from the 17th Kate Shugak novel


Memorial Day

Father Smith was the proud proprietor of a forty-acre homestead in the Park, a wife and seventeen children, all of whom still lived at home.  

Not that he would ever have admitted it, even to himself, this registered as nothing compared to the fact that he was the sole owner of the subsurface mineral rights to his forty acres, and that said forty acres abutted Beaver Creek.

Beaver Creek hosted a very nice run of king salmon in the summer, its many small feeder creeks offering narrow, shallow gravel beds for the salmon to lay and fertilize their eggs.  It also supported a healthy population of beaver.  It was one of the Park’s larger creeks, a fifteen-mile tributary of the Kanuyaq River that rose in the northernmost foothills of the Quilaks, drained south-southwest, and in high water was navigable to just above the Smith homestead.  It also formed the homestead’s eastern lot line.

The homestead had been previously owned by an Alaskan old fart who had staked a gold claim on Beaver Creek and had proved up on the homestead by building a cabin there and living in it.  Thirty years later, on the other side of a bad divorce, he’d been in a hurry to vacate the premises before his ex-wife, also known as Rebecca the Raptor, nudged her lawyer into investigating the property title with a view toward adding it to her rapidly accumulating pile of marital assets.

Father Smith had furnished the capital and Park rat Louis Deem the insider knowledge, and together they had gone equal partners on the purchase.  Things became complicated when Louis was murdered, but now, at long last Judge Singh in Ahtna had cleared the title and granted Father Smith clear title and sole ownership.  Joint rights of survivorship was a fine, statutory phrase, including all his subsequent heirs and assigns thereafter.  Seventeen heirs, eighteen if you counted Mother Smith, could prove troublesome, to each other and to the courts, but that, Lord willing, was a nice long time off and not to be worried over in the near future.  Man proposes, God disposes.

Judge Singh had arrived at her verdict despite a feeble and barely legal protest from Louis Deem’s roommate, sycophant and de facto co-heir Howie Kvasnikof, and a more ably argued but equally futile complaint by the Parks Service.  Father Smith did not consider Howie as a future problem.  The Parks Service was another matter, their tendency to regard all lands within their boundaries as under their absolute control well known to all Park rats, whether the property had been grandfathered in or not.  Father Smith had no doubt there were legal challenges from the Parks Service in store.  God tested the faithful in many ways.

But that was for the future.  It was time now to revel in the present.  Time now to draw up plans to extract the gold he knew was there, never mind the old fart’s assertion that he’d never pulled out more than an ounce of dust at a time.  A sluice box, perhaps, creek side.  Or, dare he think it, a dredge?  A small one, to begin with, and then he’d see.

A smile spread beneath the thick white beard that flowed from chin to waist.  His Carhartts bibs were frayed and stained, the black-and-red plaid Pendleton shirt beneath it patched and faded, and the Xtra Tuffs on his feet looked like they’d been gnawed on by ferrets, but there was a spring in his step and a sparkle in the bright blue eyes beneath the brim of the creased and grimy leather fedora he wore at a sober angle, as befit a man of substance and property.

He’d hitched a ride from the courthouse in Ahtna to Niniltna with Martin Shugak, who had a crush on Abigail, the eldest of Father Smith’s daughters.  In a place where men outnumbered women seven to one, that crush was shared by every other male Park rat between the ages of sixteen and forty.  Abigail, erstwhile fiancé of the late Louis Deem and the seal on the land deal between the two men, remained uninterested.  On the whole Father Smith was pleased.  He wanted a suitor for Abigail who would bring something more to the Smith table than raging testosterone.  A strong back, a willingness to work, and his own Caterpillar backhoe loader, say.  By all accounts, Martin Shugak was not that man, but a ride from Ahtna to Niniltna over fifty miles of lumpy, bumpy, unmaintained gravel road, offered for whatever reason, was not to be lightly refused.

Martin let him off at the edge of town after trying and failing to secure an invitation to dinner at some future date.  Niniltna was in the throes of its Memorial Day celebration, which featured a parade, to be followed shortly thereafter by a potluck barbecue at the gym.  The parade began with the white Blazer with the gold shield of the Alaska State Troopers on the door moving in slow and stately fashion up Riverside Drive, followed by a dozen veterans in clean but tattered uniforms, marching proudly out of step, with Demetri Totemoff and George Perry carrying the flags and Bobby Clark driving Jeff Talbot’s camo Jeep with Miss Niniltna sitting in the backseat.  Someone had coached her in the beauty queen wave, elbow-elbow, wrist-wrist.

An anonymous flatbed had been commandeered by the Niniltna Native Association and was manned by the four aunties, sitting in a half-circle on upright wooden chairs, a quilt checkered with the colors of all fifty state flags spread over their laps.  

Spaces between the floats were filled with every kid in Niniltna who had a trike, a bike or a four-wheeler, dressed in their interpretation — or their parent’s — of wounded Revolutionary War militia men bearing flag, fife and drum.  They clustered close behind the dump truck, and some of their imitation leather jerkins were so full they were leaking lines of candies, the instantly recognizable spoor of the eight-year old Niniltnan during a parade.

Because Global Harvest had indeed rolled out a gigantic dump truck, with a dozen employees of the Suulutaq Mine in the back clinging to the sides so they wouldn’t slide out.  This was because the bed was half-raised, inside which could be seen the employees where standing calf-deep in candy.  They were literally shoveling it over the side, a rain of — Father Smith stooped to scoop up a handful — mixed Jolly Ranchers and Dove Promises.

