CHAPTER ONE

 

                                                                    Alaska 1968

 

 

Martin Bradley turned up the heavy collar of his parka and shuddered at the cold onslaught of the Alaskan winter. The warmth of the taxi was just a memory, quickly fading as it disappeared in a swirl of snow. Behind him the Chena River flowed quietly. He looked at it and shuddered again. The reflected glow of the street lamps danced and flickered along its dreary length. Above him the dark sky held a thin trace of moonlight that barely showed in the cold inky blackness of the water. He turned from it and crossed the street.

       Bradley was looking for somebody that night. He had been doing so for two days now. For two days he had been searching the bars and hostelries of Fairbanks, and now he was cold and tired. He didn't even want to find the man he was seeking. He dreaded meeting him, because he despised him. But, above that, he feared him. So he was convinced that finding him would lead only to failure.

       But his own conviction counted for nothing against the opposite, almost fatalistic belief of his boss, Andrew Fyffe, owner and founder of Fyffe Oil. It was an order from that man, that enigma that Bradley was now following, still with Fyffe's words echoing in his brain. 'Find him,' Fyffe had said. 'Nothing will matter anymore if you don't. He's our only chance.

       The tawdry saloons of Fairbanks, Alaska's original frontier town, were filled with a hotchpotch of humanity: Eskimos, Aleut Indians, Whites. Women hovered, waiting for the opportunity to relieve the men of their tensions - and their money. Sourdoughs, roustabouts, drifters. Oilmen, miners, militia. This crossroads, nestling at the foot of the Yukon mountains, beckoned with the crooked finger of opportunity. Bradley hated it. He preferred the subtler atmosphere of Juneau, Alaska's capital in the Panhandle, the strip of territory among the south-west coast.

Each bar he tried was the same: noisy, smoky, smelly. He walked through each one studying the faces. Some were familiar, most not. Each time the same question, each time the same answer. He despaired of ever finding him.

       But then the answer changed. The sourdough nodded. Yes. Somewhere along the street he'd seen the American. An hour ago. No, he didn't remember which bar. A drink? Now, that was generous.... He remembered! It was Wexler's.

       Bradley stumbled from the bar – nervous now, apprehensive. His quarry was in sight and he didn't like it.

       Wexler's was just off the main street. It looked like any other bar from the outside – grimy, without character. Its only pretension to commercialism was a bright neon sign.

       A wave of heat smacked into him as he opened the door. Blue smoke hung above the tables in almost motionless gossamer clouds, the air conditioning having long since expired. In one corner a huge black pot-belly stove burned fiercely. Such was the heat it threw out that no tables were near it. Bradley looked into the sea of faces, studying each one carefully, just as he had done a thousand times. The man he was looking for was there alright, sitting on his own. Bradley hadn't expected it any other way.

       The man was trouble. Bradley's stomach screwed up into a knot and suddenly he felt sick. He turned towards the door.

       'In or out, Mac, what's it to be?'

       The barman's voice startled him.

       'Ah, beer please.' His own voice sounded thick. He took the beer and paid for it. He swallowed it hurriedly and ordered another one. A drunk nudged him and he moved out of the way. He tossed the money on to the bar and took the beer across to the table. The man looked up at him with an expression of idle curiosity that quickly changed as Bradley slid into the seat opposite him. They looked at each other for a while. Bradley could feel the tension across his chest as his heart pounded. He finally said: 'You're McKinnon, aren't you?'

       McKinnon looked at him for what seemed like an eternity, his face empty, the eyes glazed and bloodshot from alcoholic excess. He raised his glass and held it to his lips as he stared across at Bradley. Then he put it down, traces of beer running from the corner of his mouth.

       'And you're Bradley,' he answered. 'Still working for that tin pot outfit?'

       Bradley ignored the jibe, but it unsettled him. He wanted the conversation to be neat, objective – and without malice. But with McKinnon you could plan nothing. Not with a man of his reputation: driller, geologist, trouble shooter, one-time oil-boss. Best wildcatter in the business, Fyffe had said.

       Bradley studied his face. Lantern-jawed was the only way to describe it. Square and menacing. In the middle the nose was large and round, flared nostrils opening slightly with each drawn breath. Above it the eyes, once so blue and clear, were now dull and red rimmed. Pouches sagged from them, looking unnatural against the granite quality of the bone structure. His hair was white and thin. It was a sorry-looking face that bore the marks of a tough life in the oil world. And now he sat here in Fairbanks, the end of his road; a drifter, a drunk. Somewhere there was a wife, but that had been a long time ago.

       'Yes, I'm still working for Fyffe. But what about you, McKinnon? What are you doing?'

       McKinnon leaned across the table, his foul breath catching Bradley in the face. Bradley drew back sharply, turning his face away from the stench.

       'Sitting in this god-damned bar drinking this beer!' He sat back and swallowed the beer in a massive gulp, then crashed the glass on to the table. 'Get me a beer, Bradley. I reckon you owe me.'

