in for him. Then he saw her. She was dressed in a flowered smock, large fake gold cross hanging on her ample breasts, ass squeezed into grimy Dacron slacks as she handed out Bibles to the Eskimos huddled around the large-screen television watching Gilligan’s Island reruns. They were whistling at Ginger and cheering whenever Gilligan took a coconut to the head or pissed off Skipper. By closing time Bryce had lured her away and was buying her pull tabs and white wine spritzers, telling her he believed in God, family and country. Within weeks they were another of Fairbanks’s doomed seasonal romances, barhopping, holding hands and making empty promises.

Three nails later and one of the whitehats was handing her Bryce’s last paycheck and tool belt. She wasn’t wearing the cross anymore and she looked sad and out of place standing in the muddy road next to the stacks of lumber waiting to be built into houses for military families.

After work we went to the bar, sloshed Bryce’s name around and guzzled toasts in his honor. The girlfriend arrived drunk, eyes red with tears, and sat in a corner, staring at us, waiting for somebody to stagger over and bend her ear about Bryce. Finally Clarkson, one of the laborers, pumped some money into the jukebox and asked her to dance.

Clarence Carter was singing “Strokin’ ” on the jukebox and I was tossing darts with Burke, kicking his ass in cricket. The bartender set bottles out on the bar and men were lining up to pay their respects with a shot in Bryce’s honor. On the dance floor, Clarkson had his hands all over the girlfriend’s ass, dirty face pressed into her hair. They looked happy.

Something about seeing the two of them together filled me with desolation.

I wanted to throw darts at them, tell them to take it outside and leave Alaska before the snow came crashing down out of the mountains.

Burke pounded his beer and shook his head. “Fuck this funeral bullshit. I don’t need to stick around for this. You comin’, Jack?”

I nodded and followed him to his truck. It was still light outside. The sun hung just above the rim of mountains reflecting off the snow that soon would blanket everything in its deep white hush.

“We gotta meet someone.”

I hesitated.

“Now?”

“Unless you want a spin with Bryce’s old lady,” he said. “Lemme know and I’ll tie a board to your ass so you don’t fall in.”

“I’m not that drunk.”

“Good then, get in.”

I hopped in the truck and we drove out of Fairbanks until the roads turned to gravel. We crossed a couple of creeks, speeding down birch-lined roads hung with that crazy kind of light that made me think anything was possible in Alaska, even happiness.

I kept quiet and looked out the window hoping to see a moose or wild dog, something to remind me I was still in Alaska and that in a month I would be in treeless Texas, punching the clock and assembling trusses.

Burke laughed and punched the dash. His cheeks were red with liquor and he took his eyes off the road to look at me. “You bought the plane ticket yet?”

“No,” I said.

“All right then, we’re still in business.”

We followed a twisted creek for a ways, down a washed-out road. There were a few old cabins sprinkled among the trees. Burke pulled out a flask and took several long hits before offering it to me. I thought about work the next morning and shook my head no, but he kept the flask out until I gave in.

“Live a little,” he said as we bumped down a long deeply rutted dirt path that was overgrown with brush. At the end of the path was a small brown cabin tucked under a bank of jack pines. A busted-out Bronco and an abandoned tractor sat in the tall grass like skeletons, picked over by rain and snow, frozen with rust.

“Where are we?” I asked.

He parked the truck alongside the cabin, put the flask away and got out of the truck without answering.

It was close to eleven o’clock and the sun was still in the trees. A few ravens drifted lazily in invisible columns of air, the mountains tall and distant behind them. And for a moment I could not imagine leaving a place like this. Burke was right to want to conquer its vast unknowable places. But I also knew that it was just as easy to lose yourself and surrender in some small cabin, surrounded by dogs and garbage. Or worse: drink yourself blind, shoot your dog and freeze to death. They’d find you after breakup, another Johnny Doe Alaska done in by stubborn Arctic dreams.

A man appeared on the porch. He had long gray hair braided loosely down the back of his neck and he moved slowly, bent at the knees as if his back had been broken and only recently healed. His face was red and wrinkled and I couldn’t make out his eyes.

Burke waved and the man waved back, motioning for us to come up on the porch. As I got closer I could see that he wasn’t that old, just weathered in a particular way I’d seen a lot of men in Alaska weathered, beaten down and hunched against some imaginary assault.

I stumbled after Burke, caught up in his beery sense of adventure, feeling reckless and full of great things.

“Jack, meet Duke,” Burke said.

Duke winced and stuck out a large hand for me to shake. His grip was surprisingly strong, his hands thick and callused.

“You lookin’ for a little adventure?” he asked.

“Drivin’ drunk with Burke’s enough,” I said.

Burke held out his hands. “Hey, man, I’m steady as a rock.”

Duke smiled and pushed open the door. “Come on in. Listenin’ never hurt nobody.”

