Authors: J. Clayton Rogers
I strayed, abandoning the rightful path,
And found myself within a gloomy wood.
Dante (Bergin translation)
The third time they heard the sound they did not jump as far. Although they still had no idea what was causing it, repetition induced a kind of boredom. Even the Unknown could become tedious if it boasted anonymity enough times.
"Ice breaking up?" Cumiskey posed.
Lieutenant Hart shook his head. "All the ice is gone."
"Might be some left coming down the Salmon." Cumiskey found it hard to believe there were places above the Arctic Circle where ice could disappear. It went against his boyhood notion that the Alaskan Territory was a great white wasteland. But the U.S. Army had disillusioned him of any number of fairy tales, not least of which being the impression that seals and polar bears were not the exclusive forms of life north of the forty-six states.
"Think it's something... you know,
?" he asked pensively.
"It doesn't sound dead, does it?" Hart snapped. He was annoyed by Cumiskey's dread. No, he had no idea what made the sound first heard the night before. Lieutenant Hart had scattered the men of his small expedition in order to find firewood for the night. He cautioned them to watch out for wolves. But he also knew that cottonwood, spruce, alder and willow were plentiful hereabouts. His men would not have to range far.
Then the sound. Neither a threatening roar nor a hair-raising screech. Yet its very oddity threw the men into a panic and sent them running pell-mell back to camp. It was a brief sound, preceded by a kind of diphthongized pluck at the air--a vibrato so low and intimate that it almost sounded as if it was coming from within their own heads. "Like goin' up a mountain and havin' your ears pop," someone said later that night.
"Tooo... nel..." the sound went.
There were only a few huskies in camp, yet they set up a howl like a dozen sled teams. The expedition expected to return to Point Hope long before the return of winter, when sledding would become necessary. The dogs had been brought along for canine companionship, not transportation. They provided a strange comfort. As if, being half wild, they could act as ambassadors of conciliation between the men and the wilderness.
But the first time they heard the sound they seemed as startled and terrified as the young soldiers. They did not dart forward as though to attack the sound source and they did not run because they did not know if there was a need to. They stood in place. And howled. Only after Hart beat them did they stop. The men could tell he really wanted to beat them--to somehow erase the evidence of their cowardice.
"Hell, sir, it ain't as if we're real soldiers," Cumiskey groused, peering out over the Kiltik and Salmon Rivers. They were at the base of a small peninsula that looked down upon the confluence of the rivers. They could see the pellucid water churned white by migrating salmon beating their way into the shallower Kiltik. The soldiers had feasted on graylings the night before--a meal some of them nearly lost when the thin forest again pitched the chant-like moan in their direction. No one volunteered to hunt down the source. And by now Hart knew better than to order them beyond the light of the campfires.
Certainly, it had given Hart pause next morning when he considered slipping away early with his Remington. But this was ideal bear country. It would be a shame to miss this opportunity. Ordering Cumiskey to come along with him decided things nicely. Not only would he have companionship, but a witness to the fact that there was nothing to fear.
Hart noted the damnedest looking island in the middle of the Salmon. More like a huge dune, only dark and glistening. Nothing crawled on it. No birds alighted, though it would have made an ideal perch for the fish hawks waiting to tear into the jagged meat of dying salmon. The island was out of place.
Like the sound.
Like the United States Army?
Cumiskey's disparaging comment had hit the nail squarely. Outside of the frequent pistol shots that punctuated the gritty life of mining settlements, not one of Hart's men had ever heard a shot fired in anger. The heroics of the Spanish-American War, only a baker's dozen years past, were but vivid tales told by the top cutters in the barracks.
But everyone was
things these days. The world was a busy place and America had made a conscious decision to be the busiest of the lot. If she wasn't putting it to the Spanish or Boxers, she was putting it to the earth itself. Witness the gargantuan undertaking in Panama. When finished, the Canal would make the Pyramids look like Lincoln Logs. Everyone said it. The Brits, the Germans, the French, the Japs.... The world--yes, the world was livid with envy of the new giant.
The nervous, excess energy transported down the ranks of soldiers and civilians alike. If the armed forces had their fata morgana, so too did the citizenry--a four-letter word that bespoke a world of evil and a heaven of good.
Hart and his men had to pass through the gold region on their way up to Napatka country. They'd seen their share of rough places. They were with the Signal Corps, after all. They unraveled mile after mile of telegraph wire over unspeakable terrain just so the generals back home could avoid that terrain. While not front line troops, they'd seen their share of hardships.
Still, Kotzbue threw them. The U.S. Marshals who patrolled the mining camps were not so much peacekeepers as undertakers. Kotzbue boomed in every way. For every lode... how many corpses? Sulfur, rosin, pitch and saltpeter. Gold, guns, a crowd of men and a dearth of women. Only a preacher could decide which was more explosive and there were not many preachers around.