       Bradley took the glass and got the drink. The old man had said to humour him. He snorted. Humour him, hell! Why wasn't Fyffe doing this himself if it was so damned important? It was a stupid idea, he thought. He wanted to throw the beer into McKinnon's face, but lacked the courage to do it. McKinnon took it without thanks.

       'Well, Bradley,' he drooled, 'say your piece and git!' He threw his head sideways to add emphasis and practically toppled from the chair. Bradley winced; the man was dead drunk, and he was about to put a serious proposition to him.

       'I hear you're out of work, McKinnon,' he said at last.

       'Where d'you hear that?' McKinnon slurred.

       'Carrie.'

       McKinnon raised his head and looked vacantly at Bradley. The mention of her name had an obvious effect on him. 'You go see her?'

       Bradley nodded. 'Why?'

       'I had to find you, and I thought Carrie was the obvious person to ask.'

McKinnon looked down into his glass. He thought of her. What had happened, he wondered? She had been so good for him. 'Why d'you want to go and see her, anyway?' he asked suddenly.

       'You already asked me that. I needed to know where to find you.' She hadn't really done him much good, he reflected. McKinnon and his woman had lived together for a couple of stormy years. They had been happy until McKinnon's drinking had become steadily worse. The fights got worse, too; then she had told him it was finished. Three months ago. But she still loved him.

       He looked again at McKinnon and felt a shudder. She had even pleaded with him to help the man back to his feet again. 'Carrie said she didn't know where you were, but it wouldn't take long to find you.'

       'You had no right to go see her,' McKinnon said angrily.

       Bradley shrugged. 'I had to start somewhere.' He watched McKinnon for a while. 'Well,' he said at last, 'are you out of work?'

       McKinnon lifted his stubbled chin. 'Yep. Why? You offering me a job?'

       Bradley nodded. 'Sort of.'

       McKinnon pulled at the beer again, letting the glass down unsteadily. 'Well, either you are or you ain't. If you ain't, that's good. If you are, you can stick the job right up your ass!'

       'It's good money.'

       'I don't need it.'

       I think you do.'

       McKinnon leaned well over the table and pointed his finger so that it was about an inch from Bradley's nose. His foul breath seemed to come from the end of his finger. 'You keep your thoughts to yourself, Bradley, or I'm going to smash this glass into your tiny little accountant face!'

       The reference to Bradley's position in the oil company meant that McKinnon was not completely drunk, but Bradley knew he would still be troublesome.

       'Do you remember Andrew Fyffe?' he asked. McKinnon sat back in his chair. Bradley continued. 'I'm here on his behalf and...'

       'Like I said,' McKinnon interrupted, 'same tin pot outfit.' Suddenly the look on his face changed. His mouth fell open slightly. 'Hey, Fyffe Oil is bleeding itself to death on the other side of Brooks Range.' His eyelids dropped and he peered at Bradley. 'So that's it. You want me to go up there for Fyffe. Hell, man, you must be sick.' He moved closer in an almost conspiratorial way. 'Do you know it's as cold as the moon up there? And do you know that when the wind blows men die? For God's sake, up there on the Slope there isn't any cover for fifty miles in any direction. I'd sooner die here in this bar than in that Godforsaken wilderness. It's for polar bears and fools.'

       Bradley nodded. 'It wouldn't be for long.'

       McKinnon smiled without looking at him. 'You're damn right it wouldn't. About a week, I reckon, and then it would be for ever. For eternity.'

       Bradley looked nervously into his beer, twisting the glass absently. 'It's not that bad, McKinnon. Men survive it.' It was a poor rejoinder, and he knew it.

       McKinnon lifted his beer to his lips and sipped at it, peering over the top of his glass. 'Piss off!' he said.

       Bradley knew it wasn't going well, but he pressed on. 'No, hear what I have to say, McKinnon. Make up your mind when you've heard what I have to say. It's too good a proposition to miss.' It was no good; he felt terrible. His breathing still hadn't settled and his heart still pounded away remorselessly in his chest. He was scared and looked it. The last time they had met he had felt this way. McKinnon had hit him then. That had been five years ago. He'd been having an affair with McKinnon's wife. She had never been a good wife; the whole company knew it. He suspected that McKinnon had known, but preferred to ignore it. He knew McKinnon had loved her; she was his kind of woman. But her continuing infidelity had been too much for him to take. It was about that time that McKinnon had started his drinking. Then Fyffe sacked him and the desolation was complete. Bradley didn't even know why he despised the man so. He had no right to, but he did. Perhaps his feelings were in reality a cloak to mask his fear of the man.

       McKinnon put his glass down. Carefully, and as articulately as he could, he said: 'There is no proposition that you or Fyffe could put to me, now or ever. There is nothing either of you could do to replace the years of deprivation and despair you have caused me. If you don't leave this bar now, Bradley, I swear I will kill you.'

       The contrived menace in his voice scared Bradley so much that his throat seemed to dry instantly. He took two quick gulps of beer.