Burke laughed and slapped Duke on the back as I followed them inside. The ceiling was high and crossed with hand-hewn beams which made me think that Duke had built the place himself back when he was young and land could be bought with the lint in your pocket. I’d heard plenty of stories of the pipeline days from barflies who claimed they used to light joints with hundred-dollar bills and for ten bucks and a six-pack you could get your ashes hauled by some Indian chick. There was a bear pelt mounted on the wall, its glass eyes dull and dust-covered. The pelt was surrounded by rows and rows of bookshelves filled with yellowed paperbacks, burnt-down candle ends, old leghold traps, shell casings, a cribbage board made out of whale bone, several small wood carvings and a half-empty bottle of scotch.

I figured Duke had his stories of the good old days and maybe Burke had brought me out there to hear him ramble on about how it was all gone now, the land fucked, all the good people dead or reformed, the boom busted.

Duke led us over to a round table and sat down heavily, slumping into the chair as if the bones in his shoulders had melted. I could see his eyes now, deep red-rimmed holes above the thick arch of his nose, which looked as if it had been broken a few times.

On the table before us was a map held open by two old paper ten-gauge shotgun shells. It was a detail of the land just above the North Star Borough where the Yukon splintered into the flats. Fairbanks was at the bottom, a square of gridlocked streets, the Tanana River slicing it in half.

Duke looked at it and sighed. “Thought you were comin’ by earlier,” he said.

“We stopped off at the Boatel,” Burke said.

“Some guy at work greased himself with a nail gun,” I said.

“It was a wake then?” Duke asked.

“Yeah,” Burke said. “Now enough depressing shit, let’s get to the good stuff.”

Duke cleared his throat and focused on the map. “She’s here,” he said, pointing.

There was nothing under his finger, just green and a blue line of a river.

“Who?” I asked.

“My daughter.”

I looked at them waiting for something more.

“Her name’s Penny,” he said. “I need someone to go get her for me.”

“From where?” I asked, thinking that at any minute Duke would give it up, break out a bottle and we’d get drunk.

But he didn’t.

“From him,” he said, his voice rising above the tired croak.

“What’s this about?” I asked, suddenly sober.

“Just listen to the man,” Burke said. “He wants to hire us, for a little side job.”

I looked at the map again.

“What sort of job?”

“Go get his daughter—hero kind of shit,” he said, winking at Duke.

“I don’t get it,” I said. “Rescue her from what, there’s nothing up there.”

“Observant motherfucker,” Burke said. “Hell, if she was in Anchorage Duke could go scoop her up himself.”

“I’m sick,” Duke said. “Tumors in the stomach and who knows where else. I’ve got a little time though and I don’t wanna say she’s all I got, but that would be the truth. It’s time to get things in order, say what’s gotta be said and get ready to die.” He coughed into his hand. “She went willingly, at least at first. And now?” He raised his shoulders. “Now I don’t know. I’m worried something bad is happening up there.”

“Who is she with?” I asked.

“His name is Nunn,” he said. “But I don’t know what he’s calling himself these days. Could be anything, could be she’s not even there anymore.” He stared at the map. “Hell, I thought she’d be back after the first snow. But she stayed and it’s been a year since I’ve heard from her.”

“What sort of place is it?”

“It’s a commune or something like that. Maybe there was some reason for it a long time ago—I don’t know.” He folded his hands over the map. “I started hearing things,” he said. “A friend of mine on the state troopers says they picked up a few backpackers stranded in the flats who said they’d been up there. They’d almost starved to death trying to get out.”

“So you want us to find her?”

Duke stared at me. “Yes,” he said.

“It’s nothing,” Burke said, slapping me on the shoulders. “We can do it in a weekend.”

I studied the map. There were no roads leading into or out of the spot Duke had pointed to. It was just inside the Arctic Circle and although the days were still warm it would be winter soon and no place to be.

“For what?” I asked. “I mean why us?”

Duke glanced into the kitchen. “If you want money—”

Burke shook me by the shoulders. “You’re missing the point, Jack.”

“What about the job?”

He laughed. “You said yourself that we’ve about worked our way out of it. And then what? Where are you gonna go? What are you gonna do?”

“Texas,” I said.

“You’re not going to Texas. You were never going to Texas,” he said. “First we do this thing.”

“I have something lined up,” I said.

“Lined up?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Just like you were gonna go native and homestead. I got something lined up.”

He thought about this a moment, eyed Duke and then spoke slowly. “Yeah, but this is bigger than that, Jack.”

I shrugged.

“If it’s about the money,” Duke started again.

Burke waved him off. “We’ll get to that. Just say you’ll think about it. We help Duke out, have a little fun, see some of the country. Besides, don’t tell me you aren’t at least a little curious about what’s up there.”

“I still don’t understand what she’s doing there,” I said.

“That’s a bit complicated,” Duke said.

“Complicated how?” I asked.

He sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Because I introduced her to Nunn.”

“The guy who . . .”

“Yes,” he said, nodding. “A long time ago I did a few jobs for him after he’d first come into the country. This was after the pipeline money was drying up. The party was over for a lot of people and without the work things were getting a little rough. There was a shooting gallery over on Lacy Street. A couple of bouncers had been shot over drug money. There was even a rumor going around about a ring of pedophiles snatching Eskimo kids off the street in Anchorage and bringing them up here.”

“We’ve heard the stories,” Burke said impatiently.

Duke stared into the map. “Yeah, well, that’s the way it was. So when Nunn came up here nobody noticed him. His full name was Gregory Blake Nunn, but nobody called him that. He blended right in with all of the other freaks, except for the fact that he had plans. The rest of us were just trying to get lost. In my case it was a bad marriage.”

“What sort of plans?” I asked.

“He wanted to start a community, which wasn’t out of the ordinary. Plenty of hippie types had already tried and failed because the land’s too hard this far north. Problem was that Nunn wasn’t really a hippie. He knew how to play the game though. He came from money—one of those trust fund guys, went to Harvard and was studying to be a doctor or something. Then one day he just left and started walking, hitching across the country, livin’ off his parents, nothing too radical. Hated the government, but then so did everybody else. He read a lot, had some ideas about the way things ought to be. He had big parties on the solstice with these great big bonfires and bands, people skinny-dipping in the tailing pond. He watched and made sure nobody got hurt or too high. When it was over he would come over and just sort of sum up the whole evening for you, whispering in your ear. He was smart about people.”

“Smart how?”

“He knew things, I guess,” he said, shrugging. “Told you things about yourself that even you didn’t know. It made some people uncomfortable. I guess that’s where it started.”

I looked at the map again, knowing that what Duke was telling me was important.

“Then he began collecting people,” he said. “I used to see him in the bars talking them up, seeing which women bought him drinks when he asked them to. That was how he knew he wanted them, because they listened and would do things for him. I’ll give him credit because a lot of folks come here and live like it’s Los Angeles, but not Nunn. He was always trying to figure things out by quizzing old prospectors and hunting guides about the country, learning their tricks and how to live off the land. Sometimes he’d disappear into the woods and be gone for months, testing what he’d learned. And then just when we all thought he’d finally met up with a bear or crashed in some bush plane he’d show up again and talk somebody else into going with him.”

Duke stopped to cough a couple of times. “He has a power over people. It’s in the way he talks, you’ll see. He has this voice and if I tell you it sounds important somehow, you wouldn’t know what I mean.”

“As long as it’s not one of them Kool-Aid-sipping cults, we’re still in,” Burke said.

“You said you introduced them?” I asked.

“Penny was back from college, thinking about moving to Boston and getting a job. We had a good summer, almost no fights—went canoeing at night, took long walks and really got to know each other all over again. Then one day we were at Safeway grabbing a few groceries when I ran into him.”

“You mean . . .”

“Nunn,” he said. “He looked different. His hair was longer, but I recognized him right away and introduced Penny to him. He didn’t say much, just stared right through me like I was doing something wrong mentioning the good old days. There was another guy with him, a skinny fellow about Penny’s age, and he had a book tucked under his arm that she’d read so they started talking about it. I could see Nunn eyeballing her and I knew what he was thinking.”

“That’s it?” Burke asked.

“The next night Penny said she was going down to the Howling Dog Saloon to hear a band. She didn’t come home until morning. She hadn’t slept much. I asked her where she’d been and all she said was ‘out.’ I even remember her hair smelled like campfire and I knew she’d met someone because she didn’t want to talk about Boston or anything else. It was like that for a while, sneaking around, coming back late. Two weeks later she was gone. At first I thought she’d decided to hitch back to Tucson or Boston, but I found a note that said she was going to ‘the camp.’ I knew right away it was Nunn, but I figured she was an adult, she could do what she wanted. She’d find out for herself it was no paradise and she’d be back. It wasn’t the first time she’d done this sort of thing. She’d dropped out of college to follow some band around, drop acid and sell pot brownies in the parking lot. The only thing that brought her back then was her mother’s death.”

He swallowed hard, pecked his lips with his dry, papery tongue.

“Why don’t you ask her to come back—write her a letter and have it dropped with the supplies?” I asked.

He shook his head. “There’s been no answer.”

Burke stood up. “I’m in. It’s on you,” he said, pointing at me. “We’re gonna get the pink slip anyway.”

“Yeah, but . . .”

“You can still go to Texas if we finish this before the first snow.”

“Finish?” I asked.

“Get Duke’s daughter,” he said. “Hell, Jack, all we’ve gotta do is boat up this river, hike across here and we’re there. Country club stuff. It’s the best of it.”

“What about getting her to come—sounds like all we’re doing is kidnapping her back.”

