Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Book 1 of the Dawnwalker Cycle
Chuck Whitman absent-mindedly stuck his cigarette butt between his middle finger and his thumb and gave it a flick with his forefinger, pointed downwind. The butt fell out in the water somewhere, and he didn't particularly notice. Without thinking about it, he lit another one and wondered where that dodo was, anyway. For a week, he'd had the Glacier Bay tied to the float in Skagway, waiting for a break in the weather. Now the rest of the salmon boats were firing engines, and he had to wait.
He glanced down the float again, but there was no sign of Sean, just a tallish girl in a jacket and jeans sauntering his way, carrying a backpack and taking it all in. She was probably about the age of his granddaughter, maybe a little older. Damn it, he was getting too old for this stuff, the crappy seasons that you were never sure were going to make out, the ones that didn't, and the occasional good one that kept him coming back for more. There were things he ought to be doing, but without Sean, there wasn't much point in it, so he just stood there, leaning against the wheelhouse, smoking his cigarette and fuming.
"Hi, how ya doin'?" the girl said in a friendly way as she got within speaking distance.
"Could be better," he grunted.
"Looks like everybody around here is busy but you," she observed. "What's goin' on?"
"Everyone's cranking up and heading south," he said. "But I'm waiting on my deckhand. He's probably drunked up in some alley somewhere. You gotta take good weather when it comes this time of year. I'd leave without him, but I really need an extra hand."
"Where you headed?" she asked, "Seattle?"
"Yeah," Chuck said, "They had the last gill net opener up here, so now it's time to head home for the winter."
"How long does it take you to get there?"
"Depends," Chuck told her. "Good weather all the way, it could be a week. Bad weather, it could take a month."
"Well, I'd go with you," she grinned.
Chuck glanced over his shoulder. Most of the boats had pulled out now, and the rest were pretty close to leaving. He was ready to go himself, and all he really needed was a deckhand, preferably sober, but he'd settle for alive and puking at this point, so long as there was the chance that he might eventually sober up and be useful. But Sean hadn't been very useful, and he'd been warned to be ready to go if the weather broke. "You know anything about boats?" he asked, figuring that the odds were that she knew that they floated, and that was about it.
"Got a six-pack license," she smiled. "And I worked a dive boat down in the Keys last winter."
Hell, Chuck thought, I don't even have a six-pack, but you don't need one to run a salmon boat. She could probably steer a course and give him a break, maybe handle a line every now and then, and that was all he really needed. Sean could damn well hitchhike his way home. He reached into the wheelhouse and threw the switch for the bilge blower. "Toss your gear on board and get the stern line," he said. "Let's blow this pop stand."
In an instant the backpack was on the deck. "Right, Chief," she smiled, "Let's get rollin'."
He hit the start button, and there was a low rumbling under the deck. Good, started right up. He glanced back at the girl, who was now standing by the stern bitt, and gave her a thumbs up. The wind was off the float, so the line was tight, but in seconds he could see that she knew what she was doing with a line, the way she stepped on it to force some slack.
The line landed on the deck with a thump, and the stern began to drift away from the float. She hustled up to the bow line, got a little slack in it, unhooked it and quickly leaped onto the bow. While he dropped the engine into reverse and began to pull away from the dock, she coiled the line and hung it up, then headed down the deck, stopping to grab her backpack and put it in the wheelhouse, then went back to the stern and coiled the line there. Yep, he thought, she knows what she's doing around a boat. Ain't that a kick in the head? Sean wouldn't have done it without being told, even after a month of yelling at him about it.
As she was coiling the stern line, he set her backpack down into the cabin, opened the throttle, and put the helm down to turn for the south. "Glad you showed up," he told the girl as she walked back up to the wheelhouse. "Hope you don't mind living a little rough."
"This ain't rough," she said, glancing down into the cramped little cabin he lived in six to eight months of the year, sometimes alone, sometimes with a deckhand. "Hell, this is luxury. It's inside, and you got a bunk. I don't think I've slept inside ten times since Christmas."
