Charlie Roundtree returns to the Alaskan mountains where his Native American father died, to spend time with his so-called uncle whom he suspects of murder; by Michael Stewart.
Cracking the window in the cab of his truck the cool Alaskan air rushed in. It smelled like the mountains, like evergreens, fresh and uncorrupt. But offered little relief for his queasiness. Another hour passed and Charlie Roundtree breathed in deep trying to quell the feelings that brewed inside him.
He dreaded this trip for years now, yet he knew it needed to be taken. Feeling all the signs of sickness, coming on like a cold fever, he wondered if he would pass out from the anxiety. He didn't like confrontation, it made his chest tighten. Charlie stepped out of his truck in the sunny forty-degree weather and stretched out the soreness of his seventeen-hour drive from Juneau.
He stood in front of the one-story building with town hall written on the glass door. A slight breeze blew from the west and made the air feel a few degrees cooler.
Mayor Hadly, Uncle Steve to Charlie, had been after him to come spend a little guy time for years now. Do a little hunting or just get out and enjoy the outdoors.
Taking a deep breath of fresh air before entering the building, he noticed his reflection in the clean glass of the door and pushed it open to the sound of jingling bells. He looked left at the Public Works door and then right at middle aged heavy-set woman staring at Charlie, waiting for him to notice her. He blew out his breath and smelled the musty interior of the old building.
"I'm here to see Mayor Hadly," Charlie said.
"And you are?" the woman asked.
"Oh, I think he's expecting you, go down the hall and to the left Mr. Roundtree." She said pointing down the hall.
The floor creaked under his weight. The old building had been here since the mid-fifties. A few miles down the main street, a building under construction was half finished. The air inside and particularly down the hallway smelled like the air had been left behind from the nineteen-fifties. It smelled stale, almost making him gag. It added to his already nauseous feeling and threatened to overwhelm him. An over-painted, old white door had a gold placard with black letters mounted on it that said 'Mayor's Office.' Charlie opened it.
"Come in, Charlie, come in, God it's good to see you," Steve Hadly said, walking around his desk and shaking his hand.
"Thanks - good to be seen," Charlie said.
"Quite a drive, huh? How long did it take you?"
"Around seventeen hours, maybe a little over with potty breaks."
"Still got a great sense of humor I see," Steve said. "That's good Charlie, it's a cynical world, and you need to have a sense of humor. I'm really glad you made it. Are you ready for some outdoor sporting?"
"Yes I am, Uncle Steve," he said with sarcasm, not lost on Steve.
"Just Steve, Charlie, please," he said. "When you were a kid, Uncle Steve was fine, but now it's just Steve."
"Sorry - old habits - okay, just Steve, I'm ready for some fun, to be sure."
Steve poured himself a drink, even though it was a little before noon. The drink would help him cope with the snarkiness he felt in Charlie's comments.
"Charlie, I only asked you here for a little company, just to talk to you again and see if we couldn't go hunting like we used to when you were growing up," Steve said sipping on his drink. "I paid for a great education for you in Juneau so you could have a good future. I've taken care of your mother ever since your father died -"
"Died?" Charlie interrupted before he could finish. "You say that like he lost his footing on a slippery cliff or drowned or got eaten by wolves!"
"I'm not sure what happened Charlie. He broke his ankle while we were prospecting for gold. And then winter hit, and hit hard. By the time the pass cleared and we were able to get out, he wasn't able to stand on it at all. I had to walk out of the mountains myself and rally help to go back and get him. The police and some of the men followed me back and by the time we got to Rock Lake there was nothing left of him. I'm sorry that it happened, but it did happen, and there's nothing we can do about it. Back then, there was no cabin and there was no road. Just a campsite we used to go to.
"You didn't have to come here just because I invited you, you don't have to be here. You can go back to Juneau to your teaching job and we can be estranged the rest of our lives if that's what you want, but your father would have wanted more, Charlie."
"No, I have to be here, I do, Steve," Charlie scanned the office and saw a picture of Steve and his father, George, in their youth, about Charlie's age now. Charlie and George could have been brothers. They both had dark hair, about the same height, five foot ten, maybe nine. Same thing Charlie saw every time he looked in the mirror. Steve had aged and his white hair began to thin some on top, but it still filled out sufficient enough for an older gentleman. He wondered what his own father would look like now. Would he be wrinkled, white hair, dark hair, bent over or stand up straight and proud?
The tribe elders knew them back then and told Charlie they were inseparable, they behaved as though brothers, getting into trouble together, sharing everything, hunting, seeking adventure, same taste in women.
"Like a drink, Charlie?"
"I think I would, thank you."