“No, man, it’s just a bunch of old hippies, trying to live off the land, listening to this Nunn asshole talk about revolution. All we gotta do is offer her something better.”

“Yeah and what’s that?”

“Reality,” he said. “A way out.”

Duke looked at me and shook his head at Burke.

“What do you say, Jack?”

I thought a minute. Duke was dying right there, slipping away, wanting to see his daughter. I was drunk. Texas was flat. It would be hot, and the job, well it would just be a job, punch the clock, drink, sleep, wake up sore. I knew the routine.

I nodded.

“What does that mean?” Burke asked. “You in or not, Jack?”

“I’ll give it two weeks,” I said.

Burke beamed at Duke. “It’s good as done, Duker.”

“You sure?” Duke asked, looking at me.

“Somebody’s gotta make sure they don’t brainwash Burke here.”

Duke winked, rose stiffly and walked toward the small eat-in kitchen and pulled a coffee tin off the shelf, brought it to the table. He popped the faded plastic top off and inside was a roll of bills rubber-banded together. “There’s five thousand dollars here,” he said, setting the roll in front of me. The money was dirty and smelled like smoke. “That oughtta at least cover the work you’ll miss and then some.”

I pushed the roll back at him. “You don’t . . .”

He clamped a hand on my wrist. “I’m going into the hospital next week for more tests and I don’t expect good news. It’s just money—take it, use it for supplies, whatever you want, just get her for me.”

“We’ll take it,” Burke said, plucking the wad away from me.

Duke nodded and then shuffled over to the bookshelf to a line of framed photos. He took one of them down and blew a scrim of dust off the glass before handing it to me.

“That’s her,” he said. “Five years ago, right after her mother died.”

The girl in the photo was thin and smiling. Long brown hair fell over her smooth tan shoulders. I traced the curve of her collarbone and casually imagined fucking her because of the way her eyes glared back at the camera, confronting it with a deep seriousness. There was something in the curl of her mouth, a slight sneer or hesitation that said she wanted this to be the last picture of her youth.

“Go on and take it,” he said. “I have others.”

As I took the photo from him his hands shook slightly.

“This too,” he said, handing me a plain white envelope. “It might help you convince her to come. It’s a letter I wrote telling her about the cancer and some other things.”

“Great,” Burke said anxiously. He was staring at the bear pelt, sticking his fingers into the frozen mouth, tapping the teeth, the wad of bills clenched tightly in his other hand. “Are we set then?”

Duke pulled me aside. “Don’t let yourself get wrapped up in what goes on up there—they want to be with him, even Penny,” he whispered.

“What?”

But before he could answer Burke spun around. “Did you shoot this?” he asked, pointing at the bear pelt.

Duke nodded. “Took six shots and died at my feet. It was the last animal I ever shot.”

“Got your blood moving?”

“You could say that,” Duke said. “Took six shots, three to the skull, two in the shoulder and one right through here.” He pointed at his heart. “The sonofabitch still almost got me.”

Burke looked around the small cabin and examined one of the leghold traps.

“You ready?” he asked.

I walked to the door and shook hands with Duke, hoping he’d smile and tell me not to worry. But he didn’t and I was left wondering about his cryptic warning and the people in the valley and most of all, Nunn.

Outside the sun hung low in the west. Wild dogs or wolves were howling somewhere off in the distance, their voices echoing through the trees. I scanned Duke’s trash-strewn yard. It was full of grownup toys left to rust, projects half finished and I thought that maybe this was how Burke would end up after he’d burned himself out on his homesteading dreams and settled for a shack close to town. Duke nodded at me silently as we stepped off the porch and got in the truck.

Burke waited until we were on the road before he spoke. “A week or two, we get the girl, have some laughs, see the country and then you can shuffle off to Texas.”

“What about work?” I asked.

He pulled Duke’s money out of his pocket and waved it at me. “Fuck work. This should about cover it. We’re not sick with money but it’s enough for us to do this one last thing together.”

“You sure we can find this place?”

“I guess we’ll find out, won’t we? Hell, that’ll be half the fun.”

He pulled into the driveway that led to my building, the headlights briefly illuminating a dead pine tree somebody had planted in an old oil drum.

I popped the door and stepped out of the truck.

“Here’s to . . .”

Burke’s face darkened. “Don’t go getting poetic on me, college boy. It’s just you and me goin’ up a river looking for a little something to get the blood moving and all that other good stuff.”

He laughed. I shut the door and watched him back out of the drive.

Inside my dark apartment I stared at the familiar heap of dirty work clothes in the corner, the cracked plaster and my tool belt slumped in a plastic milk crate by the door. It was near the end of August and I had planned on being in Texas by Thanksgiving, just about the time the bitter cold would settle over Fairbanks. But this plan to rescue Duke’s daughter had pulled me back from the plane and the job chasing.