Must be some kind of outdoor freak, he thought. She acts too bright to be a drunk or a druggie. Might be a story or two there to make the miles pass. "Been out on the road, huh?" he asked.
"Trail, actually," she said. "I hiked the Appalachian Trail this summer."
Yep, an outdoor nut, he thought. A lot of them drifted to Alaska, sooner or later. "What brings you to this neck of the woods?" he asked.
"Long story," she said. "Some friends had a truck and travel trailer they needed to get up to Anchorage, so I figured it was a cheap way to get up here. I was taking the ferry back, but decided to stop off in Skagway and look around for a few days, and hike up Chilkoot Pass."
"That was quite a walk in the old days, they say," he commented.
"Quite a walk these days," she said. "Helluva view. By the way, I'm Crystal."
"Chuck," he grinned. "Hope you can cook."
"If you can eat what I cook, I can cook," she laughed.
"I can eat anything," he said. "Except this time of the year, I can't look a salmon in the face without puking. Look, I gotta do a couple things around the deck and take a look in the engine room before we get outside. I'll let you drive. This course ought to be fine for a while."
"Gotcha, Chief," she said, taking the wheel.
There really wasn't much that needed to be done around the deck, but it was always a good idea to take a turn around to check. He hadn't been fishing these waters for over thirty years without being halfway careful. The tie down on one of the trolling poles was snarled -- some of Sean's work, obviously -- and he stopped to straighten it out. He popped open the engine hatch and glanced inside; everything seemed to be normal. He stood up and glanced at the wake astern -- straight as an arrow; Crystal obviously knew how to steer, but that was no surprise, now.
Well, that's it, he thought, leaning up against the gurdy, and lighting another cigarette. The season is over, and it's homeward we go. About time, too. Most of the season was pretty good, although it was mostly trolling. There hadn't been many gill net openers, and he'd decided he wasn't going to chase after them that bad, then have to fight it out with most of the fleet for a good spot on the line. Best to just stay in the back bays and the secret places, keep on trolling, and get a few to keep the bills paid. He'd made his season in the last month, fighting it out in the winds and the crowds of the Lynn Canal as the dog salmon ran in swarms. He'd had a few good sets, a couple so good they almost swamped the boat while he and Sean had picked the net like mad; the cats of the world would eat well this winter. A few loads like that, and now he could head for home with some money in his pocket, enough to get through the winter and get started in the spring again. A man couldn't ask for much more in this business, really.
He glanced up at the girl who'd shown up out of nowhere, sitting up in the wheelhouse and steering them south. An outdoor freak, and seemed to be a nice kid, but, hell, he'd been an outdoor freak, too, back when he was that age, and look where it had gotten him. Just another old salmon fisherman who liked to catch a few, liked roaming the Inside Passage. He'd been a hippie kid back then, had wandered north because it was wild and cool. Along about this time every year he thought about packing it in, but he knew in the spring he'd see the geese heading north and be aching to go fishing, and he'd be back again. Not a bad life, in the end.
He glanced up at the wheelhouse again and remembered back a lot of those years to when it had been Edith with him, back on some of those beat-up old boats they'd scrounged up to get and scrabble a living on. She'd first gone north with him on the Lady Lee, a twenty-six-footer with a gas engine, a miserable little piece of trash that rolled its guts out. They'd lived for eight months in a cabin only about six feet square, and not high enough to stand up in. Edith had been an outdoor nut, too, and she'd come north with him for years, until finally the kids had gotten old enough that they needed to be in school. When they'd finished up a decade and a half later, she was so caught up in her real world job that she'd never come north again. Would it happen to this Crystal, so young and eager? Who knew?
He flicked the butt overboard, and glanced down the Lynn Canal toward Juneau, with the snowcapped green and gray mountains dipping down to the sea under a blue sky that was pretty unusual for this time of the year. Better stop off there and top off, he thought, and keep running south while they could, because the weather was bound to go to hell again.