They sipped on their drinks, mostly in silence until Steve laid out their plans for the weekend. They were to go to Rock Lake where Steve had purchased a large amount of acreage by the lake front and built a substantial sized hunting cabin. He took friends and family from the lower forty-eight there for extended stays, but the time he most cherished at his cabin was time he had spent with Charlie.
"Okay, I'll see you tomorrow then," Charlie said.
"I'll pick you up at your mother's around eight."
Charlie put his tumbler down on the desk and let himself out of the old office, shutting the over-painted wooden door behind him and creaking as he stepped back down the hallway.
"What do you mean it wasn't over gold? Of course, it was over gold!" Charlie became incensed at his mother's ignorance, or worse, her denial of the truth. "Uncle Steve - I mean Steve, hit one of the biggest gold veins this state had ever seen when he and dad went into the interior alone, and one of them came out alive! Now, Steve Hadley is rich beyond compare and still walking and breathing to enjoy it, and my father is dead! How could you not see that?"
"I know how it looks, Charlie, but I'm sure that's not what happened. Your Uncle Steve is a lot of things, but a murderer? No, he's not a murderer," Helen Roundtree, Charlie's mother said, and continued, "and I won't have you talk about him that way." She continued to wash dishes by hand, and stack plates in the cupboard. Sun poured in through the kitchen window and washed over her hair, which was pulled back in a braid running down her back, making strands of it glow. Most of it was gray now, but there was a time when it had been a brilliant yellow.
"That's not what a lot of the elders say," Charlie said.
"Of course they're going to talk - to them, a white man and an Indian walked into the Alaskan interior to search for gold one day. The white man walked out one of the richest men in the state, and the Indian was dead." Helen turned and gave Charlie a brusque look, tightening her lips in a pursed smile. A curl of hair lay across her forehead touching her eyebrow. She, being elderly now, still made a striking figure of a woman. And her maturity had not made the beauty of her in any way fade, in fact, she had become quite elegant and graceful with age. She stood out in the rough terrain of the Alaskan landscape like a shiny piece of gold at the bottom of a clear stream. In her youth, she had been the envy of every woman who met her and wanted by every man.
"Well, their judgment was good enough to take you in after he was murdered and take care of you, wasn't it?"
"Charlie, stop repeating that word," Helen said in a stern, motherly voice, "and yes, I accepted their offer to live on the reservation because I knew it would be good for you. They could help raise you, and teach you their culture. It's something I wanted you to have, even though your father couldn't give it to you. And I wanted you to be close to your grandparents."
"Yes - and they taught me a lot. Including the deceit of the white man, and how they think."
"Charlie, not every white man is deceitful, just like Native Americans, there are good ones and there are bad ones. Your Uncle Steve has given you a lot while you grew up, he took you places when you needed a substitute for a father, he tried to play that role, for George's sake. He bought you expensive gifts at Christmas and birthdays and other times, and even a first-class education to any school you wanted to go to. It could have been an Ivy-League school if you wanted, you had the grades. But you chose American History at the University in Juneau, which I liked because you were close, but the point is, you could have gone anywhere and that was due to your Uncle Steve."
"Native American History," Charlie corrected his mother. "And doesn't that sound like maybe he did it out of remorse?"
"Charlie, please - try to have fun out there, and get to know your Uncle Steve again, okay?"
"He's not my uncle, he's 'just Steve,'" Charlie corrected her again. "But - okay - we'll see."
Charlie saw Steve's Ford pickup with big off-road tires pulling into the gravel driveway. He pulled his long black hair back in a pony-tail, put a rubber band around it, put his Mariner's ball cap on and a red and gray parka. He had his father's Marine Corps fighting knife, or K-bar, sheathed, and his belt threaded through the leather loop at the end. He grabbed his Remington-660, which also belonged to his father, George, and two boxes of rounds.
"He's here, gotta go - be back in a few days," he said kissing his mother on the cheek.
"Okay, be safe, see you in a few days Charlie," and she gave him a worried kind of smile she always made when she anticipated bad news, or the time she told Charlie that his german shephard ran off with the wolves to play and be free when he was eight. At the time he believed it even though it was hard to swallow, but a few years later when he told some boys the story at school and they laughed at him, he knew it was bullshit, but he forgave his mother and never said anything to her.
He needed to hurry out the door.
Don't want to give 'just Steve' a chance to come in, hang out, and leer at mom.
Charlie swung the glass-screen door to the double-wide mobile home open and disappeared out of it before it swung back shut. Ever since he was little, he noticed looks between them. At first he didn't. But when Uncle Steve would come over for dinner and take Charlie to a game or on a hunting or fishing trip he started to notice the looks between them that lingered longer than a normal greeting should, or a parting look that hovered on the awkward for him. So he made himself scarce when those times were near.
