Excerpt: Sleeping Bear by Connor Sullivan

Prologue

CHICKEN, ALASKA

Wednesday, May 15th

 

PAUL BRADY WOKE up with a start and went for his rifle. Sweat poured down his face, his cotton T-shirt sticking to his sleeping bag. For nearly a minute, he sat up breathing deeply, trying to figure out where he was.

He wasn’t in Ramadi.

That was nearly fourteen years ago.

He wasn’t in the Korengal.

That was twelve years ago.

Heart pounding, he fumbled with the switch on his head lamp and turned it on, illuminating the small one-person tent.

Rushing water, the rustle of leaves, and creaking trees sounded outside.

Then he remembered.

It was 2019. He was in Alaska, six miles south of the town of Chicken, camping on the bank of the Fortymile River.

He had thought coming up to Alaska would clear his mind. That the fresh air and seclusion would mitigate the stress and anxiety that had plagued him for the last four years.

Over two years ago, Paul Brady had been diagnosed at the San Diego VA with PTSD.

It explained all the nightmares. Th e short temper and the jumpiness. It explained the depression, anxiety, and the manic episodes.

As a former chief petty officer in SEAL Team Two, Paul Brady never thought he’d have to deal with the effects of the trauma he’d experienced in his nearly seventeen years in the Teams. He’d always thought SEALs were impervious to such symptoms. It was true that he’d seen terrible things on his deployments. War was hell, no doubt, but he’d thrived in those environments. It wasn’t until he’d left the navy and moved from Virginia to San Diego with his family that his life started to spiral out of control.

It started with the night terrors and then escalated to a point where he couldn’t hold down a job.

The VA-sponsored psychotherapy didn’t work.

Neither did the medications. He pushed everyone away, including his wife and two boys, who, after nearly two years of trying to help, finally packed up and left.

He’d lost nearly everything in the divorce: his job, the house, the kids, and most of his money.

Connor Sullivan

After the divorce was settled, the former SEAL found himself left only with his Ford truck and the meager amount of money in his savings account, which was spent quickly on Bud Light and whiskey.

For three months he lived like a bum out of his truck near Mission Beach, close to Coronado where he had gone through BUD/S training, until one day he was struck with an idea.

What if I can just get away from it all?

What if I can go to some far corner of the world and just live?

It took him three days to sober up, and another five to drive to Canada’s Yukon territory, where he stayed at a quaint hotel near the Alaskan border.

The owners had been welcoming and, when hearing his plan to camp in Alaska for the summer, had given him a list of their favorite spots.

That’s how he’d found this little plot of paradise on the river.

Brady kicked out of his sleeping bag and unzipped the door to his tent. Grabbing his bear rifle, he stepped out into the cool night and stood on the sandy shore.

Small wisps of smoke rose from the dying embers of his fire pit and caught wind, blowing out over the river. It was that time of night in the great north where you could see the stars and the Milky Way, that three hours of darkness where the forest finally took a break and went to sleep.

Brady paced in circles around the camp, trying to get his mind under control. He found that the pacing helped rein in his thoughts. He’d been sober nearly eleven days—the longest he’d gone in years—but, damn, could he use a beer right about now.

Directing the beam of his head lamp over to the group of trees twenty yards behind his tent, he gazed up at his food box hanging by a rope from a tall branch and considered what was inside.

He’d bought the pint of Jack Daniels as a test for himself as he left Southern California.

A test in self-control.

For too long, he’d been self-medicating with alcohol.

And look where it got me.

I can’t go back to that.

Brady turned his head away from the swaying food box, stopped his pacing, and closed his eyes.

You’ve come here to start again. You’ve come here to recover.

It was a mantra he’d repeated to himself during his long drive north, a quasi affirmation to keep him on the straight and narrow.

For nearly ten minutes, the former SEAL stood in this meditative state and had finally started to relax, when a sharp sound snapped him out of his trance.

Instantly, the hair on the back of his neck stood on end, his senses elevating.  He spun to look at the dark forest behind him.

His food box continued to swing in the wind, and he primed his eyes for any sight of a potential threat.

The sharp snap had sounded like a heavy stick being broken under a great weight.

The dark shadows of the forest continued to dance in front of him and suddenly he got the eerie sensation that he was being watched. He’d had that feeling many times before, the calm before an ambush.

Brady clicked the safety off his rifle and brought the stock of the weapon into his shoulder, his eyes still scanning for any movement. His mind scoured through the list of potential predators in the Alaskan wilderness—wolves, mountain lions,

and inland grizzlies.

Snap!

Brady whipped the barrel of his rifle to the left in the direction of the new sound.

Snap!

Another stick broke to his right. Brady started backpedaling sideways toward the river, cutting off the angle to potential threats when a large, hulking figure stepped out of the forest.

The figure looked like no animal he’d ever seen, it looked—

“Hey!” Brady shouted. “What the hell are you doing?”

Aiming the rifle directly at the figure, he started to apply pressure to the trigger.  He was just about to shout again when a loud sound—pop!—cut through the midnight air and something thudded to a stop in the sand at his feet.

Brady squinted down at the mysterious object. In the starlight, it looked like some sort of thermos. Then, suddenly, a loud explosion rocked Brady off his feet. The brilliant flash of orange and red blinded him as he was thrown onto the sand.

Something hissed loudly. He clawed at the sand, desperately searching for his rifle. Ears ringing, he finally grasped the wooden stock of his weapon.

His world suddenly began to swim. Vibrant colors kaleidoscoped all around him.

Then Brady gasped deeply and felt a sharp burning sensation.

His body locked up and he pitched backward, darkness engulfing him.

 

 

Chapter 1

YUKON TERRITORY, CANADA

Friday, June 21st

 

THIRTY-TWO HOURS BEFORE Cassie Gale went missing, she was driving her green Toyota Tundra west on Yukon Route 2 through dense forests of spruce and aspen. Though it was late June, the air was cool, and in the light rain that fell from dull gray clouds, it almost smelled like fall.

Every so often there were breaks in the trees that flanked the highway, and Cassie caught glimpses of pristine valleys and faraway peaks, and slowly grew calmer, at ease, not at all the troubled woman who’d left Montana three days before.

