Jake Barnes didn’t often wear a gun, but he would be now. He was fully aware of the hand cannon’s weight hanging beneath his raincoat. The long barrel on his 44 Magnum revolver made for a difficult fast draw, should he need it. He also had his 12-gauge persuader–a short-barrel stainless steel pump shotgun, and his .30-06 rifle. The rifle packed one helluva wallop but was not well-suited for use in the heavy brush and thick forest. The shotgun was better for close range defense, shooting from the hip, and it could handle the rain.
It rained here a lot. In this part of the country, his firearms and raingear would be his constant companions. Defending himself wasn’t a game. He knew a confrontation could come at any time, and there was no secure place here to barricade himself, until he built it. That was his job.
When Jake left home right out of high school, it wasn’t to ‘find himself.’ He had a plan. And it didn't include working in a factory like the rest of his family. He wanted to get as far away from his venomous hometown as possible. He had a dream, of life as a mountain man in a remote cabin, hunting, fishing and growing his own food.
Until his last year in high school Jake thought Colorado would be the place to settle. Then John Denver came along singing about his Rocky Mountain High, and it seemed like every back-to-the-land hippie was moving to the state of mountains and tall pines.
So straight after twelfth-grade graduation, with not much more than a dream in his pocket, Jake hitchhiked nearly four thousand miles from the dinge and wreckage of the Motor City to America’s last frontier, Alaska.
Alaska, he came to find out, is the land of misfits. It’s full of characters, eccentrics or just plain wackos some might say, and every one of them has a story, which may very well change depending on who’s listening. Very few of Alaska’s inhabitants were actually born there. Most everyone, like Jake, was from somewhere else. Eccentrics and oddballs are drawn to the mindset of Alaska like salmon returning to their birth-stream. There’s no scientific explanation for these mysterious forces in the universe. Why do salmon return to the stream where they were hatched? Why are the misfits drawn to Alaska, home of the free and other endangered species?
What Jake did know was that he wasn’t going to take shit or abuse ever again from authorities or perverts. No way was he going to live in that kind of fear. But this here was a different kind of fear.
Jake did his best to suppress and hide those feelings from the past, but hadn’t been able to shake the shame. Growing up, most of his buddies thought their fathers were assholes; he wasn’t different in that sense. He didn’t expound on it, but he didn’t keep it a secret from Kat. But the other deal–Jake spent years dreaming of revenge. His version of justice wasn’t something he would share with anyone.
Once Jake made it to the land of the midnight sun, finding employment was never a problem. He worked hard and learned fast.
Over the past eight years since he’d made Alaska his home, he’d learned mechanics, carpentry, plumbing and basic electrical work, mountaineering and winter survival, boat handling, and most of the skills needed to fulfill his aspiration. He wanted to survive when all the rest of the world went to shit. He felt like it was well under way.
That’s one thing he could agree on with his father, the world wasgoing to hell in a hand basket. For Dad, it was all about the Book of Revelationsand the second coming of Christ. For Jake, it was about politics run amuck, pollution, greed and corruption. The perversion of religion angered Jake to no end.
Jake hadn’t seen the inside of a church since his parents stopped forcing him to attend when he turned fifteen. So it was a surprise when the family’s minister showed up at the front door one evening shortly after Jake announced he was leaving after graduation to fend for himself.
He sat fidgeting at the kitchen table with the minister across from him when his parents got up and left the house so the two of them could talk in private.
The preacher tried to convince Jake that he was throwing his life away by not going to college and not taking Jesus as his personal savior. “You’re a smart kid, Jacob, I know you don’t want a factory job. I don’t blame you. I know your family can’t afford to send you to a big university, but we might be able to help with a partial scholarship to the Holy Redeemer Christian College. I believe it can straighten you out from all these crazy ideas you have.”
Jake tensed the muscles in his thighs and crossed his arms. He was ready to tell the preacher to eff-off.
“You can’t outrun the devil, Jacob. Another thing, in addition to theology, I also majored in psychology. I know about your family’s history, Jacob. I know all about their delusions and the treatments they had to endure. I know you better than you know yourself.”
Jake clenched his fists. “You didn’t care about me before and you don’t know anything about me now.”
Pastor Walker laughed. “You’re an open book! You’ve got a messiah complex, Jacob. And I’m here to tell you that you can’t save the world, or even your own soul–only Jesus can do that. Pray with me now; take Jesus into your heart and let him take those burdens.”