"Got everything?" Steve asked.
"Yep, and enough ammo to start a war," Charlie said, hopping into the cab.
"Hopefully you won't need all of it."
"I shouldn't, one shot, one kill right?"
Steve turned around in the gravel driveway and drove down the road towards the mountainous interior of Alaska while Helen watched them disappear down the road. Charlie noticed Steve glancing in his rear-view mirror at the mobile home they'd just left.
Early the next day two men walked through the Alaskan interior's pristine wilderness in early morning fog. The older man wore camouflage and a black wool skull-cap with his white hair sticking out from underneath it, the younger man walked behind him with his Mariner's ball cap on. Both had their hunting rifles slung over their shoulders walking fifteen feet apart, single file, like soldiers on patrol, towards a ridge above a low valley with a river running through it. The valley was covered by tall grass that had turned brown in preparation of winter; the river, full of fish, was frequented often by big game animals that needed food or water. They hadn't noticed passing the scat near the trail they were walking on a quarter of a mile back, but it's easy to miss unless you're looking for it, and both men had thoughts on their mind.
"I'd like to know when you started thinking I was responsible for George's death, Charlie? Your dad and I were good friends, how could you ask me that question?"
"Just tell me, God-dammit! Did you have anything to do with my father's death? Yes or no?"
Steve stopped walking and almost cringed at the verbal slap he just received. He turned to face Charlie with an agonized look and took a deep breath and blew it out and stared passed him as if looking into the past of thirty years of his life.
"I don't know," Steve said in a calm voice. Charlie's countenance dropped at hearing those words.
Steve continued, "In a way, I suppose, we're all responsible for each other's death, indirectly, even if we don't understand how -"
"Why do you continue to play games with me?" Charlie had reached his boiling point, the pressure in the tea kettle of his mind was about the blow, and he swung his hunting rifle around to level it at Steve's chest. "I will shoot you! God-dammit - I will fucking shoot you, Uncle Steve - if you don't stop talking like a politician. Tell me the truth!" Charlie's voice broke as he pleaded. "Yes, or -"
Charlie's sentence, cut short by a tremendous, deep roar from the nearby trees caught Charlie off guard and his body flinched. His eyes widened in terror and his jaw dropped open, he swung his rifle in the direction of the noise. The grizzly ran out of the tree line in an aggressive way, threatening to charge and roaring a warning. The grizzly was directly to his flank. Still shaken, Charlie took aim and squeezed the trigger. And felt nothing but a click. He expected to feel the recoil, but figured he never had a bullet in the chamber to begin with. The Grizzly stopped short, a good fifty feet away, to look at him. He chambered a round as fast as he could without making erratic movements, the rifle still shouldered. The land leviathan stood on its hind legs and roared again. It stood seven feet tall and weighed six hundred and fifty pounds. Charlie held it in his cross-hairs with his finger ready to squeeze. He hesitated. He and Steve were there to hunt moose, and though a lot of hunters would have taken the shot, Charlie held off on squeezing the trigger. He didn't believe in taking an animal's life out of convenience or happenstance if he didn't need to. He never enjoyed killing, although he'd learned at an early age that a big buck could afford meat through an entire winter for himself and his mother.
The grizzly dropped to all fours and looked at Charlie, sizing him up. It turned its massive head around and ran back into the trees and Charlie slowly unshouldered his rifle and blew out of sigh of relief. When he glanced up the trail in front of him, Steve lay across it, face up.
He ran to Steve feeling an empty sickness in the pit of his stomach, his heart pounding with adrenaline. His whole world had turned surreal in a rush of enormity.
"Oh my god! No-no! Uncle Steve, Uncle Steve!" Charlie dropped to his knees at his side and assessed the damage. There was a bullet hole through his jacket below the sternum, slightly left of middle, and the blood was soaking through.
"Oh-my-God, I'm so sorry! I'm sorry, I didn't mean it!" Charlie spewed the words out of his mouth barely able to speak.
"I know," Steve whispered, laboring to breathe. "Get - some gauze - from the - kit. Stuff it - in the hole - and apply - pressure."
Charlie, feeling the full effects of fight or flight response, pulled off his backpack and with hands shaking pulled everything out of the backpack at once.
God-dammit! God-dammit! Oh fuck why did this happen!