It's a thousand lonely miles from the upper Lynn Canal to Seattle. As they hustled southward, the weather deteriorated, and many of the southward-running boats were lost from view in the cold rain of what became a gray day. They ducked into Juneau for fuel where the rest of the fleet collected and spent the night, huddled inside from the weather. By morning, the worst of the storm was through, and they were running early, with light airs and only a left over swell, but later in the day another storm came through right at the tide change. They had to run into forty knots of wind with the tide behind them, throwing up a rip of overfalls and combers while the wind threw solid spray up into the trees, until they finally made a little pocket of a harbor.
It turned out to be a windy year. They ran south when they could, but spent a lot of time in little harbors and coves, waiting on the weather, ready to run when they could, and there were times they ran all night to make up for having to hole up during the day. They got caught for four days in a little place called Ratz Harbor, not far from Petersburg, not far from Chuck's normal summer fishing ground. Chuck got tired of Crystal's hiking and rafting yarns, and she got tired of his salmon fishing stories, and they both got tired of gin rummy, but mostly they were tired of Ratz Harbor, but there wasn't much else to do. The food ran low, and Chuck managed to trade a few cans from a logging crew nearby for one of Sean's bottles of Jack Daniels, but if they couldn't get on the move soon, it was going to get hungry out there.
He got back from his food-begging trip to find Crystal had pawed around in some of Sean's stuff, and discovered some of his CDs. Chuck didn't much care for Sean's taste in music, but it was something to listen to, and it reminded him. "Hey, Crystal," he said, "I just remembered I got a new CD in Juneau on the way up the Lynn. You like to hear it?"
"Hell, yes," she said, lounging lazily and bored on her bunk in the tiny cabin as the wind blew against the rigging where they lay against the log float. "Anything's better than this rap shit."
It took Chuck a while to find it, but eventually, he popped it into the CD player, and when the first notes started, he was a little surprised to see Crystal come alert like someone had just poked her with a 220-volt line. Her eyes were wide, and her jaw dropped open. Chuck had heard a lot of Jenny Easton before, but this was different -- a song about an Irish woman walking the shore in the dawn, looking for her husband's boat; it made him think of Edith. "Wow," Crystal said, when the cut was finished, "They even juiced it up some more from the last time I heard it."
"You've heard this before?" Chuck frowned and handed her the jewel case. "This album is supposed to be brand new a month or so ago."
"Son of a bitch, they did it," Crystal said. "Jennifer has been kicking this At Home with Jenny Easton album around for years." She showed him the case, which was subtitled, "Songs I Sing With Friends." On the cover was Jenny, a guitar on her knee, sitting in a comfortable living room, with a fire in the fireplace, and three other musicians, two men, one with a guitar, the other a bearded biker-looking guy with a violin, and a small, serious-looking girl with a dark blue Celtic harp. "This girl was my college roommate, and she's still my best friend. She's working on her doctorate at Athens University."
"You know Jenny Easton?" Chuck grinned, a little surprised himself.
"She lives right up the street from my boyfriend," Crystal grinned. "He and Myleigh used to play Dawnwalker up in our dorm room. I was there when Myleigh and Randy did it for Jennifer the first time."
"That's a tearjerker, all right," Chuck smiled. "Sounds like a fisherman's wife." He again thought of Edith, waiting at home for him. "Crystal, don't think of becoming one. It's a bitch of a thing for a woman to have to do."
"Hadn't planned on it," she said. "I've been trying to make up my mind on this trip whether to go back and marry Randy. He's in construction."
"It's a good way to make a living," Chuck said. "But you don't get out into country like this, much."
"I know," she sighed. "That's why I'm thinking about it. Real hard. This is awful pretty and wild country, even though the weather sucks."
"It does suck pretty bad in the fall," he told her. "But in the summer, and even a few days in the spring and fall, you get some days that make crap like we've been having worthwhile. It keeps pulling me back, Crystal, to live hand to mouth in a little hole like this for months on end, smelling of dead fish all the time, putting up with weather like this, just because on the good days it's so damn good that it makes the bad all worthwhile."
