from the 20th Kate Shugak novel

Tuesday, July 10th

Kushtaka

Tyler Mack was an eighteen-year old stick of post-adolescent dynamite just waiting for the right match.  He was smart in all the wrong ways, using his intelligence chiefly to conspire with Boris Balluta, his best friend and coconspirator since childhood, on ways and means to avoid manual labor.

Of medium height, built mostly of muscle and bone, Tyler had thick dark hair that flopped into dark brown eyes that always seemed to be more focussed on his next deal than the person he was talking to.  He was a shirttail relative of Auntie Edna in Niniltna, which made the entire Shugak clan part of his extended family in Byzantine ways known only to its elders.  Auntie Edna considered him a member of her personal tribe and was quick to grab him up by the ear when word of his activities came her way.  Tyler, as quick as he was lazy, took good care to keep his ears out of her reach.

But this morning he hadn’t been quick enough, his Uncle Pat having dumped him out of bed at sunup, which in mid-July was two a.m., and booted him into his clothes and on his way upriver with without so much as a mug of coffee to get his heart started.  

It was a beautiful morning, clear and cool.  Mist smoked up from the surface of the water, broken temporarily by the bow of the skiff moving upriver, closing in again behind its stern.  Night, in summer only a suggestion of twilight between midnight and two a.m., gave way to an intensifying rim of gold on that part of the horizon stretching from the northeast all the way around to the southwest.  Uncle Pat’s outboard was so finely tuned and so diligently maintained that its muted purr was barely audible above the rush of water beneath the skiff’s hull. Eagles chittered from treetops. A moose cow and two leggy calves foraged for the tenderest shoots of willow on one bank.  Around a bend a grizzly boar sleeping peacefully on a gravel bar woke with a snort and glared around nearsightedly. He rolled to all four paws and gave himself a good shake, his thick golden pelt moving almost independently of the rich layer of fat beneath, and lumbered into the water to bat out a morning snack of red salmon. 

Tyler noticed none of this. He hated working the fish wheel almost as much as he hated getting up before the crack of noon.  Working the fish wheel was way too wet and entailed way too much heavy lifting for a man clearly meant for a cushier life.  Uncle Pat was well able to tend to the fish wheel himself, eleven hundred years old or not.  Tyler had had plans for today, plans that involved Boris and a scheme that was going to make them both rich enough to escape the influence of old farts like Uncle Pat and Auntie Edna once and for all and set their feet on the path to riches and the high life.  Park Strip condos in Anchorage, fitting themselves out in Armani at Nordstrom, parties at the Bush Company, weekends in Vegas.  They’d be MVP Gold on Alaska Airlines before the year was out, and then everyone who’d ever showed Tyler Mack the back of their hand had better by god look out.  Tyler was on his way to the big time, and no one and nothing was going to get in his way. He’d already proved that once, and he was ready to do it again, any place, any time.

He imagined Uncle Pat coming to him for a loan for a new kicker or a new shotgun, and smiled to himself. Of course he would give him the money. Of course he would.  He only hoped the old man would stroke out trying to say thank you.

Two miles above Kushtaka village, the river had carved a wide loop in the face of the landscape.  Cottonwood grew in clumps on the curve, thick trunks covered with coarse bark looming thirty feet over the alder and diamond willow jostling for place below.  The soft wood of the cottonwood tree made it prone to snap off in high winds.  Cottonwood scrags formed bridges for the alder and willow to lean on and trail leafy fingers in the water beneath.  Together they cast welcome shadows over the gravel shallows for weary salmon returning home to spawn.

The Mack family had had a fish wheel just below that gravel bar since 1901, when a stampeder, one Joshua Malachi Smith, had struck out panning for gold and got lost on his way to Valdez for a boat home. Daniel Mack found him trying to catch salmon with his bare hands, and the Kushtakans took him in before he starved to death or died of exposure, whichever came first.  In return, he taught them how to build a fish wheel, a series of buckets on a wheel caused by the current of the river to rotate on an axle.  The buckets scooped up the fish on their way upriver and dumped them into a chute that led to a holding pen.  When the salmon were running, the holding pen had to be emptied two and three times a day. During a good run, sometimes more.

The first fish wheel was made of woven willow, which did not stand up well to a current made swift and strong by runoff from a winter’s worth of snow, and had to be rebuilt every spring.  Today, the Mack fish wheel was made of stainless steel and mesh, held together with nuts and bolts.  It was indestructible as well as portable, designed to be removed from the water at the end of each season and rebuilt at the edge of the river again every spring.

A fat red jumped on Tyler’s left, falling back against the water with a rich, full smack! The sun peeped over the Quilaks just in time to turn the resulting flash of droplets into liquid diamonds, suspending them momentarily in midair before they fell back into the river, itself a moving, jeweled surface pregnant with mystery and treasure. 

None of which did Tyler take any notice of, and this in a year in which king salmon were scarce and cloudy, rainy days plentiful. 

What he did see as he nosed the skiff into the bank next to the fish wheel, was Jennifer Mack in a skiff on the other side of the river. The wrong side of the river, which is what you might expect from a girl, who had no business anywhere near a fish wheel anyway.

He opened his mouth to ask her what the hell she thought she was doing — maybe he could blackmail her into working the wheel today while he was at it — when he caught sight of a second figure, a man standing in the alders at the foot of the set of stairs leading down to the gravel bar that served as Kuskulana’s landing.  The man stepped forward to catch the bowline she threw and hitched it to a tree branch.

It was Ryan Christianson, and the outraged yell died in the back of Tyler’s throat, unuttered.

Pat Mack’s outboard was so quiet that neither of them heard or saw Tyler, or maybe they were just too concentrated on each other to be aware of anything else.  They vanished into the undergrowth as if they’d never been there.  He would have doubted his own eyes were it not for the skiff, the name, Jennifer M., painted plainly across the stern for all to see.  Or rather, her father’s skiff.  Even without the name, Tyler would have recognized that elderlyNew England dory with the blue paint fading to white anywhere between here and Cordova.

He realized his own skiff was drifting out from shore and he gunned the outboard to nose it back in.  The aluminum hull grated against the gravel and he hopped out and tugged it up out of the water close to the fish wheel, all the while his mind busy with speculation.  What was his cousin, Jennifer, a Kushtaka Mack, doing meeting Ryan, a Kuskulana Christianson? And at this hour of the morning?

He pulled on rough rubber gloves that reached well past his elbows and hooked the suspenders of his hip waders over his shoulders. The water next to the fish wheel’s bin was teeming with salmon and he didn’t even sigh at the sight.

Give him credit, he tried to be fair. He tried to think of all the reasons why Jennifer would be meeting Ryan on the wrong side of the river this early in the morning, and in the end could only come up with the obvious.  If there had been any doubt, it would have been wiped clean by the way Jen’s hand went into Ryan’s, sure, easy, familiar.  She’d put the boat in at his feet and he’d been standing in exactly the right spot to catch her bow line, too. It wasn’t the first time they’d met there.

Tyler’s eyes narrowed.  So, he knew something he hadn’t before. What was in it for him?

He’d have to talk it over with Boris. Boris always had all the best ideas.


Fun fact: Shakespeare got all his ideas from someone else, too. Yes, he did.


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the 23rd Kate Shugak novel
coming April 11, 2023
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Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

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