I found the battered Rand McNally road atlas, popped it open to the map of Alaska and tried to remember where Duke’s finger had pointed. There were rivers everywhere and patches of green ink next to the blank spaces. It was out there, past even the small roadless native villages.

I studied the map a long time until sleep came thick and heavy.

I did not dream.

When I woke I thought about just going to work and ignoring my promise to Burke and Duke, letting the routine roll over me. But that feeling soon passed as I scraped together my gear: fishing rods, nylon two-man tent, a pair of Gortex boots, knives, day pack and gun, a Winchester .338 Magnum that I’d bought from a pawnshop. The snap and click of gathering gear stirred something in me and for a minute I thought this was what I’d come here to do.

An hour later I drove over to Burke’s house. Day-Glo Bob was blasting Janis’s “Piece of My Heart” and walking around with a cigar-sized doobie, reading one of his trivia books and talking to himself.

His eyes widened like coals when he saw me coming around the corner. He did a little hippie head shake, knocking his hair out of his eyes.

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” he said, blowing the sweet dope smoke in my face.

We did the soul shake.

“Did you know Genghis Khan died fucking?” he asked, pointing at the trivia book. “Fascinating shit in here.”

I noticed a Visine bottle on a rope around his neck and pointed.

“For puttin’ on the man,” he shouted. “If you’ve got a searching mind like I do, you gotta go undercover, look like the man, talk like the man—know what I mean, Jack?”

“Where is Burke the Man?” I said with my best hippie hiss.

“Everywhere and nowhere,” he said. “But for you, he’s out back, chief.”

He led me into the backyard shouting with Janis.

Burke appeared, lugging an armload of gear, his face bright with our mission.

“You wanna go by the job?” he asked.

Bob stopped his screeching. “Working fools,” he shouted. “You two need to be deprogrammed, unscrambled, rewired, before . . .” Suddenly he launched back into song, belting right along with her, tearing his heart out, pleading.

“Not no more,” Burke said, but Day-Glo had already ambled away, shaking his head in disgust.

At the jobsite I told the girl in the office that we wanted our last paycheck. She stared at us a moment, scratching her stiff halo of ash-blond hair with glue-on nails she’d painted bright green with little silver streaks. Her sweater was covered in dog hair and food stains.

“You boys find yourself some greener pastures?” she asked.

“Just get the checks, honey,” Burke said, winking and staring at her ample ass as she trudged into the back room.

While we waited in the stuffy double-wide that functioned as an office, Taft, one of the whitehats, entered the trailer. He was drinking coffee out of a thermos top, a newspaper folded under his arm. He had college written all over him; soft face, softer hands and perfectly white teeth. The plumbers called him the Shaft behind his back because he handed out pink slips like Christmas presents and hassled them about their time cards.

“What are you guys up to?” Taft asked.

“Not work,” Burke said, puffing out his chest.

“Leavin’ just like the rest of the wage chasers, before the pink slips get you, eh?”

“Something like that,” I said.

Taft nodded and winked at us. I could see Burke’s hands go into fists. He was not above pounding him right there in the trailer.

To his credit the Shaft stood his ground, smart-ass smile pasted on his lily-white face. But then the woman came around front with our paychecks, asking us to sign for them, and Burke let Taft slink out of the trailer without swinging on him.

In the truck on the way over to the outfitters Burke told me that Duke had loaned us his boat, a fourteen-footer with a Johnson outboard. “We’re gonna fish our way up,” he said. “And fish our way back.”

“What about the girl?” I had her picture in my pocket and had looked at it enough times already that I had memorized the smile and the soft curve of her dark eyes. If it was possible to fall in love with a picture I was close to gone on her.

“If she’s there, we’ll get her,” he said. “If not then we’ll fish ourselves stupid.”

“Maybe there’s a reason she’s up there.”

“What’s that mean?” he growled.

“It means we’ll find what we’re gonna find, see what we’re gonna see,” I said. “I don’t trust anybody.”

“You need to get laid or something,” he said.

“I thought I needed an adventure.”

“That too.”

Burke pulled into the outfitter’s parking lot. It was chock full of Alaskan limos: pickup trucks with empty beer cans rolling around in their beds and NRA window stickers.

We jumped out of the truck and headed for the wooden ramp that led to the double glass doors and emerged an hour later with MREs, topo maps, boxes of shells for both the rifle and the .45, groundsheets, life preservers, coils of good rope, flares and a case of mosquito repellent.

Afterward we ate lunch at a small diner south of town that served open-face roast beef sandwiches and homemade blueberry pie.

Burke laid out the trip.

We’d drive up this government road as far as we could and then put in the river. He figured it would take a day or two if the weather held and we spent a little time fishing the clear water sloughs. Duke had told him that the trail leading into the camp from the river would be marked and that there would be canoes, maybe even a makeshift dock. As for the hike to the lake he figured it couldn’t be more than a day, but it would be rough, swampy going. Trails weren’t easily cut in the bush. There would be black flies and mosquitoes as well as the ever-present threat of bears.