"Yeah, I know," Crystal told him. "That's why it's so hard to make up my mind, since I know I'd have to be giving up places like this."
"Tough choice," Chuck sympathized.
The weather slackened some in the afternoon, though the swells were still high, and they decided to give it a try. As Crystal steered the Glacier Bay out of the harbor Chuck put the trolling poles down and got set to drop the stabilizers in the water at the first hint of trouble. The sky had a green and ugly look to it that he wasn't real happy with. It was just as well he had; two miles outside the harbor, the wind blew up and the tide changed, and they just battered their way into it without gaining ground. "Might as well turn back," Chuck told Crystal, although they had a hard time finding a decent spot to turn, and the boat rolled like hell when it was broadside to the wind and waves. They almost surfed all the way back to Ratz, and were back in minutes after an hour of fighting, where they ate the last of the canned food that he'd scrounged from the loggers.
But, the wind dropped the next day, and the sea was down, so at first light, they were on their way. They blew into Ketchikan in the middle of the day, fueled, and loaded up with food. They were on their way again within hours, and made it as far as Foggy Bay, the last good place to hole up before Dixon Entrance -- one of the nastier places of open water to have to cross, because there was no screen of islands to hide behind. As luck would have it, the weather held, except for a bad hour or so of cross wind and tide. It blew up hard later that afternoon, but now they were past Porcher Island and in the Grenville Channel. They kept moving till it was almost too dark to see, when Chuck found a little pocket cove he'd used before and ducked inside to drop the hook for the night. For the last hour, wonderful smells had been coming from the cabin, and he found that Crystal had somehow made a meat loaf in the tiny galley; it was wonderful to eat a good meal that hadn't emerged from a can.
The weather was still ratty the next day but they were far enough inside that it didn't matter. Two days later, they lay in the tiny pocket of Safety Cove on Calvert Island along FitzHugh Sound, waiting for a chance to cross Queen Charlotte Strait, the last open water reach they'd face.
They got up in the morning to a fair weather report, but gray skies that Chuck wasn't real happy with, though if they got a good run in they might make it before it turned nasty. Home was only a few days, now, and maybe they pushed it too hard, because they got caught out again with a huge beam sea rolling in against the tide. About all they could do was quarter their way into it, trying to make something close to their intended course. But, there were some cross waves that occasionally came through out there, and along in the afternoon they got swept by one. Chuck heard a loud crash, and all of a sudden, things went black.
He wasn't real sure what happened, but he came to in his bunk with things still rolling, and he had no idea how he got there. His head hurt like there was no tomorrow. Through the passageway, he could look up and see Crystal's feet as she sat in the captain's chair at the wheel, and then he passed out again.
Things were quiet when he woke up again, still hurting, still with a terrific headache, but it was dark outside, and the Glacier Bay wasn't moving. "Where are we?" he mumbled.
"We're in God's Pocket, all tied up," Crystal said. Chuck knew that it was the name of the first possible place to head in for refuge on Vancouver Island. "I think you hit your head when that big one came aboard," she continued. "Sorry I couldn't do much for you for a while, but I had to stay at the wheel until we got behind the Storm Islands, when I could take a minute to get you down here."
"The boat OK?" he asked.
"Pretty much," she said. "We lost the mast, the trolling poles, and the radio antenna just like someone took an axe to them. All I know is that I looked up and they were gone. Look, follow my hand with your eyes."
"Look, I know what I'm doing, I got a Wilderness First Responder card," she said. "You had me scared when you were out for so long. I was thinking of running for Alert Bay, but I figured I better not try it in the dark with the radar out and it still blowing out there."
"OK," he said, not wanting to think too much more. He did follow her instructions, and winced a few times as she prodded at him.