“Last time I prayed,” Jake cut him off, “things only got worse. I don’t need your church, and I don’t need you telling me what to do. Some help you’ve been. The one time I came to you–”
“Look, if this is about–”
“Save your breath and look at your own soul, you hypocrite. You’re the last person I want advice from. I can quote the Bible too. Jesus warned about false prophets claiming–”
“I never claimed to be a prophet.”
“Jesus also warned about the Antichrist, a liar and deceiver in sheep’s clothing. You straight-faced lied to me, then told my parents that–“
“Now hold on. I did what was best for you, but I see you’re still nothing more than a rude, smart-ass little teenager who thinks he knows everything. Maybe you do belong in Alaska or a California commune with the rest of the godless hippies. I’m trying to help you see the error of your ways before you end up in a mental hospital.”
Jake’s chair fell over as he sprang up. He squared his jaw and drew back his fist. There was murder in his eyes. “You’d better get the hell out of here before I send you to a hospital myself.”
Pastor Walker slowly stood up and took a step back. “Tough little eighteen-year-old,” he sneered. “You think you can take me on? I may be a man of God, but I can still take a punk like you.”
“Good! Then let’s step outside and I’ll show you what I can do. You’re no man of God. You’re nothing more than a piece of shit, like Vince. I’ll take that cocksucker down if I ever see him again, and I’ll take you down right here and now! Come on, you chicken-shit pussy.”
The preacher put his hands up. “No. I won’t play your game. I’d only get blamed for assaulting a minor. It’s obvious your father didn’t beat enough sense into you early on. I’ll still pray for you, Jacob Barnes.”
“He beat me enough to know I can take anything you can dish out, and you’ll reap what you’ve sown ten times over, motherfucker! And eighteen is not a minor anymore. So you and me, man to man. No excuses, you two-faced, lying son of a bitch! You want to pray? You better pray I don’t leave your brains all over the sidewalk.”
The preacher kept his hands up as he backed himself to the door. “I rebuke the demon inside you,” he shouted as he stepped outside. “May God have mercy on your corrupted soul.”
Jake stood watching through the open front door as the preacher got into his car. He didn’t feel the blood dripping from his knuckles after his fist pounded the kitchen tabletop. As the preacher began driving away from the curb, Jake grabbed the bottle of milk from the counter, ran through the front door to chase the preacher’s car, and heaved the bottle at it. It fell far short, but the sound of shattering glass and the explosion of milk covering the street made him feel better.
The neighbors were not surprised.
Jake kept those memories to himself. There was still a big part of him that was proud of how he acted back then. There was still a part of him scared of what he could do when pushed. No need to share that with anyone.
Jake found that he fit in with the rest of the Alaskan misfits pretty well. What he still hadn’taccomplished was to save enough money to buy his dream. He’d come to realizedreams aren’t free–or cheap.
His buddy Kevin was a real estate wheeler and dealer who also wanted a homestead on his own piece of wilderness–but strictly for vacations. Kevin found the ideal spot in this little cove on Kachemak Bay. It was far enough from civilization to keep him isolated, and yet close enough to not be a nightmare for getting supplies. Best of all, there was only one other cabin in the cove.
Kevin had the money, but not the time or skills to construct a homestead. They struck a deal that Jake would build it for him.
So here he was, twenty-six years old, finally fulfilling his vision and scared shitless. The tent, his new home for now, was nestled in the tall trees above the rocky point leading down to the water’s edge, and only a short distance to the brink of the cliffs that bordered this side of the cove.
The surrounding mountains peaks were obscured as the ceiling of rain-soaked clouds dropped ever lower. Wispy fragments of the shredded overcast sky filtered down through the wide branches of towering Alaskan Spruce closing in around him. Some of these trees were nearly two hundred years old, and some of them wouldn’t be getting any older by the time Jake was through.
The ocean was muddy-gray in the distance, blending into shades of green and turquoise close to the shore. It was calm and flat as a farm pond, the surface only dimpled by the light rainfall. The droning outboard of Kevin’s boat was barely audible as it faded away into the veil of drizzle and fog.
Kevin had only stayed long enough to help erect the tent and haul up supplies from the boat before he turned tail and headed back to town. His two-seater Piper Super Cub was at the small airfield in Homer. Kevin would fly the small plane home to his chalet in Greenwood. His wife, Judy, would have a hot dinner and cold drink waiting.