“I’ll get us there, the rest is up to you,” he said. “I’m gonna swing by Duke’s tonight, grab the boat and pump him for more info about his daughter.”

I tried to picture us out on the river, but the diner kept intruding: people eating and jabbering all around us, the waitresses snagging tips, busboys bussing—the whole show just clicking along around us.

“You ready?” Burke asked, dropping a twenty on the grease-stained check.

I nodded and followed him outside.

In the parking lot a skinny woman in satin hot pants was checking her lipstick in the side-view mirror. Her boyfriend, a tattooed biker, stood nearby sucking on a cigarette, making sure we weren’t eyefucking her. Burke gave him a wink and the guy just stood there staring at his cigarette.

At my apartment we unloaded half of the gear while the chubby couple from 2B were arguing across the hood of a Jeep plastered with SAVE THE WHALE bumper stickers. The plates on the truck still read New Jersey, the Garden State. Their dog, a skinny collie who crapped all over the parking lot, was tied to the rear bumper, yapping.

“Happy, happy, happy,” Burke shouted at them.

They ignored us and kept arguing.

Burke grinned and got in the truck just as the wife began sobbing into her hands. The husband circled, flapping his arms and shouting at her to stop. He glanced over at me and waved, his face tensing into a smile for a second before he turned his attention back to the wife.

I thought of the girl in the photo again and the letter in my pocket. When I closed my eyes her face appeared and then was gone. There were a lot of odd people in the bush surrounding Fairbanks. Whole families living in dugout cabins, miners sitting on played-out gold claims, men and women who ran sled dogs and tended fish wheels in the summer. They were people trying to get away from something, testing themselves against the wilderness. I saw them occasionally at the diners and truck stops on the outskirts of town, greasy men with long beards and soot-stained coveralls. They sat alone, drank coffee and stared at people. Their hands were black and thick with calluses from splitting wood and tending to stoves. More than a few times Burke and I had run into spooky prospector types living in trailers along small creeks. Some of them guarded their claims with wolf dogs and guns, others took small fortunes out of the water each year, gambled and bought expensive machinery only to have the claim peter out and leave them with a lot of rusty bulldozers and gold fever. I wondered if Nunn was one of those restless types: a seeker, a man looking for himself in the middle of nowhere.

I called a few of the full-timers from the crew and asked them if they’d heard anything about Nunn. A roofer named Fred told me he’d met a woman who’d mentioned the name once. “Wanda June,” he said. “She used to read palms and mooch drinks down at the Club Alaska.”

I thanked him and hung up.

I’d been in the Club once, after five or six other bars, during my first week in the state and could remember virtually nothing about it except that I’d seen a pregnant woman passed out on the floor next to the jukebox, vomit hanging off her lips, and in the bathroom I’d met a man dressed like Santa Claus who tried to sell me acid. When I refused he lowered his beard and said, “Welcome to Alaska, Cheechako!” and placed a tab of acid in his eye.

Later I swung by the Club Alaska. It was a dark hole with rough unfinished floors, cheap beer mirrors on the wall, a long sticky bar running the length of the room and two useless pool tables propped up with cinder blocks. There were a few hard-core types fingering drinks at the bar, watching television and eating pickled eggs from napkins. There were no women.

The bartender nodded when I asked for a shot of bourbon with a beer back. He was a large man with rotten teeth, thick Coke-bottle glasses and dull blond hair.

He set the drinks in front of me. “Five dollars,” he said, holding up his hand. One of the drunks watched me dig through my wallet, working up the nerve to cadge a drink. I knocked back the shot and took the beer down to the end of the bar and sat thinking of the trip. I had that same gut-level uneasiness that had accompanied every job hop with Burke. It was like stumbling around a dark room, groping for the light switch. What got me through was his confidence—the look on his face that he’d seen worse, a lot worse, and come through it okay.

I finished the beer and raised the empty bottle at the bartender, who shambled down the long bar, knocking dirty napkins onto the floor with his big hands and stacking tin ashtrays.

“’Nother?” he asked.

I nodded.

When he returned with the beer I asked him about Wanda June.

“She’s been banned since breakup,” he said. “Hope she’s not a friend of yours. ’Cause if she is I don’t wanna hear about it.” He smiled, black gums and nasty bridgework. “Plenty of other bars for her to plague, don’t know why she’s attached to this one.”

“Not a friend,” I said.

“Well then that’ll be two dollars,” he said, pointing at the beer and frisbeeing the cap into a trash barrel.

I put three bills on the bar, pushed one to the drink rail. His eyes followed it. “She ever mention anything about a man named Nunn?”

“Wanda June?”

I nodded.

“She said a lot of stuff, man,” he said. “That’s why she’s banned—pestering the customers, stealing toilet paper. General, all-around pain in my fucking ass. She’s not the only one either.”