But just as quickly, the vista was swallowed by thick, gloomy claustrophobic woods that seemed to gnaw at her mood. On impulse Cassie reached for the center console. When she did, the regal, male German shepherd in the passenger’s seat cocked his head, and his eyes narrowed.

Cassie stopped her hand short of the console and willed it back to the wheel.

“Sorry, Maverick,” she said, reaching over and scratching the dog’s head. “I promised I wouldn’t go there today, didn’t I?”

Maverick nuzzled Cassie’s arm as she drove past a sign that read: Dawson City, Yukon 50 kilometers.

Thank God, Cassie thought, fighting a yawn. Just thirty miles.

It was past seven in the evening by then and she’d been driving nearly twelve hours. She had come all the way from Watson Lake in the southeastern corner of the territory and had sat through dozens of summer highway work delays on the route. She looked forward to a shower, food, a cold beer or two, and a clean bed in Dawson. She desperately wanted one more good night’s sleep before she pushed on into the great unknown.

That thought made her feel better. The great unknown. Adventure. Wild places. A break from the hustle and bustle of the modern world and the pain she was leaving behind. The thought made her smile and take an appraising glance at herself in the rearview mirror.

Cassie was in her early thirties, five foot five, and very fit, with short ashblond hair, and dark sapphire eyes. She wore little makeup, and her skin was deeply tanned and sun spotted due to many years out in the extreme elements. As a result, she was more handsome than beautiful, and at this stage in her life that suited her just fine.

And so did traveling alone with Maverick. Cassie believed she and the shepherd were more than capable of handling themselves in any situation. She was just trying to enjoy the sheer newness of every turn in the road ahead.

But then, in the deep recesses of her mind, a little pang of familiar misery ran through her. She reached for the center console again, only to stop.

Returning her hand to the wheel, she rolled her shoulders back, and lifted her chin up high. It was something her dad had taught her as a young girl when she was feeling down.

Act like you are queen of the world, Cassie, stand like you’re queen of the damn world, and everything else will fade away, he used to tell her when she was young and moping about some minor tragedy.

Crossing a bridge, she glanced down to the creek below, swollen, silted, and rushing with runoff from the snowfields high above.

The frothing water triggered another memory, a bad one, and before she could stop herself—raw, stinking emotion as swollen and roiling as the creek below filled her chest and throat. Tears blurred her eyesight until she had to pull over beyond the bridge.

Throwing the truck in park, she rested her forehead on the steering wheel and sobbed. Maverick began to whine and snuffle at her cheek and ear.

“I know,” Cassie said, wiping her eyes, then hugging the dog. “I love you, too, big guy.”

Maverick’s tail wagged as he licked the tears off her face. Ordinarily, that would have been enough. Cassie would have bathed in her dog’s unconditional love and driven on. Instead, she lifted the center console lid and got out her Globalstar GPS satellite phone.

“I know you don’t like it, but I have to,” Cassie said, turning the phone on.

Against a voice in her head commanding her to stop, she dialed the moment she had a solid connection. At the other end of the line, a phone rang four times before going to a voice mail.

“This is Derrick,” the voice said. “You know what to do. In the meantime, remember, only dead fish swim with the current.”

The current, Cassie thought before the beep.

She wiped at her eyes and spoke into the phone, “Hi, I know I promised I wouldn’t call. But I was missing you, and . . . I’m going to Alaska, just like we said we always would. I’ll probably be there tomorrow, and I . . . I’m doing well, for the most part. Taking it minute by minute.” She paused, “Derrick, I need to tell you a secret. I need to say that—”

The phone chirped—she’d lost the satellite connection.

Cassie cursed and put the phone back in the center console before putting the Tundra back in drive.

Rolling west again, she turned on the radio and got the weather report on an AM station out of Haines Junction, which called for localized showers before clearing up with warmer weather for the next few days.

That’s good. It could easily have been pouring buckets.

She’d no sooner had that thought when the iron gray skies opened and lashed the highway with sheets of water so thick it forced her to slow to a crawl.

As the water pounded on the windshield, Cassie’s memories leaped back years. She saw herself at fourteen, crouched under an overhung cliff, watching a spectacular summer storm roll up an alpine wilderness valley where granite crags soared like cathedrals on all sides. A fire burned beneath the overhang, the smell of coffee wafted, and she remembered feeling safer and surer of herself than ever before.

How old was I that day? Fourteen?

Fourteen, and I already knew.

He was the one.

 

 

Chapter 2

AS QUICKLY AS it came, the squall passed, and the sun broke through the clouds. Just before eight p.m., she pulled into Dawson City. It was nestled comfortably on a narrow shelf at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers and took Cassie by surprise.

She expected a desolate, abandoned nineteenth-century mining town. Instead, Dawson hummed with activity. Tourists milled up and down the main streets, snapping pictures of the flowing Yukon and the various historical sites.

The roads were dirt, and most buildings sported freshly painted frontier-style facades—a former ghost town now revamped and reconstructed for summers filled with tourism.

Cassie went from hotel to motel and found them booked straight till the end of the month. A friendly clerk at the last hotel took pity on her and suggested she try the Northern Breeze Lodge & Smoke House Bar just an hour west of town on Route 9.

“Last bit of civilization until you hit Alaska. It ain’t the Ritz, but the food is decent and the owners are nice,” the clerk said. “Beats sleeping in your truck.”

Cassie thanked the clerk and drove out of Dawson and waited on the ferry that took them across the Yukon River. She paid the toll and drove her truck onto the barge. When they got to the other side, she jumped on Route 9 and headed west for another thirty-seven miles, sighing with relief when she saw the lodge’s flashing green Vacancy sign. The Northern Breeze Lodge & Smoke House Bar was a two-story log cabin building with a rough-looking bar connected to its side. A dirt road flared off Route 9 and headed north behind the building.

Cassie grabbed her yellow rain jacket, opened the door, and climbed out. She tugged the jacket on, aware of Maverick watching her. Cassie whistled, and the dog bounded out of the truck and sat at her feet.

“Go pee pee, Mav.”

Maverick trotted across the parking lot to some bushes, sniffed about, did his business, and came back to Cassie’s side.

“Good boy,” Cassie said. “On me, now. Best behavior.”