Lieutenant Hart was determined to get his men out before they too were infected by the fever. He set out to purchase canoes from the natives. He found it strange dealing with the Eskimos and Aleuts. Like Private Cumiskey, he had a number of preconceptions about the Great White North. Certainly, he had not expected to find the natives living in cabins instead of igloos or turning a dollar in Nome rather than hunting seals in the Bering Sea.
When a young Noatak caught his attention and showed him a craft entirely new to his experience, Hart was captivated and forgot his doubts.
Constructed in a variety of sizes, the bidarkis were intriguing vessels. The struts were cocooned in seal skin. Settling himself into one made for a single man, Hart felt snug as coffee in a cup. He took the odd two-flat oar in hand and set course across a small creek.
He immediately fell in love. This was the closest a man could come to being a fish without actually going under water. Unlike the canoe, which sat with bland resolution on the surface, the bidarki was so low
that the occupant was
, in effect,
the water, yet dry. The bidarki put Hart on whispering terms with the river bottom. Having grown up in Missouri, this was as much aquatic mystery as one needed.
Elated with the craft, Hart brought out his notions. In a place where a well-knit animal skin could prove the difference between life and death, sewing needles ranked near the top in local rates of exchange. In no time, Hart had a small fleet and was on his way.
Laurels were not something one could rest on in this busy world. Which was why Lieutenant Hart and his men had been sent up the Kiltik that July of 1907. Someone in the chain of command had decided to look into the possibility of setting up a telegraph line between Unalakleet and Point Barrow. A whaling crew trapped by winter ice could then signal its predicament to rescue crews in the south. At least, that was what the signalmen were told. A few of them believed they knew better.
Lieutenant Hart, for one.
"I want you to find a way to put that line in, Lieutenant," the colonel at the Presidio had told him. "We can't keep having our whalers going over to the Siberian Peninsula every time they get into trouble. Looks bad, the Tsar getting credit for saving American lives. This is for the honor of the country, Hart. The honor of the
Which suited Hart fine until the colonel added, "You'll be going into country not many white men have seen, if any. I hear even the natives stay pretty much downriver. Well... between you and me... if you happen to find anything up there, Hart... anything that glitters, shall we say... keep it to yourself. Just bring the news back to me and we'll work it out from there. Clear, Lieutenant?"
But America was young, America was virile, America was cloaked in manifest destiny. A little duplicity on the side couldn't hurt, right? Hart did, after all, work for the country that had produced J. P. Morgan.
All these concerns slipped from his mind as he came under sway of Alaska's hard-earned glacial scars. On foggy mornings, with the Baird Mountains looming to the north, it seemed they were babes lolling in the cradle of creation.
A nudge at his shoulder. Cumiskey was pointing at something.
When Hart spotted the huge bear lumbering up the shore he pulled on Cumiskey's elbow. "Lay low, you idiot!" he hissed.
Cumiskey began to protest, but a second glance at the bear convinced him. He flattened down hard.
"That's no grizzly." Hart's excited whisper mixed dread and elation. "That's a brown!"
The brown bear was moving up the Kiltik towards the shallows of the Salmon. Every time it caught a flash of silver from the river it pumped its legs a little harder. Roughly twice the size of its grizzly cousin, the great brown's eyes gleamed. The two men watching could almost swear it was grinning in anticipation of the meal ahead.
The Remington felt ready and nimble at Hart's side. He was going to bag a brown! Not as large as some of the great browns he'd seen on Kodiak Island. Still... a brute. At least eight hundred pounds. Hart was already calculating ways to ready the head and pelt for shipment back to Point Hope. And God knew he was ready for bear steak after all the fish they'd eaten.
Slowly, he drew the rifle up. The cool barrel brushed his cheek. Prone like this, it was difficult drawing a bead on the moving target.
But the target had stopped moving.
The men held their breath. How could it have detected them? A steady breeze was hitting them in the face. They shared a brief nightmarish vision of the bear charging up the slope. If Hart missed with his one shot, the huge claws would quickly finish them.
Hart indulged in a slim sigh of relief as the bear looked away from them towards the Kiltik. Curiosity prompted him to ease off on the trigger ever so slightly. What in the world was it looking at?
"No... there's something...."
The bear hunched back and sniffed the air. It seemed confused. A low grunt precisely defined its perplexity.
"Lieutenant!" Cumiskey jumped to his feet. "Oh God, Lieutenant!"
The bear heard the shout but never finished its turn. Something leaped out of the water about forty feet upriver from the odd island Hart had noted. In half a second a line of water between the object and the island erupted, showing them to be connected. Something like a rocket sliced the air. There was a brief animal screech, then an explosion of blood where the bear had been.
In shock, the men watched as the creature in the river lifted the bear higher, higher. Only the bear's rear legs and head showed outside the huge trap of teeth. Its jaw kept working, as though its last thought was of the salmon breakfast it was missing.
The monster gave a small toss of its head and the last vestiges of the bear disappeared. A lump formed in the neck of the beast and rolled slowly downward, vanishing at the base near the mass Hart had mistaken for an island.
The gun bucked hard when he fired. Though he had no doubt he'd hit it, the monster did not react.