I looked around at the Club’s customers. It was a blighted dick farm of terminal liver beaters who woulda been lucky if someone so much as nodded in their general direction.

“So it’s not the Sands,” he said. “But I still got standards. Guys come here to drink and get away from their wives or lack of, the last thing they need is some hippie chick babbling voodoo shit at them.”

I drank my beer and waited for him to stop his rant.

“You’re not from here,” he said.

I shook my head. “How about you?”

He leaned over the bar. “Cleveland,” he said. “But that was twelve years ago and well this place it sort of gets in your blood and fucks everything else up. Try Ohio after you’ve seen Denali in July or watched the ice break on the Yukon. The rest of the world’s boring.” He laughed. More rotten teeth. “You wanted to know about Nunn, my friend?”

“Sure,” I said.

“You gotta understand, there are lots of crazy people living up here. Half the shit you hear is just stories.”

I looked at him. “Yeah?”

“Well, like that guy who strapped steaks to his wife’s back and fed her to a bear.”

“In Kodiak, right?”

“Well, it didn’t happen that way,” he said. “He shot her then put the steaks on her. But the story about finding a head in the grocery store Dumpster—that one’s true.”

“Where was the body?”

“Just the head. They haven’t found the body yet.” He leaned over the bar. “I got a friend who’s a state trooper, tells me all kinds of shit, stuff they don’t print in the papers, like all the rapes.”

“What about Nunn?”

“I’ve heard his name,” he said, pouring himself a glass of schnapps. “But have I met the man or shaken his hand? Fuck no. So until that happens the name’s just another ghost story as far as I’m concerned.”

“I still wanna hear it.”

He looked around before pushing his glasses up and leaning heavily on the bar.

“Well, besides Wanda June I only heard his name once before,” he said, sipping the schnapps. “It was right after breakup. Man came into the bar. He was drunk and he started telling me a story about how he and two other guys had been up one of the Yukon tributaries hunting. I’ve heard a million of these stories, tourists mostly, yakking about fishing or seeing a bear. But this guy was different. It was like he didn’t want to tell the story, more like he had to, like he was trying to figure out what went wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, three days into the trip one of his buddies falls down a ravine and breaks his leg bad. Fun’s over—the man needs a doctor. But when they get to the boat there’s a sow bear and two cubs playing with the rope, batting it around while mama bear sniffs around for food. All of their gear’s in the boat, even the guns. The one with the broken leg is bleeding. They try scaring the bear off but she gets one of the guys pretty bad—chews his face up, punctures his lung. It gets dark, the wolves start howling—real up shit’s creek without a paddle stuff, right? So just when they’re thinking this is how they buy it, out of nowhere comes this canoe, drifting down the river. There’s a woman in it and get this, she’s singing. Before they can do anything she paddles over to the bears, claps the paddles together and boom! Off go the bears and she just floats past them without saying a word. They get back into the boat and get ready to go and abra-fuckin’-cadabra the woman shows up again only this time she’s got two men with her. They reset the broken leg and then something bad happened.”

“What?”

“I dunno, he wouldn’t say. They had to hike through the woods all night and the next morning they’re in some sort of camp or village.”

“Indian village?”

“Fuck no, man—white people.”

“What were they doing up there?”

“He thought they were running some kind of small-time mining operation because there were tailings everywhere and the people had jars of gold flakes and nuggets. But there was something else going on. Some other reason they were up there.”

“You mean Nunn?”

“That’s the name he gave me,” he said. “This guy Nunn owned the land and the people were there because of him. If you ask me it sounds like a bunch of hippies trying their hand at paradise.”

The bartender stopped to grab a drink for one of the rum hounds who was grumbling and jiggling the ice in his empty glass. No money changed hands. The man had half the drink down before the bartender could turn his back.

“That’s it,” he said. “All I ever heard about the man, just a name is all and that crazy story. The only reason the story stayed with me is because only one of them came back.”

“What do you mean?”

“The one with the broken leg stayed at the camp.”

“And the one that got mauled?”

“Like I said, something happened,” he said. “Hell I don’t know, maybe there was more but I didn’t get to hear the rest ’cause it was last call.”

“What?”

“Last call—end of party. No more stories.” He paused. “Don’t tell me you’re thinkin’ of going up there?”

I stared at my hands.

“A little piece of bartender advice,” he said. “You go too far out and there’s no coming back, believe me, I’ve seen plenty of it. Nice little hippie kid comes up here to work on the boats because he heard he can make big money. Only when he gets here and there’s no job, not even one of those shitty cannery gigs gutting salmon in the freezer. So he starts hangin’ with the freaks or maybe he thinks he’s some kind of wilderness man. Either way he ends up going out there, into the bush, hoping to find himself—know what I mean?”

I smiled.