The dog fell in beside her as they entered the lodge, a peeled and varnished log affair with a vaulted lobby and wings that flared out to either side. A beautiful elk antler chandelier hung over a sitting area next to the stone fireplace. A massive bull moose with paddles that jutted out five feet wide sat mounted above the hearth. The moose was so impressive that Cassie stopped for a moment to admire it.

“Big, isn’t he?”

Cassie turned away from the moose to find a plump woman with silver hair pulled up in a tight bun, smiling at her from behind a wooden counter.

“He looks prehistoric; is he local?” Cassie asked.

“Who, Boris? No, he’s not from around here,” the woman said pleasantly. The badge pinned to her front lapel read, “Darlene.”

“Boris?” Cassie said, reaching the counter.

“Boris Badinov. My husband, Ned, insists on calling him that. Shot him on the Kamchatka Peninsula, oh, must be eleven years ago. Are you looking for a room, dear?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, would you look at this big handsome fella,” Darlene said, leaning over the counter. “And so well behaved. Will he be staying with us?”

“As long as dogs are welcome.”

“He’s more than welcome, just need to put down a deposit and keep him on a leash. Insurance thing.”

Cassie handed Darlene her credit card and dug out her passport.

“You two traveling alone?” Darlene asked, opening the passport.

“Just me and Maverick.”

Darlene smiled again at the dog. “Hi, Maverick.”

The dog’s hind end wiggled, which caused Darlene to titter; she looked down at the passport. “Cassandra Ann Gale. From Lincoln, Montana. You’re a long way from home, dear.”

“We’re pushing on to Alaska in the morning.”

“Pushing on to Alaska. We get a lot of that, as you can imagine.”

Darlene put Cassie’s credit card on file and then held out a room key. “Twooh-

one, overlooking the creek. Best view in the whole lodge.”

“Is the kitchen in the bar still open?”

“Open till midnight. Food’s nothing fancy, but it’s tasty and reasonably

priced.”

Cassie thanked the woman.

“My pleasure. Enjoy your stay. Oh, and breakfast’s included, eh? Starts at six, ends at nine.”

Outside, the sun was still high above the horizon when she retrieved her overnight bag, a small daypack, and Maverick’s bowls and food. She thought about unlocking the pickup’s cap to get out the steel-sided case that was buried under several duffels in the truck bed, but decided against it. Canada had certain laws that she didn’t particularly agree with, but she wasn’t going to flaunt her defiance of them and get thrown in jail out of principle. Instead, she took Maverick to room 201.

The room was bright, airy, and adorned with rustic furniture. Cassie dropped her bags on the bed, then opened the double-glass doors to the little deck and looked down at the creek riffling below her. She stood there for a minute, admiring the creek before her thoughts seized on the image of a fourteen-year-old boy wading out into a river carrying a fly rod. Mayflies were swirling in a coppery light as the boy cast his line next to a whirling rapid.

Maverick whined, tearing Cassie from that warm yet heartbreaking memory.  She put kibble into one bowl and filled the other with water. Drool fell from the shepherd’s mouth, but he sat obediently in front of the bowl waiting for his mom’s instructions.

“Eat up, boy,” Cassie said. The dog dug into his food and then lapped up the water in his bowl while Cassie took a shower.

Refreshed, she put on fresh jeans, boots, and a light sweater before scratching Maverick behind the ears. He made a nest for himself on the foot of the bed and settled into a postmeal nap. Cassie turned on the TV for the dog, something she always did, and went to the door.

“Mommy’s going to get some dinner, I’ll be back in a bit,” she said, and left.

 

 

Chapter 3

OLD-FASHIONED GAS LAMPS lit the bar, casting a warm glow on the oiled log walls, the rough-hewn plank floor, and the booths and chairs whose red cracked upholstered leather sagged under drinking customers.

Business was brisk, the place jam-packed with rough-looking patrons drinking beer after a hard day’s work. One rowdy group shot pool by the jukebox.

Cassie could feel the attention on her as she crossed the room and took the only empty stool at the bar between a scraggly young man scrolling on his iPhone and two older women who were having a hell of a time over a bottle of Black Velvet whiskey. The two women broke into laughter as Cassie sat next to them, their long black braids swishing over denim vests. Their hazelnut-colored skin would have looked like fi ne Italian leather had it not been for decades of drink and cigarette abuse.

The bartender leaned against the bar top and stared at the TV above him, focused on an episode of Shark Tank.

Cassie glanced over at the game of pool and was met with a half-dozen curious faces gazing back at her. A tall man in a bright red flannel shirt, sporting a five o’clock shadow, raised his beer and blew her a kiss. One of his buddies nudged him and the group laughed.

“Wouldn’t encourage them if I were you.”

Cassie’s gaze went to the scraggly kid to her left, his eyes never leaving Instagram on his phone. She asked, “Encourage who?”

“Everyone in this damn place.”

“You get Wi-Fi in here?” Cassie asked.

“Barely.”

Cassie reached into her pocket and took out her own iPhone, placing it on the bar top. The bartender peeled his attention away from Shark Tank as an order rang up from the kitchen. He grabbed the plate and placed a heavenly smelling pork chop in front of the kid.

“Password is ‘Northern,’ uppercase N,” the bartender said.

The kid put his phone down and sniffed at his dish. He looked at Cassie for the first time and grinned. His Oakley shades sat on the bill of a dark green Sitka ball cap, hiding a swath of tangled blond hair. He looked like he hadn’t seen a razor in months. To Cassie, he fit the mold of the stereotypical environmental science major—an outdoor enthusiast on a four-year track, but procrastinating through seven. He seemed nice enough, so Cassie returned the smile.

The kid jabbed the chop with his fork. “There is a great force for good in the universe. It’s being proven to me all over again.”

The women to Cassie’s right snorted into their drinks. The bartender cleaned a glass with a hand towel. “I swear, kid. That wilderness messed you up something good.”

The kid’s mouth was too full to answer.

The bartender rested a hand on the bar in front of Cassie. “What will it be, young lady, dinner or just drinks?”

“I’ll have one of those pork chops,” she said, studying the bartender.

Silver haired, blue eyed, and clean-shaven, his face said early sixties, but his build said fifteen years younger. He was wiry and strong—the flexing muscles on his exposed forearms looked like taut telephone cables—the kind of guy Cassie’s father would call “all sinew and rope.” He wore jeans, a denim shirt, and an apron that was monogrammed across the breast with the words: Ned. My place. My rules.