Everyone who wasn’t in the parade was watching it, and next to him Iris Meganack unwrapped one of the chocolates and gasped.  “Look!” she said, holding out the foil wrapped so people could see.

On the inside of the bright gold wrapper was the Suulutaq Mine logo, the golden sunburst with the line of mountains behind it.  You only had to raise your eyes to the horizon to see that line of mountains repeated against the eastern sky.

“That must have cost them a fortune,” Harvey Meganack said, respect warring with envy in his voice.

“Not as much as it cost them to bring that dump truck in from the mine,” someone else said.  “How the hell’d they do that, anyway?”



“Drove it in from Ahtna, hasn’t even been out to the mine yet.”

“I wonder if they’d rent it out?  I got a hundred yards of Bloody Creek gravel needs moving.  That puppy’d get it done in a day.”

The kids swooping down on the thrown candies paid no heed.  They were too busy stripping foil and stuffing chocolate into their mouths.

Father Smith pocketed his handful and went for more,  filling both pockets and pouch on his bibs with the candies.  He was only thinking of his kids back on the homestead.

He cheered the parade and appreciated the barbecue to the tune of three heaping plates worth, indifferent to or outright ignoring the baleful glance of the four aunties who had descended from the flatbed to work the serving line.  Afterward he hitched a ride up the Step Road with Oscar Jimenez, partner in a greenhouse with Keith Gette that marketed fresh greens to gourmet restaurants and wholesale food stores as far away as New York City and cut peonies in bulk to florists worldwide.  Rumor had it that they were partners in the carnal sense as well, which made them unnatural, godless freaks of nature and unclean to boot, not to mention no prospect as sons-in-law.  

However, he did notice that Oscar was driving a brand new Ford Super Duty Super Cab F350 V8 Turbo Diesel long bed pickup.  Their business must be doing very well indeed.  He wondered if perhaps it wasn’t his duty to try to help Oscar and Keith through the difficult task of accepting their true identities, to lead them from the homosexual wilderness into the heterosexual Promised Land.  God wanted to heal them.  Marriage was a part of that healing process.  He himself was God’s humble servant.

These musings were interrupting by the sudden realization that the leather seat felt very warm beneath his hindquarters.  He grabbed the dash, half rising, panicking at the thought that he’d wet himself.

“Sorry,” Jimenez said.  “Should have warned you.  Heated seats.”  He flicked a switch, and Father Smith subsided into the seat again, trying to hide his embarrassment.  He kept his hand on the door handle as a precaution against any assault on his virtue, as who knew what else could be expected from someone so self-indulgent as to own a vehicle with heated seats, and he debarked the truck with dispatch at the turnoff to his homestead.  He raised his hat and gave polite thanks for the lift, because there was no excuse for bad manners, and lost no time in hoofing it down the trail before Jimenez could offer to take him to his very doorstep.

The trail had been blazed out of the wilderness around bogs and rises to search out the most level ground with a D-6 Caterpillar tractor.  Today, around the second rise, Father Smith came upon a pickup truck parked in the middle of the trail.

This was odd, as ‘trail’ was something of a misnomer for the route into the Smiths’ homestead.  It wasn’t two years old, it had been maintained even less often than the main road, and its surface was not an invitation to regular traffic.  Parts of it were constantly under water, other parts had been retaken by belligerent alders determined not to be dispossessed.  To find a strange vehicle on the trail argued one of two possibilities, that its driver was either very lost, or was poaching game on the Park lands that abutted the Smith homestead.

It was an elderly Ford Ranger three-quarter ton, the bed empty, dark blue paint rusting beneath a solid layer of grime that appeared to have been accumulated during the life of the vehicle.  It had Washington state plates.  Father Smith approached with caution, pushing himself between the encroaching thicket of diamond willow just beginning to bud and the driver’s side of the truck.  “Hello?” he said.

The cab was empty.  He looked around.  Sparrows and chickadees were singing, crows and ravens were cawing, in the distance he heard the incongruously cheery chirrup of an eagle.  In the distance brush crunched beneath the feet of some larger animal. 

He suppressed the unworthy wish for something heavier in the way of defense than the aged hunting knife in the worn leather sheath strapped to his belt.  He reminded himself that God was on his side.  “Hello?” he said, raising his voice.  “Anybody around who belongs to this truck?”

No answer.

He put a tentative hand on the door handle.  It wasn’t locked.


Still no answer.  He opened the door and peered inside.

There was a handwritten note taped to the steering wheel.

He contemplated this in silence.  The truck, parked on the trail to his homestead, was in itself an anomaly.  A note taped to the steering wheel was bizarre.

He would have been less than human if he had not yielded to curiosity and read it.

The note had been written in black ink with a broad nib, printed on a blank eight and a half by eleven inch sheet of paper, in large block letters, neat, upright, legible.  The content was direct and to the point.

I am returning my body to nature.

I do this of my own free will.

Please do not look for me.

“Oh my god,” Father Smith said, with a dismaying lack of reverence.  “Hello?  Hello!  Hello, out there!”  He cupped his hands and shouted.  “Come back!  Come on, nothing’s so bad that you have to do something like this!  God loves you!  You can come home with me, have a meal, be with my family!  Hello?  Hello!”

He called and shouted for a good quarter of an hour, but only the birds replied.

Fun fact: “Kill your darlings.”–Stephen King

And I do.

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the 23rd Kate Shugak novel
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