“All I know is sometimes they go out there and don’t come back,” he said, taking in the last of the schnapps, even the ice cubes. “Everybody figures they hopped a plane back home or something like that so nobody asks too many questions. But like I said I got friends on the force who tell me things, like how every month some parents come lookin’ for their kid because they haven’t heard from him.”

“Thanks for the advice,” I said.

He shrugged. “Just come back and have a beer sometime.”

I shook my head, swilled the rest of the beer and let him go back to work, wondering if the woman the moose hunters had seen was Duke’s daughter. Or maybe the bartender was right and the story had been just another bar story, something to fill dead air between rounds.

One of the rum hounds stumbled off his stool. “Wanna see something?” he asked.

He was a small man, his face a bright pimiento red, shoulders hunched, mouth pulled into a frozen scotch sneer.

“Out back,” he said, curling a finger at me.

“I’m not going to buy you a beer,” I said.

“Don’t want a beer,” he said, letting out a high trilling laugh. He inched closer. His skin had that long-term booze gloss, mapped with broken blood vessels, pockmarks and nicotine stains.

He kept moving toward the back door, shoelaces dragging behind in the beer scum and shattered peanut shells.

I shook my head and he laughed some more.

“If you don’t look you’ll always wonder,” the man said. “What’s worse than that, you’ll dream about it.”

“What’s that?”

“Come on,” he said. “A little look never hurt nobody.”

A few of the others at the bar looked up. Some raised drinks, another ashed his cigarette on his pants. I looked to the bartender for help but he just shrugged. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I followed the man out the back door into a small fenced-in cement pad. A couple of broken pool tables sat at one end. The ground was littered with broken pieces of beer mirrors and brown beer glass. The moon hung low in the sky, just above the teeth of the fence. Cars rattled by on the road and some small animal scurried out from behind a clump of blown trash bags.

The man led me to the far corner where a large chest freezer sat under a blue tarp. An extension cord ran out the window to it.

He grinned.

“You ready?” he asked, picking up a flashlight that had been stashed next to the freezer.

I stepped closer and waited as he opened the lid of the freezer. No light came on. There was only the frost curling over the edge and then evaporating.

“Closer,” he said, clicking on the flashlight.

I peered into the freezer and saw in the flashlight’s dull beam a solid block of ice.

“Yeah?” I said. “So you got a block of ice.”

He laughed. “You’re not looking hard enough. What’s wrong with you, boy?”

I moved closer. There was a dark blurry figure under the ice that looked vaguely human. Trapped air bubbles and a good three inches of freezer burn had distorted it. The face resembled a punched-in mask, plum-colored and clenched tight as if against the cold. A pair of hands were visible near the surface. But on closer inspection they appeared to be rubber and the fur rimming the man’s dented head also looked fake.

“It’s a frozen Eskimo,” the man said. “Webster found him up in Prudhoe this spring and brought him back. We were going to put him behind the bar but Ronnie said the owner wouldn’t go for it, fuckin’ health department or some tribal council or something, so we had to settle for this. What do you think?”

I bent over the freezer until my nose was a few inches from the ice, trying to determine whether or not this was some sort of joke. Two cigarette butts lay just under the surface, frozen. The ice smelled faintly of beer and freezer burn.

“I think it’s bullshit,” I said.

The man stood there blinking a moment. “It doesn’t matter what you think, you owe me five bucks.”

I looked at him.

“Admission fee,” he said. “Remember we had ourselves a deal.”

“It’s a fake,” I said.

“Maybe, maybe not, it’s still five bucks, pal—you took a look.”

I turned and began walking toward the door. I heard the freezer slam shut and before I could get to the door he was standing in front of me, blocking the way.

“Five bucks,” he repeated, poking me with the flashlight, hopped-up grin painted across his face. For a minute I thought about tossing a short jab to his already wrecked nose. I was a couple of inches taller and sober to his staggering drunk barker act and my fist could have caved his jaw in, taken a few teeth.

But I hesitated.

There was the flashlight. Suddenly my hands felt very heavy. My stomach fluttered as I tried to hold his bloodshot stare.

“Five’s the discount rate, buddy,” he said. “I’m going easy on you. Not everybody gets to see the bar mascot, especially you being a stranger and all.”

He nudged me with the flashlight again until I gave up on the idea of punching and running. If it was a joke then his buddies were probably watching and would be waiting for me. This was Alaska, the northern knife and gun club where a bar fight wasn’t even worth mentioning unless it involved some near fatal injury or creative use of available weapon.

So I gave him a couple of singles instead which he let flutter to the ground.

“That’s all you get,” I said, walking back into the bar, my hands trembling, neck tense, expecting the thump of flashlight at any moment or maybe a gun. But nothing happened. When I turned to have a look he was scraping the bills off the cement and swearing at me.

In the parking lot I examined my face in the mirror, forced a sneer, wanting whiskey and two or three beers to stop my guts from shaking.