“You got it.”

“You’re Darlene’s Ned?” Cassie asked.

“Thirty-two years this September,” Ned replied, and adjusted the sleeve on his shirt, exposing a faded anchor-shaped tattoo. “Anything to drink?”

Cassie scrutinized the familiar-looking tattoo, then ordered a local ale.

“You got a name?” the kid asked.

“Cassie.”

“Billy.” He held out a hand.

She took it. “You just come out of the bush, Billy?”

“Eighty days solo free trekking.”

“Is that like a walkabout?” Cassie asked.

One of the women to Cassie’s right said, “It’s what these new age hippie white kids do to find themselves.”

“Trespassin’ on our ancestors’ land what it is,” the other added.

Billy put his fork down. “I told you, all the land I enter is public.” He looked to Cassie and said, “And yeah, it’s kinda like a walkabout, more of a vision quest. You find the biggest, wildest terrain, and just dive in with no connection to the outside. Without any of this.”

He picked up his iPhone. “Whole world is addicted to this device. I was unplugged

for almost three months; first thing I do when I come back to civilization is turn it on and start scrolling away. Next thing I know, three hours have gone by, and for what? That’s why I decided I’m going back in tomorrow. I need to continue the cleanse.”

Billy explained that he grew up in Oregon, got a degree in philosophy from Reed College in Portland, then committed himself to go full Christopher McCandless for the next couple years. “Into the Wild changed my life, man. But I’m not an idiot like that kid. I grew up in the woods. I’m prepared for it.”

Ned returned and plopped Cassie’s meal in front of her.

Billy continued, “You ever get a chance to spend some time alone in pure, unadulterated wilderness, you gotta do it.”

Cassie cut into her chop. “My family runs an outfitter and dude ranch in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. Spent my whole childhood there.”

Billy whistled his approval. “I went into the Bob last summer from the Rocky Mountain front.  Country’s beautiful, too many people though. You want to go into deep wilderness alone, you come to Alaska or the Yukon, makes Montana look like Disneyland.”

Cassie was too hungry to disagree with the kid. She’d had enough friends from Alaska over the years and knew it was frivolous to argue whose state was more “wild” or “dangerous.” Montana could be a rough place no doubt, but Alaska and the Yukon were different beasts.

She took her first bite of the chop and voiced her approval. Ned gave her a thumbs-up.

Behind her, there were snickers from the group at the pool table. Cassie glanced in the mirror behind the bar, seeing the reflection of the tall, bullish man in the red flannel approaching her.

The woman to Cassie’s right saw him, too. “Like a wolf on an elk carcass.”

The man came to the bar. He was tall, cowboy strong. He held a beer in his hand and leaned between Cassie and Billy. He looked down at Cassie’s chest unapologetically.

“Is there a problem?” Cassie asked.

“Quite the opposite,” the guy said.

More laughs from the pool table. Cassie glanced over at them. A squat man with red hair filmed the interaction with his phone.

The tall guy flicked his head to the pool table. “Name’s Jake. Wanna join us for a game?”

“I’m good here, thanks.”

“No need to be rude; c’mon, I’ll buy you a round, what are you having?”

“Already got myself a round,” Cassie said, “and not being rude, just hungry.”

Jake’s lips tightened. “Around here, someone offers you a beer and to shoot some pool, the polite thing to do is say yes.”

“And I politely decline.”

The snickers at the pool table quieted.

Jake leaned in, his breath smelling like ale. “Then why don’t you finish your drink and we can go somewhere else—”

“Hey, man,” Billy said, tapping Jake on the shoulder, “she said she’s not

interested.”

Jake glanced to where Billy’s finger touched his holy Canadian flannel.

Cassie moved her plate away and shifted her weight on her stool so her right elbow had more leverage on the bar.“I’m sorry,” Jake said, “I didn’t ask a little hippie shit for his opinion.”

The redhead moved in for a closer angle with the phone.

Billy looked like he instantly regretted opening his mouth. The fork in his left hand shook. “She . . . she’s not interested.”

Jake said, “Who do you think she’s interested in, you?”

Billy’s furtive eyes jumped to Cassie’s calm face, then back to Jake’s. He seemed to wrestle with his next line and settled with putting his fork on his plate and standing to face the man.

Jake had a foot in height and an easy seventy pounds on the kid. Billy stared at his brutish physique.

“I didn’t say she was interested in me . . . she’s just not interested in you.”

“Looks like Cheech and Chong here left his bong at home and found his balls.” Jake laughed and took a confident sip of his beer. Then he looked at the bottle and swished it in a circular motion. “You know kid, you look like you need a shower.” He raised the bottle and emptied the frothy suds on Billy’s head.

Billy closed his eyes and let the beer fall down his face. He reached up and took off his hat and wiped at his eyes.

The redhead extended his arm even further.

Cassie stood. “You know what I can never get over?”

Jake turned.

Cassie continued: “Canadians always have the reputation for being polite. It’s all ‘sorry ’bout that, sorry about this—yes ma’am, no sir—you all right there, bud?’ But as soon as one of you gets liquored up, you’re no different than any other dip-spitting, hockey-loving, flannel-wearing asshole in cowboy boots.”

She put her face right up to Jake’s. “So why don’t you and your jailhouse friends let us eat in peace?”

Jake burst into laughter, then addressed the bar, “She’s got quite the way with words.”

“Just get outta here, man,” Billy said.

Jake pivoted, unleashing his right fist into Billy’s left eye. The crack of cartilage on bone sounded like a deer rifle going off. Billy staggered backward, falling over his stool. Jake cocked his elbow for another blow.

Cassie grabbed the man’s balled-up fist, found his pinkie finger, and yanked.

Jake screamed.

Cassie held firm and wrenched the finger even farther out of place, using it as leverage to force Jake’s head and torso onto the bar top.

“Lemme go, bitch!”

Ned exploded out of the kitchen. “What in Christ’s name—!” His face contorted in rage. He came around the bar and grabbed Jake by his collar. Cassie released the finger and Ned dragged Jake over against the wall.

Ned said, “You ever start shit again in my bar, Jake, you’re out, you hear me? For good!”

“Cool down, Ned, he was just messing,” the redhead said, lowering his phone.