"All right," she said finally. "Can't tell how bad the concussion is, but you're moderately alert and responsive, so it can't have been too bad. There ain't much we can do about those broken ribs, but there's a big packer next to us, and I'll see if I can get some extra hands over here to help wrap them. You're gonna be OK, but you're gonna be hurting for a while. Hang in there, Chuck."
A few minutes later, the skipper of the packer, an old-timer by the name of Joe Morton, who Chuck had known forever, along with Joe's deckhand, were helping Crystal wrap Chuck's ribs. "Probably the best thing to do would be to run him down to Alert Bay in the morning," Joe advised.
"I could do that in the daylight," Crystal said.
"We could lead you," Joe told her. "No big problem."
"Any way to make it home?" Chuck managed to ask.
"You don't want the boat stuck in Alert Bay for who knows how long, right?" Joe asked.
"It's my first time here," Crystal said. "And I know this place is tricky. I wouldn't want to try for Seattle by myself."
"Chuck, if you want to tough it out," Joe said. "We can move you aboard the Frigidsea in the morning. It might be a bit more comfortable there. Crystal can tag along behind in the Glacier Bay."
"That'd work," Crystal nodded thoughtfully.
"Just as soon stay here," Chuck said. "I think maybe Crystal knows this medic stuff better than you guys."
"Well, let's try it as far as Alert Bay in the morning," Joe suggested. "Then we'll see how it goes."
It went pretty well, considering. Chuck more or less was in the bunk the next five days, with nothing more than ibuprofen to drive away the pain, but by the end of the fifth day, his headache was gone, and he'd at least gotten used to the pain from his ribs. They holed up for the night in Swinomish Slough, tied to the Frigidsea. They'd run down through all the tidal races and twisting passages of the Inside Passage behind Vancouver, through places like Whirlpool Rapids and Yuculta Rapids. Back up at God's Pocket, Joe had found a spare radio antenna, and they'd managed to lash it to the stub of one of the trolling poles, so Joe could coach Crystal through the tough parts, not that she'd needed very much coaching -- she ran the Glacier Bay through the rough water like she'd been doing it for years.
"Oughta be in tomorrow, Chief," Crystal said as she came into the tiny cabin to start work on dinner. "Joe says the forecast is good."
"Crystal, I really appreciate the job you've done. Having you come walking down that dock in Skagway is one of the luckier things I've ever had happen to me. I don't think Sean could have even gotten us into God's Pocket."
"Just in the right place at the right time, Chuck," Crystal said, brushing him off. "Looks like stew tonight. We've pretty well eaten up the stuff from Ketchikan, but we should be able to make it in tomorrow."
Chuck wasn't about to be brushed off. "Look, Crystal, you're about the best green hand I've ever taken on in all the years I've been heading north. I don't know what you're planning on doing after tomorrow, but I'd be happy to sail with you again."
"Well, I don't know, either," she said, as she attacked the can with a can opener. "About the only thing I've got on my agenda is to head back east and pick up my car at my boyfriend's."
"You going to marry him?"
"I don't know," she said. "Not soon, anyway. Look, Chuck, I owe you for bringing me along. I got to see a lot of the passage, and see it a heck of a lot better than I'd have seen it from the ferry. I sort of wanted to get a feel for it, maybe with the idea of paddling some of it in a sea kayak some time. That's still on my list of things to do, but now I've got a whole hell of a lot better idea of what's involved. Damn, I want to get up there again sometime, really get to know the place. I don't see how I can do it if I marry him."
"Hey, I've been laying here hurting for days, now, and thinking about hanging it up, but I know when spring comes, I'll want to be up north fishing again. If it gets to be about the first of April and you're looking for something to do, I'd be glad to have you with me, even though Edith would raise hell with me for taking a girl along."
"It's a thought," Crystal grinned. "But maybe I'd better be nice to you and Edith and give it a pass."
"I suppose," Chuck grinned. "She'll probably give me hell for bringing you from Skagway, but I'm damn glad I did. Like I said, you'd be welcome."
"You never know," she grinned. "I may just tell him to go to hell and come knocking on your door."