Mutt leapt up to the seat of the snow machine as Kate thumbed the throttle and together they roared twenty-five miles over unplowed road to Niniltna, four miles past the village to the ghost town of Kanuyaq, and up the rutted, icy path to the Step. There, Kate dismounted, postholed through the snow to the door of the Park Service’s headquarters, marched down the hall to Dan O’Brian’s office, walked in without knocking, sat down without invitation, and said, “Now then. Would you mind repeating to me exactly what you told Ethan Int-Hout this morning?”
“Hi, Kate,” Dan said, the startled look fading from his face. “Nice to see you, too.”
Hard on Kate’s heels, Mutt barked, one syllable, short, sharp, demanding. “All right already, nice to see you, too.” He pulled open a drawer, extracted a slice of homemade moose jerky, and tossed it. Mutt caught it on the fly, and lay down, taking up most of the rest of the square feet of Dan’s office, looking marginally appeased.
Kate was anything but. “Well?”
“I’m too green for them, Kate.”
Kate’s spine was very straight and very stiff. “Too green for whom, exactly?”
“The new administration.” Dan waved a hand at the map of Alaska on the wall behind him. “They want to drill in ANWR. I’m on record as not thinking it’s the best idea the federal government has ever had, and now everyone’s mad at me, from City Hall in Kaktovik to the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. You should see some of the emails I’ve been getting. Like to melt down the computer.” He ran a hand through a thick thatch of stiff red hair that was beginning to recede at his temples, and then rubbed both hands over a square face with open blue eyes and a lot of freckles that refused to fade. “I’ve never wanted to be anything but what I am, a park ranger in Alaska. But hell, I don’t know. The secretary won’t even listen to her own employees. They want to drill. And they’re looking at Iqaluk, too.”
“I beg your pardon?” Her voice had gone very soft, marred only by the growling sound caused by the scar on her throat. Mutt stopped chewing and pricked up her very tall gray ears and fixed Kate with wide yellow eyes.
He flapped a hand. “Nothing to get worried about, at least not yet.”
“I’m always worried about Iqaluk,” Kate said.
“So you’ve been fired?”
He made a wry mouth. “Not exactly. Invited to take early retirement, is more like it.” He sighed, and said again, “I don’t know, Kate. At least Clinton and Gore had a clue about the environment, or pretended they did. This guy, jesus.” He thrust his chair back and stood up to wander over to the window to stare at the snow piled up to the top of the frame. “I don’t know,” he said, turning back. “Maybe it’s time. I don’t know that I can work with these people for four years, and maybe eight. I’ve got twenty-three years in. And hell, maybe they’re right. Maybe it’s time for a change of management. Not to mention point of view, because I sure as shit am out of fashion this year. Maybe I do need to move on, buy myself a little cabin on a couple acres, find me one of your cousins, settle in, settle down.”
“Yeah, and maybe I need to shoot myself in the head,” Kate said, “but it might kill me, so I guess I won’t.”
He grinned, although it seemed perfunctory.
“Who did you talk to? Who asked you to quit?”
“Dean Wellington. The head guy in Anchorage. I’m not the only one. They’re making a clean sweep, Kate, right through the ranks.”
“Who are they going to replace you with? ‘Pro-development’ and ‘park ranger’ don’t exactly go together in the same sentence.”
He shrugged. “If it was me, I’d replace me with a kid fresh out of college, inexperienced, malleable, easy to lead.”
“Someone who will do what they’re told without asking any of those annoying little questions like “What are the adverse affects of a massive oil spill on a biome?” Without doing things like counting the bear population to see if there should or shouldn’t be a hunt that fall?”
The grin had faded, and Dan looked tired and for the first time since she’d known him every one of his forty-nine years. “When’s the last time you had a vacation?” she said.
He rubbed his face again. “I was Outside in October.” He dropped his hands and looked at her. “Family reunion.”
She snorted. “That’s not a vacation, that’s indentured service. I mean a real vacation, white sand, blue sea, drinks with little paper umbrellas in them served by somebody in a sarong.”
“Gee, I don’t know, that’d be about the same time you were there.”
“I don’t vacation,” Kate said, “I hibernate. When?” He didn’t answer. “Do me a favor, Dan. Don’t say yes or no to your boss. Take some time off, and let me work an angle or two.”
“Oh for crissake.” Kate stood up. Mutt gulped the last of her jerky and bounced to her feet, plumed tail waving slightly. “I’m not going to sit around here and pander to your ego. Get out of town.”
A genuine smile broke out this time. “That’s good, since pandering to my ego isn’t your best thing. I’m not going to get out of town, though, even though I am now officially terrified to say so.”
“And why not?”
“I’ve got a girl.”
“So what else is new?”
“No, Kate, I mean, really. I’ve got a girl.”
She estimated the wattage of the glow on his face. “Why, Daniel Patrick O’Brian, as I live and breathe. Are you, by any chance, in love?”
He laughed. He might even have blushed. “Argghh, the “L” word, don’t scare me like that.”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to leave her, though.”
“Who is she?”
“She’s waiting tables at the Roadhouse. She’s great, Kate. I’ve never met anyone like her. She loves the outdoors, she loves the wildlife, she hikes and mountain bikes and she’s a good cross-country skier, she wants to learn how to climb and maybe take on Big Bump with me next summer. She’s gorgeous, too.” He paused. “I’ve got at least twenty years on her. I’ve been afraid to ask her how old she is. I don’t know what she sees in me.”
“Yeah,” Kate said. “Don’t worry. I do.”
He grinned, a little sheepish. “I’m heading out to the Roadhouse this afternoon. I’ll introduce you. And buy you a drink?”
“Sold. See you there.” She stopped to survey him from the door. Reassured by the sparkle in his eyes and the reappearance of the dimples in his cheeks, she turned and left, Mutt at her heels, flourishing her graceful plume of a tail like a pennant of friendship.
His smile lingered after they were gone. He had been feeling besieged, and if he was not mistaken, had just received a delegation from the relieving force.
Not so fun fact: This was the book I wrote the year of 9/11. It still amazes me that I or any of my colleagues managed to finish our books that year. I don’t remember writing most of it, and when I was launching the book at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale the owner, Barbara Peters, asked me where the rough and tumble love scene between Kate and Jim came from. All I could think of to say was, “Well, sometimes it happens like that.” Later I went back and read the passage and thought, “Yeah, where the hell did that come from?”
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.