Ned turned. “Curtis, you shouldn’t be egging this on. Hotheadedness has got no place here or in the field, you hear?” He turned back to Jake, slammed him against the wall again. “Understand, son!”

Jake didn’t like it, but he nodded, and Ned released him. Jake massaged his throat. Ned motioned to the group of men. “Up to Clinton Creek, all of you.  Triple shifts until I say otherwise.”

The group dropped their pool sticks and reluctantly collected their things. Jake muttered under his breath, held his injured finger, and threw Cassie a bitter look as he passed.

Ned offered Billy a hand, righted his stool, and guided him back on the seat. “Let me get you something for that.” He went behind the bar, scooped ice out of the cooler, and placed it in a Ziploc before handing it to Billy, who placed it over his eye.

Ned mopped up the spilt beer on the bar top and said as he looked at Cassie, “Those boys are hard workers, but that doesn’t mean they ain’t stupid sometimes. Food’s comp’d for the rest of your stay.”

“That’s nice of you.”

“Least I can do.”

Cassie sat back down. “Those guys work for you?”

“I run a small logging outfit on the side up north in Clinton Creek near the river. Helps pay the bills. Where’d you learn that finger trick? I’ve never seen that one.”

“Picked it up in the military.”

“US military? Which branch?” Ned asked.

“Army,” Cassie replied.

“What’d you do in the army?” Billy asked, wincing as he lowered the ice.

“This and that,” Cassie said.

“I was in the military myself,” Ned said. “Canadian Armed Forces.”

Cassie pointed to the anchor tattoo on Ned’s forearm that read: Parati Vero Parati. “You were Royal Canadian Navy?”

Ned laughed. “Back in the old days it was known as the Maritime Command.  Spent most of my career on a Halifax-class frigate out of Esquimalt doing sweeps in the Bering Sea. Froze my ass off for the better part of my life patrolling for Soviets. Swore once I was done I’d never subject myself to that kind of cold again.”

Cassie laughed as she said, “Yet you live in Dawson?”

“I like to call it between Dawson and the middle of nowhere, but I enjoy the summers here. In winter everything is shut down so Darlene and I vacation somewhere warm. My goal is to retire on a boat in the Caribbean. Maybe St. Thomas. . .” He pointed to their empty beer glasses. “Another round?”

 

 

Chapter 4

YUKON TERRITORY, CANADA

Saturday, June 22nd

 

THE NEXT MORNING Cassie leaned against the front counter and looked down at the large map of Alaska between her and Ned.

“I just need a place to camp for a day or two,” she said. “Detune a bit, maybe do some fi shing. I don’t have to be in Fairbanks for work until Monday morning.” Maverick nudged Cassie’s leg with his nose. Cassie stroked the top of his head. “I’ll get you breakfast in a second, bud.”

Ned roved his finger over the map. “If you’re heading into Alaska, I usually send people here”—he put his finger on a tributary jutting off the Yukon River—“just north of Eagle. One of our favorite spots.”

He showed her the direct route to Eagle, where the Taylor Highway ended and the Yukon River ran into the vast Alaskan wilderness. He marked a dirt road that traveled north and showed her a place to camp and fi sh off the beaten path.

Maverick whined when Darlene came into the room with a steaming cup of coffee.

“I want to apologize again for last night,” she said. “I’m sick to my stomach just thinking about it. We want to comp your stay.”

“That’s not necessary,” Cassie said. “Ned’s already paid for my dinner, but I’d like to pay for the room, please.”

Darlene reluctantly agreed and stood next to her husband.

Cassie turned back to the map. “What’s the bear situation up there?”

“Helps if you think they’re around, so you get no surprises,” Ned said. “I’d carry spray, or a gun if you’ve got it. But it’s been years since I’ve seen grizzlies where I’m sending you.”

After giving Cassie more details, they shook hands, and Cassie thanked them for the hospitality. Darlene apologized again for the bar scene.

Ned said, “Speak of the devil.”

Billy entered the lobby, a stuffed backpack slung over one shoulder. His left eye was a mosaic of blues and reds, but he smiled when he saw them.

“Where you off to now?” Darlene said.

“Gonna hitchhike back to the US border and figure it out from there.  Probably head back into the Alaskan wilderness,” he said, then looked down and saw Maverick. “Oh, hey, look at you!”

He went to put a hand on Maverick’s head and the dog growled.

“Easy, Mav, he’s a friend,” Cassie said. “Sorry, he can be extremely protective.”

“Damn, he looks like he could be a police dog or something.”

“Ex-marine, actually.”

“You were a dog handler in the military?” Billy asked.

“No, Mav’s just family,” Cassie said, scratching the shepherd behind the ears.

Billy looked confused but decided to not push the subject. He said his goodbyes to the group and went for the door. Cassie watched the kid go.

“You take a shower this morning, Billy?” Cassie asked.

“Yeah, why?”

“I can give you a lift across the border, take you as far as . . .” She looked to Ned.

“Jack Wade’s where you take the Taylor Highway north,” Ned said.

“Jack Wade, unless you want to head to Eagle,” Cassie said.

Billy considered her proposition. “I’ll take you up on that.”

In the parking lot, Cassie had Billy stow his stuff in the back of the already crowded pickup bed.

“That a raft all rolled up in there?” Billy asked.

Cassie put food into Maverick’s bowl and the dog attacked the kibble.

“It is,” Cassie said. “Oars are up top.”

“Going rafting?”

“Next week,” she said, locking the cap and taking Maverick’s now empty bowl from him. The dog sat outside the passenger’s-seat door and whined.

“No, Mav, you’re in the back seat. Humans up front.”

The dog did not look happy and Cassie had to pick him up and place him in the back seat.

“Big guy’s stubborn,” Billy said.

“He can be a bit ornery.”

They watched Maverick make a spot for himself in the back seat among the pile of duffels.

Billy climbed in shotgun and Cassie started the truck, pulled out onto Yukon Route 9, and headed toward the US border crossing at Little Gold.

“Where you going rafting?” Billy asked.

“Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

“No kidding. You flying in?”

“I’ll fly from Fairbanks and land on one of the gravel bars.”

“Guide waiting?”

“I am the guide,” Cassie said. “One of two on the trip, anyway.”

“So you do know your way around the wilderness.”

“I’m competent.”