       'If you attack me, McKinnon, you'll end up in gaol. You've avoided it all these years, so for God's sake don't sink to those depths now. You must listen to me. Whether you agree or not, you owe it to yourself to listen to this offer of' - he struggled to find a word - 'of salvation.'

       'Whose salvation?' McKinnon asked. 'Yours, Fyffe's or mine?'

       He turned his face away and peered through the fog. A waiter was clearing up glasses from the overcrowded tables. McKinnon called to him. 'Waiter. Hey, you!' The man ignored him and carried on clearing the glasses away. McKinnon lurched drunkenly to his feet. 'Well, the lousy sonofabitch.'

       Bradley sprang up and put a restraining hand on his shoulder. McKinnon swung round, knocking his hand away. For a sickening moment Bradley thought McKinnon was going to hit him.

       'I'll get a beer for you, Mac. Please. Sit down.'

       McKinnon rocked unsteadily on his feet, glaring at Bradley. Then he sat down. Bradley sighed with relief and went over to the bar for the beer.

       McKinnon again took it without thanks. Bradley watched him impatiently.

       'Listen, McKinnon, Fyffe is drilling up on the North Slope. You knew that anyway. The lease expired a month ago. For Christ's sake listen to me, McKinnon!'

       The oilman's attention had wandered. Someone had started an argument across the room. The sudden explosion in Bradley's voice swung him round and he faced the accountant stonily.

       Bradley clenched his teeth and drew in a slow breath to steady his rising temper. McKinnon appeared not to notice. 'The lease expired four weeks ago,' he went on. 'We have two months of the option left. Fyffe is convinced we're drilling over oil. He has problems, I'll admit, but all he needs is a good wildcatter. If we don't make it' - he shrugged his shoulders - 'a lot of people will suffer: the men up there on the rig; Fyffe; myself; not to mention the blow to America's oil reserves.'

       It was an appeal, but McKinnon was unimpressed. He smiled thinly. 'Well, well, well. Our dear Bradley's out of a job, and Uncle Sam's out of oil. Now, that is a shame.'

       He poured more beer down his throat. A lot of it ran off his chin and down his neck, soaking into his already beer-stained shirt.

       'Hell, Bradley, I don't owe you, Fyffe, Uncle Sam or anybody a living. You've done nothing for me, so I'm doing nothing for you.'

       'Fyffe will pay you twenty thousand dollars,' Bradley said quietly.

       McKinnon threw his head back and laughed out loud. 'Ha! The magic word: the golden egg. It might just as well be twenty thousand balls, because you ain't getting me within a thousand miles of Fyffe's stinking oil company. Get it?'

       Bradley went on undeterred. 'If we strike oil, you'll get a twenty-five-per-cent partnership in the business.'

       McKinnon sprang up from his chair, his eyes blazing. His face went bright red, and Bradley thought he was going to hit him. 'Stick it, Bradley. Stick it, stick it, stick it!'

       The noise in the bar died to a whisper and everybody turned in their direction. McKinnon glared back at them. There was no mistaking the anger in his eyes, or his condition as he swayed drunkenly. He shouted at them. 'Get back to your own business, you bums, or I'll throw some of you out the window.'

       He almost fell over then. The crowd ignored him, and the noise-level rose again. He sat down.

       'It's a little late in the day to be asking for an oil boss,' he said. 'What happened to the other one - get cold feet?'

       The pun struck McKinnon as funny and he started giggling. Bradley squirmed with embarrassment, but said nothing. He just waited until the laughter had stopped. Then he said: 'He died.'

       It had a telling effect. McKinnon became serious all of a sudden. 'What do you mean, he died?'

       Bradley shrugged his shoulders. 'I don't know; I didn't get to see the medical reports.'

       McKinnon leaned over the table and reduced his voice to a barely audible whisper. His breath caught Bradley full in the face, although he held his teeth tight together. Bradley wanted to vomit.

       'If you don't leave now, Bradley, I'll throw you out. I swear it. I've listened to your lousy proposition and you've heard my answer. Now git!'

       Bradley looked at his beer and twirled the glass gently in his fingers. He thought of saying something, but the words wouldn't come. He stood up and dug his hands into his pockets. He fished out some coins and threw them angrily on to the table. 'Here, get yourself some beer.' He left McKinnon staring at the money and walked out of the bar.

       The air outside felt fresh and clean. He drank heavily from it. A cab cruised into view and he hailed it. It took him to another saloon a few streets away. He asked the driver to wait, and went in. It was much the same as any other; small, crowded, smoky. Standing at the bar was a giant of a man in typical Eskimo dress: mukluk boots, ski-pants and a brightly coloured Grenfell parka coat. He was talking to a man whom he dwarfed. Bradley went over to the giant Indian and tapped him on the arm.

       'Skookum, I've found him. He's in Wexler's on main street. There's a cab outside. Get over there and pick a fight with him. I'll wait here.'

I NEVER KNEW I WOULD BE A WRITER.