Jake pulled his hat down tight over his long hair, turned and stumbled through the stiff underbrush up to the tent. He stepped under the tent awning and rolled a cigarette. He rationalized that his loose tobacco in a pouch was healthier, and cheaper, than store-bought factory loads. He also rationalized that the smoke kept the mosquitoes and voracious black flies away from his face and out of his beard. He was good at rationalizing–if not always accurate. Smoking, a little toking and a little drinking were his only bad habits. Or so he figured.
Exhaling a heavy sigh, he cupped the fag inside his hand to protect it from the rain, thinking about what he’d gotten himself into with this deal.
Kat was an unplanned part of his dream. On one hand, he did want to share his homestead aspiration with the right woman. On the other hand, he’d been enjoying the freedoms and irresponsibility of bachelorhood until recently.
He met Kat on the ski slopes above Greenwood, the town he called home. He thought she was just another ski-bunny to chase and another notch to mark on his belt, but after a few dates together, he found himself more than a bit infatuated. Kat was a girl with brains and ambitions. She was teaching aerobics at a health club in Anchorage while taking her science pre-reqs at the community college.
Shortly after he met this new love of his life Jake began to seriously reconsider his plans of a permanent move out into the wilderness. After six months of dating, they moved in together. They were still learning about each other as they went along.
When Kevin approached Jake with his offer to build the homestead, Kat fully supported the plan. She wanted Jake to finish sowing any wild oats and be ready to settle in serious with her. She could put up with his bad habits, but his days of running off to go hunting or fishing with his buddies at the drop of a hat would be over.
He finished his smoke while watching the incoming tide flood the small beach between the cliffs. These were some of the highest tides in the world; he didn’t want to be caught down there when the surge rolled in. In only a few hours, the water would cover the beach and be over ten feet up the slick rock walls.
Staring off into the distance he reviewed his mental list of the work for tomorrow:
Clear out the brush and undergrowth around the tent. (I need to see anyone or thing, approaching).
Make a fire pit (Everything’s going to mildew in all this dampness).
Build a bear-proof container for the food.
He felt a nervous shiver knowing he’d never hear a predator approaching in the battering rain. The freakin’ bears!
His biggest fear was surviving an attack, but ending up maimed and scarred for life. He’d heard too many stories to underestimate the horror of an Alaskan grizzly, or brown bear attack.
They’d seen three brownies in the meadow above the homestead property when they flew Kevin’s Super Cub over to check out the area. Jake craned his neck against the cold window to watch the mother and her cubs run up the mountainside, busting through brush and jumping creeks at a speed that was astounding. Jake knew it would take him an hour to traverse the same ground that they had just covered in a few short minutes.
New project: Blaze a trail over to the long beach on the west side of the cove. Clear out the boulders and set up a windsock. Kevin needs to land the plane on this side of the bay.
Once Kevin could fly in and out from the beach, Jake would keep the boat here at the homestead. Until then, he was stranded–and the bears kept circling his thoughts.
Right on cue, branches rustled behind him. He tried to spin around but his bulky rubber boots tripped him up. In clumsy fear, he fumbled for the big gun under his jacket. His heart pounded as he tried to steady the heavy barrel and draw a bead on the movement. His ears rang as the .44 Magnum blew splinters out of a tree fifty feet away. A furious squirrel ran up the tree and chattered back in anger. Jake clenched his jaw and squinted as he tried to steady the bead for another shot. He was not bolstered with confidence, but he was glad that it was only a squirrel that startled him. I hope to hell I’m carrying the shotgun when the time comes.
It was just as exciting as it was a pain in the ass to wear the heavy hand-cannon. “It’s a guy thing,” he’d explained to Kat. “You feel differentwith a sidearm strapped on, or a rifle over your shoulder. More secure. But,” he conceded, “also like you’re lookingfor trouble.”
Jake felt the same way about Kat; she offered security and excitement, but she could be a pain in the ass when she got hard-headed. And her aim was spot-on deadly when she shot her irate eyes at anyone who pissed her off.
But, she was worth it–he hoped. Especially since only a week before he came down here for the summer, he’d suggested they get married. He thought she would have, should have, known better, considering he was half-drunk at the time. His reputation for not getting nailed down by any woman–so far–had preceded him. But to his surprise, she said yes.
Engaged. It still sounded strange. They hadn’t set a date yet. Jake hadn’t told many friends or his family down in the ‘Lower 48,’ the Alaskan’s reference to the rest of the country. He figured he’d wait till they finalized all the details. Maybe he’d even wait till they were already married before he announced it to his own family.
Kat argued that that would be awkward. Jake argued that there wasn’t a lot of love lost in his family. There was only one nephew he had any interest in. He barely mentioned the relatives who were fully diagnosed, bona fide crazy. Or worse, the ones who weren’t diagnosed, but he knew had their own demons.