“Who are you guiding?”

“A group of ecotourists from Japan.”

“You married?”

The question caught Cassie off guard, she glanced over at him; he pointed to the white, untanned ring of skin on her ring finger.

Billy put up his hands. “Sorry, none of my business.”

“It’s complicated.”

“Fair enough.”

While they drove, Cassie learned that Billy had loved backpacking and nature from an early age. He told her he had enough money saved up to fund several more long backpacking trips into the wilderness. It wasn’t until they reached the border crossing at Little Gold that she found out his last name was French.

A bored-faced US Border Patrol agent barely glanced at their passports and cleared them through immigration and into Alaska with a wave of her hand. Five miles down the road, Billy said, “Do me a favor. Up here, pull over for a sec?”

He pointed out three towering spruce trees in a cluster ahead, and Cassie pulled over on the shoulder and put on her hazards.

“Be right back,” he said, jumping out of the truck and dashing down the embankment into thigh-deep grass.

Cassie reached back and petted Maverick, figuring Billy had just gone to relieve himself, but he came back quickly, carrying a small waterproof daypack and a steel rifle case. He leaned through the open passenger-side window and asked, “Can you unlock the back for me?”

Cassie did. “That yours?”

“Of course,” he said, sliding the rifle case and pack below Maverick. “You think I’d go into the Alaskan wilderness without a gun?” He slid back into the passenger seat. “I hope you have one?”

“I’ve got two,” she said.

“You registered them for Canadian transit?”

She arched an eyebrow. “No,” she confessed with a smile, pulling back on the highway. “Just keep them well hidden.”

When they reached the abandoned mining community of Jack Wade an hour later, Cassie let Maverick out of the truck to go pee and run around in the small creek next to the remnants of an old perpetual motion gold dredge.

Billy soaked his feet in the creek and threw sticks for the dog and looked at the dredge. “Crazy how this stuff is still standing.”

Cassie stared at the rusty machine. “Back in the nineteen hundreds they used to pull a couple hundred thousand bucks’ worth of gold out of these streams with this kind of equipment.”

Billy let out a low whistle and pointed to the run-down living quarters, the corroded tin siding stained orange and brown. Flanking the living quarters was a large garage, with a security shutter rolled down over the old wooden doors. Over the shutter, heavy steel throw bars locked into the building’s wall.

“Don’t know why they keep this place locked up like Fort Knox, looks like it’s going to fall down any minute,” Billy said.

Cassie looked at the beer bottles scattered around the creek bed and replied, “Keeping the drunk kids out I suspect.”

Behind them, they could hear Maverick sniffing through the heavy grass.

“Someone caught a scent,” Billy said.

As he said it, a grouse flushed and Maverick bolted after it. Cassie called to the dog, but he was already off and running.

“Shit, I gotta go get him,” Cassie said. “Mind following me in there?”

The forest was thick with conifers and willows. Cassie trudged through the woods and called for the dog. She could hear his excited panting ahead and the sounds of small branches breaking. She quickened her pace until she hit a large clear-cut.

Timbered ridges surrounded the cut, and long green grass moved in a lazy wind. Cassie could see Maverick’s tail bobbing through the grass.

Billy came huffing up behind her. “What’s this place?”

“Logging cut from the looks of it.” Cassie moved through the high grass, calling for Maverick.

When they got to the middle of the field, they stopped. Two long, parallel strips of grass were matted down and ran the length of the field.

“This looks like a landing strip,” Billy said. “What the hell is a landing strip doing out here?”

Cassie knelt down to examine the pressed grass when Maverick came running over with a dead squirrel in his mouth.

“Maverick, drop it!”

The dog dropped the squirrel at her feet and wagged his tail proudly.

“Great,” Cassie said, securing him to his lead and walking toward the woods. Billy lingered for a moment longer, staring at the landing strip, then followed.

Back at the truck, Cassie wiped Maverick’s paws and put him in the back seat again.

Billy leaned against the hood. “Where are you heading exactly?”

Cassie shut the door. “Past Eagle. Ned showed me a place to camp along one of the Yukon’s tributaries.”

“Yeah, I’m thinking of doing the same thing.”

Cassie looked at him suspiciously. “I planned on camping alone. I need some time to clear my head.”

“Oh, no, of course. I wasn’t saying we camp together. If you’re able to drop me at the preserve north of Eagle, I’ll just walk the river bottom and find a place to pitch my tent. I can throw you some gas money if you want.”

“Don’t worry about it, it’s on the way for me,” Cassie said, opening her door and climbing in. “Come on, I’d like to get up there before noon.”

 

 

Chapter 5

EAGLE, ALASKA

 

THEY MADE IT to Eagle just shy of noon and Cassie parked the truck in the

parking lot of the Eagle Trading Company, the only grocery store in town, and

got out.

“Lunch?”

“Sure,” Billy said, pulling out his wallet.

Cassie waved it away. “I’ll buy if you take Maverick down by the river, let him run around a bit.”

Billy didn’t argue and Cassie headed inside and grabbed two premade sandwiches at the deli. She paid with her credit card and headed outside and walked to the shoreline where Billy threw sticks in the river for Maverick to fetch. Cassie sat down at a picnic table on the gravelly shore and looked from Billy and Maverick over at Eagle. Th e place reminded her of the countless small towns she’d passed through growing up in Montana—western settlements frozen in time, their purpose for survival chewed up and spit out by the turn of the twenty-first century. But considering the harsh Alaskan environment, Eagle still had its charm and the residents had an easiness about them—like the worries of the modern world were irrelevant—which Cassie thought was probably true.

“They have an airport here, you know,” Billy said, coming over and sitting down. “About a quarter mile east of the village where all the natives live.” Their drive to Eagle consisted of Billy rattling off conspiracy theories about the landing strip they had seen in the clear-cut. “Could be used for the wild animal trade.”

“What?”

“That landing field, what if they’re using it to ship bears and exotic animals? I read an article that they are worth a fortune on the black market.”

“It’s most likely for fire crews or getting supplies in for local authorities. I think all that time alone in the wilderness has made you a bit paranoid.”

Billy laughed and took a bite of his sandwich. “Yeah, Ned was probably right. I’ll tell you, though, around day fifty in the bush, I started seeing shit.”

“Seeing shit?”

