Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Freelancer

Riley Brickle sucks the casing of a Winchester .30-06 hollow-point — the brass cool on his tongue — then uses it to trace the outline of the Maine State flag on the map across his knees.

He taps the bullet on the twin figures flanking the state seal, the mariner and the farmer, and thinks about his slide from one to the other. He will be the first Brickle in four generations who won’t haul the bulk of his living from the sea. The boat holds once heaped with iced cod and haddock are now nothing more than stories his father tells after too much Canadian Club. The groundfish are gone; the Gulf of Maine is a vacant aquarium. The mariner is dead.
Men who once captained their own fishing boats are lucky if they can find work in the seafood section at the local FoodFair. Those like Riley, who know they could never hack a job dishing up McLobsters at Micky D's or stocking shelves at L.L. Bean, try their hand at diving for sea urchins and scallops when they can scrape together enough money to have their scuba tanks filled. There are Japanese brokers on every wharf from Kittery to Quoddy Head, and they pay a decent buck, shipping the urchins overnight to Tokyo for their mustard-colored roe; but diving is a bitch even when it’s good, and that’s damned seldom. Working two- and three-hour shifts in 35-degree water has given Riley the swollen, gumball knuckles of an arthritic; He laughs and says, "Some pretty, hunh?" whenever some girl in a bar runs her fingers over the pattern of wounds from urchin spines on his arms. Both the line and the bust-ass work have gotten old.
So he’s onto something better. A win-win situation was how the Indian had put it. The guy had a funky name — Running Bear or Blue Moon — and wore a lot of turquoise jewelry. He didn’t look red-skinned as much as sun-tanned, with swoopy gray hair pulled back into a ponytail. Gray Wolf — that was his name. He sent over a pitcher of beer at the Black Sail one night and sat down beside Riley, talking like they already knew each other. No accent or anything, but what the hell? It wasn’t as if Riley had ever hung out on a reservation or anything. Gray Wolf said he owned a business out on Route 1. Said to stop by, have a few pops, shoot the breeze. 
A few days later, Riley took him up on it, showing up just before the place closed. There was a mildewed teepee out front, and a sign that said it was some kind of arts center. Gift shop was more like it. He had to hand it to the guy, there was a lot of inventory: counters filled with turquoise stuff, beaded moccasins, totem pole thermometers and rubber tomahawks for the tourists, some paintings of braves on the warpath that Riley wouldn't have minded buying if he had money to blow. 
When he strolled up to the cash register, Gray Wolf looked up from a copy of Rolling Stone and said, "Hey, Brickle." If anything, Riley was the one who had been a little rattled. Not that he showed it. He just glanced around and said, "You didn't have me come all the way out here to admire the souvenirs." 
The Indian put up the Closed sign, locked the door and got a couple cans of Michelob from a refrigerator in a back room somewhere. By the time they killed the six-pack, Riley knew as much as the guy was going to tell him about the situation. "See," Gray Wolf said, "You win, I win." If he was telling the truth, it will be a hell of a lot better than risking the bends every day as an urchin diver.
Now Riley is sixty miles from the Atlantic, at the end of a course he has charted across asphalt and dirt back roads to 200,000 acres of pristine National Park. 

Back to the land. 

He tosses the map aside and checks the logging road in the rear-view mirror, catching a glimpse of his reflection. The whites of his eyes are the color of ivory and webbed with inflamed blood vessels. Thirty-nine freakin years old and he looks like a punk who's just smoked a joint. He throws the Ford pickup into first gear, bouncing over the drainage ditch at the side of the road as he steers into a small clearing in the pines. 

Within twenty minutes, he’s sawed enough tree limbs to disguise the boxy profile of the truck. Seen from the road at 55 miles-per-hour, the pickup will look like a heap of blown-down timber. Not worth a second thought.
Pulling on a set of camouflage coveralls, he stuffs a box of hollow-points into the chest pocket and unlocks the toolbox behind the cab. He removes a Remington bolt-action rifle, a hunting knife and a couple of Ziploc plastic bags, relocks the box and starts off into a shaded gully.
Ain't life a joker. He tightens the straps on the rifle sling and thinks about the yearly hunting trips with his father and uncles on the first day of deer season, all of them stumbling around so that somebody could take a shot at a sick buck or worse — an undersized doe. He would rather have stripped down an engine or messed around with some girl down by the lighthouse. He wonders what his old man would think of him now, knocking around where the roads are unnamed and you can plug everything in sight without having some hard-ass game warden come down on you.
Still gotta watch it. Seems every day the tree-huggers and anti-nukers are mouthing off in the Press-Herald, telling folks to love Mother Earth and boycott the local fish markets. Hell, they’re the reason he’s out here in the first place.
The sun has nudged above the treeline. The massive trunks of the first growth timber cast black bars across the forest floor. Riley weaves through the trees, his boots treading silently on tufts of moss and pine needles. He stops every so often to listen to the forest, checking off the noises in his mind: the sweepy sound of pine boughs, the stream chuckling over a bed of stones, the creak of a dead limb overhead.
But there is something else — a hard splash from somewhere along the stream below him. Riley slips the rifle off his shoulder and moves toward the sound, keeping close to the pattern of shadows.
There it is again. A crisp slap against the water, just beyond the knoll in front of him, then a weak mewling sound. His second trip out, and now there’s some kind of hitch. Riley feels in his pocket for a bullet, works the rifle bolt back, and eases the round into the chamber. He blinks back a trickle of sweat and begins a slow crawl, stopping when he reaches a granite spine above the stream. He sucks in his breath, straining to hear over his knocking pulse, then rolls to his feet and fits the butt of the rifle stock to his shoulder.
A black bear cub smacks at its reflection on the surface of the stream, then scampers up the bank, its glossy fur reddish at the tips against the curtain of sunlight.
Riley lowers the rifle and grins. Well, hell, look who we got here. BooBoo freakin bear. Hey there, little fella, ain't you a cute one. Run along to momma now.
The cub sniffs the air, whimpers faintly, and waddles away from the stream up a slight rise. Riley trails behind at a distance, striding over granite slabs that will be clotted with blueberries in a month. The stony rise tumbles away to wetlands.
Riley hears the cub crash through an alder thicket on the edge of a bog filled with the trunks of drowned birches. He recognizes one of the trees by the branches that curve up to form a fiddle shape. 
Same damn tree. No question. He had only seen it from the other side. Mother Nature. She'll twist you around, then drop you right where you were headed in the first place. Just won't know it till afterwards. 