Though he was looking forward to spending the rest of his life with Kat, Jake knew this would be his last summer of freedom to chase his dream. And now he was finally doing it.
The air smelled of spruce and hemlock, moss, salt water and muck. Jake kicked the dirt clods off his boots and stepped inside the tent. It was an old, soiled, musty and moldy, mustard-yellow canvas affair held up by bent and dented aluminum poles that framed the outside like an umbrella. It had seen better days. A more merciful man would have retired it years ago, but for now it was home.
It was early May and dusk wouldn’t formally arrive for hours in these northern latitudes, but the thick cloud cover darkened the forest understory. And the tent, after many years’ worth of accumulated grunge, made it even darker inside.
He switched on the small battery-powered radio and tuned in to the only station, KHOM, from Homer. It was Blues Hour and they were spinning this new guy from Texas, Stevie Ray Vaughn.
Homer was only seven miles across the bay but it may as well have been a hundred. Without a sturdy boat and dependable engine to cross the rough waters, Jake felt as isolated as the lepers banished to Molokai. There were no roads to this side of the bay and no safe spots to anchor a boat close to shore, until he set up a running line between deep water and the rocky point. There was nothing here to attract tourists or even those few locals who lived along this side of the bay. It was a solitary piece of rugged property surrounded by state and federal land. That’s why Kevin was so attracted to it; no one would show up to bother him. No one would be moving in next door.
The Blues Hour was over. Dang it, he cursed to himself for forgetting to bring the mix tape Kat had made him.He would much rather be listening to Pink Floyd and the Moody Blues than the old-timey hillbilly music coming up next. At least they’re not playing that disco shit!
He lit the gas lantern before unrolling his foam pad and sleeping bag on the tent floor. The hissing lantern threw off enough heat to warm the tent so Jake could take off his jacket and rain pants. Checking the safety on the shotgun, he carefully laid it down next to his bed. The .30-06 leaned against the card table. Though he didn’t want to admit that he was more than a touch unnerved. He also didn’t want to be more than a step away from a weapon.
He cracked a cold beer, seated himself in the rickety camp chair, pulled out his stash tin and packed a small pipe with Matanuska Thunderfuck, Alaska’s own homegrown strain of weed. He wouldn’t take more than a couple hits, just enough to take the edge off and relax a little. Any more than that, and he knew his bear paranoia would be overwhelming.
Both the folding chair and card table sat crooked and unsteady. Preparation of the ground beneath the tent floor was a hasty hack job to say the least. Trying to sit in the tottering chair was an active endeavor. He set the legal pad and pencil in front of him on the table, opened a box of crackers and began to write down all the little chores to engage his coming days before he could actually start building the cabin.
He drifted off into little stoned daydreams, thinking about Kat and his future, forgetting about time as he listened to the radio. His foot began tapping to the goofy swing sound of the Jug Band’s, ”Way Down in Borneo.”
God, if that shit don’t keep the bears away, I don’t know what will!
He smiled, remembering the crazy image of the ‘Wild Man of Borneo’ from an old Little Rascalsepisode he’d watched on Saturday morning TV. His mother used to threaten Jake that she’d sell him to the ‘Wild Man,’and his cousin, the ‘Boogeyman’ if he didn’t behave.
And Jake hadmisbehaved much of his young life–even before the episodes with Vince and Pastor Walker. Not that he was a criminal or a bad person, but he wasa non-conformist. He was more than a tad of a rebel who loved to question authority. They were the perfect credentials for fitting into the Alaskan personality-scape.
Music hour was over and the broadcast returned to the national news–more crazy shit, as always.
He reached over and turned off the radio. Rain droned lightly on the tent top. No need to hear what was going on out in that ‘civilized’ world out there. His only worries now were: bears, drowning, breaking a leg, eating bad mayonnaise, drinking contaminated water, accidentally shooting himself, cutting off a finger or severing an artery with the ax or chainsaw.
Yeah, that’s comforting, he told himself.
Undressing down to his long johns, he turned out the lantern and crawled into his sleeping bag. The light slowly receded as the darkness chased it from the mildewed corners of the old tent.
In the space now left by the quiet radio, he could hear the rustling of every leaf outside. He felt for the shotgun one more time, fingered the safety off and wondered if he’d ever get to sleep. He hoped to have interesting dreams, flying dreams, or erotic dreams–not interrupted by bears, the Wild Man of Borneo or his cousin the Boogeyman.