“Hallucinating.”

“What kind of things did you see?”

“My dead mother for starters. She’s been dead for fifteen years, but there she was, clear as day.”

Cassie looked skeptical.

“Okay, let me explain better.” Billy set his sandwich on the table. “Day fifty, I’m camping on the side of this small river, thirty miles from any sort of civilization and I just felt something. It was like a warm breeze on the skin; then I just look up, and there she was. Standing in the middle of the stream, smiling at me.” He smacked his hands together. “Then boom! Every good feeling I’ve ever had about her came rushing at me all at once and she was gone. From that moment on, it’s felt like her death isn’t so finite.”

Billy rested his chin on his knuckles and he watched the water drift lazily by. “But on the flip side, I also ran into dark patches, felt like a bad acid trip—bad spirits maybe. The natives up here call them Kigatilik.”

Cassie lifted an eyebrow.

“I know, I know. I sound crazy,” he said. “But you ever come to a place by yourself that raises the hair on the back of your neck? Like your body recognizes a threat that your brain can’t comprehend?”

“Sure.”

“Means dark spirits live there. At least the native shamans say so,” Billy said. “I took an anthropology class at Reed that focused on the northern Native Americans. Part of the reason I came up here. I’m pretty sure the natives in this area are descendants of the Hän people, means people of the river. One of the first tribes up here to have made contact with the Europeans.”

Maverick came running over, soaked from the water. He shook and drenched the pair, panting and smiling. Cassie leaned forward and kissed the dog on the head. “Well, as long as I have Mav with me, I think I’ll be safe from dark spirits.”

Billy gave her a wide grin. “No doubt about that.”

Ten minutes later they were back in the truck and heading down Front Street going north. The dirt road flanking the Yukon River was treacherous and twice Billy had to get out and guide Cassie over the deep ruts and crevices.

After a little over four miles, Billy had Cassie drop him off in a heavily wooded

area. He grabbed all his belongings and leaned through the open passenger-side

window and said his good-byes.

Cassie wished him luck. “Stay away from those evil spirits.”

“I’ll be okay. Thanks for the lift, Cassie.”

“Any time, Billy.”

Picking up the rest of his stuff, he turned toward the river. She waited until he disappeared before driving on.

Cassie kept going north for another three miles, until, a half hour after dropping off Billy, she finally came to a flat section with an opening in the trees well off the side of the road. A fire pit sat in the middle of a small campsite.

She put the car in park and consulted her map where Ned had marked the spot and announced to Maverick that they’d arrived.

Cassie stepped outside, let the dog out of the truck, and looked over the campsite. It was surrounded on three sides by low-hanging willows, ferns, and small spruce trees. A large poplar dominated the northern edge of the site and looked like the perfect place for her to hang her antibear food container. The sound of rushing water could be heard from the east and Cassie found a small opening in the vegetation that was most likely a trail that led to the river.

Ned wasn’t lying when he said it was the perfect place to camp.

Cassie rummaged in the back of her pickup and took out a pistol case she had hidden below the seat. She opened the case and took out a Colt Python .357 with a bone-white hilt. Engraved in the bone was the etching of a bucking horse and the name Cassandra.

Cassie opened the cylinder, loaded six bullets, and slapped it shut. Next she grabbed a leather holster from under the seat and cinched it around her belt and put the .357 in its place.

Camp was set within an hour. She dragged a dead log from the woods and set it next to the fire pit so she would have a place to sit. She decided that she would sleep in the back of the truck with Maverick, not wanting to trust the bear situation. But she pitched her red Cabela’s tent nevertheless and used it to store her clothing and supplies.

With everything done, she got out the satphone, locked her food box in the truck, and started putting together her fly rod. She collected Maverick and together they used the game trail that headed east to the river.

The summer season had turned Alaska into a tapestry of green and faraway blues and made the mountains that jutted above the Yukon seem more painted than real. As Maverick basked in the sun, Cassie fished on the fringe of a small eddy next to a large, flat-topped boulder. Two hours and a sizable trout later, she took out her satellite phone, and climbed up on the boulder.

She lay down, resting the phone on her stomach, closed her eyes, and felt the sun beat down on her face. Despite the heat, she remembered snow falling over mountains. She saw the silhouette of her father trudging away through knee-deep powder, and the voice of Emily, her older sister.

He blames himself, Cassie. You can’t do the same.

Cassie recalled how pale Emily’s face had been that day, how she held a steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup, how it trembled in her hands as she placed it on the table next to Cassie’s bed.

Cassie’s eyes jolted open.

To the west, a dark nimbus cloud lingered on the horizon. The scent of rain hit her nostrils. Cassie contemplated the satellite phone, then sat up and dialed. The call cut straight to the familiar voice mail: Hey, this is Derrick—

The recording ended and the answering machine beeped. Cassie kneaded the bridge of her nose, and tears welled in her eyes. She needed to let it out. All the pent-up emotion and anguish that had been building for months. Everything she’d masked in front of her family, friends, and doctors had to be let go. Cassie finally choked out, “Derrick, my secret is . . .”

She paused and looked down at the glinting sun on the swirling water, felt her throat constrict, and said, “Deep down I know it was my fault. I ignored the signs. I . . . the truth is, I’m not doing better. It’s all a sham, I’m not doing better at—”

The phone beeped and an animatronic voice told her the voice-mail box was now full. She hung up and placed it by her side. It had been over six months since that fateful morning, and in that time, she’d refused to cancel Derrick’s phone service. Against everyone’s advice, she’d needed to keep hearing his voice. Cassie remembered waking early that winter morning to the slap of barn

doors in the howling, snowy wind. She remembered going outside to shut them, then collapsing into the snow at the sight within the barn. Her screams had been so animal she hadn’t recognized them as her own. Then the strong hands of her father holding her upright. She recalled how sore her throat had been in the days that passed.

As she sat on the boulder looking out at the Alaskan wilderness, Cassie put a

hand to her flat stomach. She questioned her place in the world, if the impulsiveness

of her trip was yet another way to escape the harsh realities of the past year,

or if it was the exact kind of therapy she needed.

Whether it was muscle memory or not, Cassie took out the worn photograph from her wallet and unfolded it, gazing at her favorite picture of her family. Derrick, Emily, Trask, her father, Maverick—and herself, three years prior, all smiles in the sweltering Fort Benning heat. It was one of the happiest days of her life. She remembered how proud everyone was of her.