"Okay, okay - got it!" Charlie ripped open a package of the gauze and it popped out in all directions like it was spring loaded. He unbuttoned and unzipped Steve's jacket. Blood soaked through his plaid button down shirt inside and it was spreading. He tore off a four-inch strip of gauze and put it over the bullet hole pushing blood out with every heartbeat. He used his finger to push it into the hole slowly and he gagged as the blood gushed up around his finger and spread over Steve's bare torso, like a container that's being over-filled with liquid. Steve winced and caught his breath again. He took another gauze bandage and put it over the hole he had just stuffed, and held it in place with more pressure. The blood was soaking through the bandage already.
"Oh god - oh god - I'm so -"
"Charlie - listen - listen -"
"Uncle Steve - you're bleeding, it won't stop - it won't stop..." Charlie blinked hard trying to focus through his panicked eyes, holding pressure on Steve's midsection.
"Charlie - listen -"
These last words reached Charlie's ears and, focusing to control his panic, he looked at Steve's face. It was peaceful, and he almost had a smile on his lips.
"I - didn't lie - but - I didn't tell you - everything." Steve struggled with his breathing to get the words out. "I'm dying - and I need - to - tell you. Your father - died of animal - attack. We got stuck - out here - for the winter after we - found gold -"
Steve looked as though he were going to die before he could finish. His eyes shut and then opened studying Charlie's face, and he began to labor his breathing again. Snowflakes began to fall.
"It wa - never about gol - loved George - he was - closer than a brother. We fought aft - got drunk on whisky - celebrating the gold - it ha been over your mothe - he broke his ankle - he asked m - leave him - couldn't - walk - went to - g - help."
Steve faded out slowly and became barely audible.
"Charlie - lea my body - here - no inquiry - leave it for - the animals, please Charlie - leave it - leave it - love y - son -" Steve's voice faded into small whispers and incoherent words before they stopped altogether. His chest ceased to rise and fall in its labored breathing pattern. He lay motionless. Charlie, sat back on his haunches still in shock, let go of the pressure he had on Steve's abdomen. The snow came down hard now.
After a long time Charlie buttoned up Steve's shirt and jacket and zipped it up to his collar. He dragged Steve over to the nearest tree by his armpits. He propped him up facing the valley below and made sure his black wool skull-cap was on snug. He brushed the snow off his shoulders and face and hat. He left his Uncle Steve's eyes open looking out over the valley with the river running through it. And laid his rifle across his lap.
Charlie gathered everything up, all wrappings and belongings, in his backpack and slung it over his shoulders. He sat and looked at his Uncle Steve's body for hours.
He squatted next to his uncle one last time, and laid a hand to rest on his Uncle's chest. The snow was almost half a foot, he needed to get out of the mountains or he'd be stuck in them for a good long time. He stood, slung his rifle over his shoulder and began his long walk back to the cabin.
Charlie and his mother, Helen, sat in the small kitchen in the double-wide that sat on the edge of the reservation. They sipped coffee at the table, sitting across from each other after Charlie had come back from an early morning reading of the will for Mayor Steven Hadly. The funeral had been the day before. The first day of May, when the police were finally able to get to the cabin. Some of his remains were found where Charlie had said they'd be.
Everybody in town had closed their shops and made it to the small chapel. Friends from all over the state and some from the lower forty-eight had showed. Even some of the tribal elders had showed up to pay their respects.
"He left me everything mom - his entire fortune, his house, the cabin - everything; why did he do that?"
"I believe he loved you Charlie."
"Before your father and I got married, your Uncle Steve and I had dated," Helen said looking at the steam rise from her coffee. "He said he couldn't marry me because of his parents. He said they would disown him if he ever married some fisherman's daughter from a podunk town in Alaska. So he said he couldn't marry me. He said he loved me, and I believe he did, very much, just like I loved him, and we could always be together - live together - but never marry..."
The looks Charlie noticed between them as he got older started to make sense now. There had been something between them, and possibly, it had never gone away.
"I was angry about it - and I broke it off with him, but before I did I got pregnant, Charlie." She continued to look at her coffee. "That happened just before your father, George, and I started to date. We started dating three months before they went into the mountains to search for gold; we got married in a hurry. Just before I realized I was pregnant. And even though I loved George, my heart had already been taken Charlie..." Charlie stared at his mother and she never looked up.
"I told your father I was pregnant before they left for the mountains - and that it wasn't his." Helen glanced up and met Charlie's gaze. "He was angry, but he said we would stay married because he loved me and he was going to raise you as his and give you a good home. That's why I agreed to the elders allowing me to live on the reservation next to his parents; I knew George would have wanted it."
Charlie said nothing. He sipped his coffee and watched the steam rise from his cup.
"It was never about the gold," Charlie whispered to himself.