There had been nights at sea when his boat had shuddered under 20-foot swells, her decks caked with ice, the electronics shorted out. Each time, dawn had broken over the water like a furnace door opening, and he found himself within sight of shore. 

His path is stranger this time: a loose arc strung over a mile-and-a-half of broken ground. He was heading for the bog when he left the truck — before he heard the cub and took some kind of ass-backwards shortcut. 

Motherfreakin Nature. Riley has let the cub wander too far ahead. Now he has to work blind, listening for the damn thing in the puckerbrush. He works the bolt on the rifle, checking the round. Give Momma a proper greeting.
He hears the cub snuffling in the brambles thirty yards off. It gives a little cry and charges forward before he can swing around and get ahead of it. BooBoo’s got some speed for a little guy.
Riley follows into the tangle of saplings. He doesn’t know shit about bears except for what he’s seen on Animal Planet. What the hell is there to know? I’m the one with the gun.
When Riley comes out of the trees, the cub is licking the paw of a hulking sow bear that has backed up against an old spruce. Riley raises the rifle, tightens his grip on the stock. Hey, Big Momma. Been expecting you. 

One of the sow's front legs is locked in the steel teeth of the heavy-gauge trap he had chained to the tree. He had baited it with suet a week before. Flies sizzle over the sow's bloody paw where the trap has cut a raw seam of frayed tendon and wet bone. The sow snarls and shakes its head, trailing strings of pink foam from its jaws. 
Riley presses the gunstock to his shoulder. Settle down, girl. Mother Nature's had a change of plans.

The sow comes at him in a black rush of muscle and rank breath that whips the trap chain against the tree. Riley pulls the trigger as the chain bites into the bark, yanking the sow off balance. He fumbles for another bullet in his pocket, scattering several to the ground, then works the bolt on the rifle and chambers a round. Time to smoke old Smokey. 
The sow swats the air and lunges forward, ringing the steel links of the chain. Fish in a barrel. Riley puts the second round just in from the right shoulder, then adds two more. The sow gradually stops moving, like a cheap toy winding down. Now where the hell is BooBoo? 

Riley stalks in a wide circle, searching the brush with the rifle at waist level, his finger hooked through the trigger guard. As he cuts back toward the dead sow, he spots flakes of bark tumbling through a ribbon of sunlight. The cub is about 20 feet up a fir tree, looking like a stuffed animal at a carnival midway. Knock down the milk bottle, win your girl a prize. 

Riley walks around the tree to a spot where the sun is behind him, then drops the cub within ten feet of where he’s standing. What’s the word the NRA boys use for hunting? Harvesting. Like everything’s a crop to be picked or something. Hell, this is easier. Like plinking beer cans. 
Riley's arms are gummed with blood to the elbows before he gets the hang of gutting out the cub. Even this chore has its rewards. Keep the skin for a bathroom rug. Something to keep his feet warm while he sits on the can. But the Indian said No souvenirs. Riley reaches inside the opening he's sliced along the belly of the cub, finding the gall bladder right where Gray Wolf said it would be. 

Paging Dr. Brickle. 

He cuts the organ free and drops it into one of the Ziploc bags. Great commercial. See how it seals in freshness. 

He leaves the carcass for the coyotes and wanders over to work on the sow, wishing he’d brought a camera and a pack of Camels along. Get a shot of Smokey the Bear offering a light. 
The sow takes more time than the cub. It’s freaky, reaching inside the steamy bulk of a creature that could have torn him apart only a half-hour before; it reminds him of all the bluefin tunas he’s caught and reduced to heaps of flash-frozen steaks. 
After bagging the sow’s gall bladder, Riley wipes his hands on some leaves and stows the pair of steaming organs in the chest pockets of his coveralls. He reminds himself to pick up a sack of ice at a package store in Millinocket, keep the gall bladders chilled. Maybe treat himself to a six of something and have a nice little buzz going by the time he reaches Buck’s Cove. 


Brickle, this Bud’s for you.