How proud Derrick had been.

Cassie’s eyes welled and spilled tears as the wind picked up. She rocked back on the boulder and looked at the impossible blue sky and then at the billowing dark clouds moving in.

She thought of Derrick and the life they might have had together.

She wondered if her own life was worth living without him.

 

 

Chapter 6

YUKON RIVER, ALASKA

Sunday, June 23rd

 

SHORTLY AFTER MIDNIGHT, Maverick lay curled up like a donut against his mom’s purple sleeping bag in the back of the truck.

A summer rainstorm had passed through quickly, and Cassie had spent most of the evening by the fi re trying to read a paperback, but her thoughts kept drifting to Derrick. Around ten she gave up and cleaned up camp, storing her food in the food box and hanging it from a high branch in the poplar tree.

As she slid into her sleeping bag, she secured her .375 H&H Magnum rifle by her side and pinned the Colt Python in its holster between her air mattress and the wheel well. She then shut the truck cap’s back window and latched it before checking to make sure the side windows were locked. She wasn’t going to make any mistakes when it came to the dangers that crept around in the Alaskan wilderness.

Not tonight.

Not ever.

 

——————————

 

Hours later, Cassie woke to Maverick’s growling.

The shepherd was standing, his ears trained. Cassie knew every nuance of the dog’s personality and understood how quickly Maverick could switch from a loving family member to a consummate professional—to a marine.

“Maverick, down.”

Instantly, the dog dropped on his haunches, but his head remained high, and his ears planted still. Cassie opened the side window of the truck cap.

It was well past midnight and the forest was cast not in darkness, but in deep blue shadows. Other than the low murmurs of the river and the chirping of crickets, the camp sat in near silence. A light wind blew from the west, causing faint smoke trails to rise from the dying fire.

She put a hand on Maverick’s back. The hair along his spine was stiff, standing on end. That low growl rumbled from his throat once more. His nose was tracking—his pointed ears searching.

Crack! Crash!

The sounds came from toward the river where she could not see—a large branch breaking under tremendous weight, and what, something falling?

Maverick found his feet again. Cassie snatched up the .375, turned on her head lamp, and aimed the beam in the direction of the noises. She stared at the large poplar on the northern edge of her campsite where she had stashed her food.

“Shit,” she said, her mind flashing on the image of a bear meandering into camp.

Maverick’s nostrils flared.

Cassie shouldered the rifle, rested it out the window, and then turned the light back on the poplar where her food hung. Nothing broke the dense cover toward the river. Nothing stirred.

After five minutes, Cassie shut the cap’s window, turned off her head lamp, and went back to sleep. Probably just a moose.

 

——————————

 

She woke an hour later to the dull drumming of a faraway motor and sat up. Maverick had returned to the same position, his eyes fixed out the back window. The motor wasn’t coming from the direction of the road; it was coming from the river.

Cassie checked her watch: 3:05 a.m.

Who would be out on the river this time of night?

The drone of the motor grew louder. It was approaching from the southeast.

The motor slowed and crept closer. Cassie could hear it idling for a few moments before it sputtered and threatened to stall. But then the engine roared, and it passed her camp and soon faded away. She rested a hand on the dog.

“Go to bed, Mav—”

CRASH!

Maverick sprung to his feet. Cassie fumbled for the rifle again before pushing up the cap window.

A small light blinked in the direction of the river.

She thought she heard muffled voices.

Her mind raced. Was someone in trouble? Was it just a couple of drunks out for a midnight cruise? Why did they stop in front of her campsite?

Cassie cinched the head lamp over her head and turned it on to find the pistol and holster. She threaded the holster through her belt and unlocked the rear window before climbing out of the pickup bed.

“Maverick, heel.”

The shepherd leaped out and buttonhooked to her side. With the holster snap undone, and the pistol within easy reach, she gripped the rifle at port arms. She pointed the head lamp toward the river, the beam scanning the willow thicket and the game trail. She walked past the fire pit and stepped over the log, pausing next to her tent.

The forest went eerily quiet. The hair on the back of Cassie’s neck started to rise and she had the uncanny sensation she was being watched.

“Anyone there?”

There was no reply. Maverick started to growl.

She waited for what seemed like an eternity, before hearing the crunch of dried dirt to her left, beyond the poplar tree.

Maverick reacted first and pivoted. Cassie whirled around. Her head lamp beam found the tree and then a figure standing at the base.

The explosion came from behind her in a flash of orange and reds, the concussive force knocking her over.

Cassie’s face smashed into dirt. Stunned by the blow, her ears rang, and she felt dizzy and realized her head lamp was gone.

Her mind went to her rifle. She groped the ground for the gun, seeing Maverick stagger up a few feet away. He barked, though she could barely hear him over the ringing. Then the dog went into full attack mode, reared, and tore off into the woods.

“Maverick!”

But he was gone.

She forced herself up onto her knees, and her right hand instinctively drew the Colt Python.

There was a loud thwack—like two heavy bodies colliding off in the forest. Then, Maverick’s howls of pain pierced the air.

Cassie got up fast, thumbing back the hammer on the pistol.

“MAVERICK!”

Something metallic clicked twenty yards to her right—Cassie tracked the sound and fired a shot. The pistol barked. The muzzle flash lit up the campsite. Something dark and hulking moved in the shadows. She fired again, blinking hard. Gun still up, she tried to determine if she hit her target.

A faint sound—pop. Something seemed to hit the dirt by her feet with a dull thud.

A hissing noise engulfed the campsite. A wet mist drifted across her face and clawed at her eyes. Cassie gasped. A sharp chemical odor seared her lungs.

She sputtered and choked. Her mind swam. Her limbs felt disjointed and her body began to spasm. She toppled to the ground.

Maverick’s wailing echoed in the distance as Cassie clawed at the dirt, wanting to stop the tremors that dominated her, desperate to fight the darkness she felt coming.

But the seizure only got worse before she felt herself falling away.

 

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE!

 

*****

Connor Sullivan attended the University of Southern California, where he was the recipient of the Edward W. Moses Award for Creative Writing. During college, he worked for Warner Brothers reading screenplays before relocating with his family to the Gallatin Valley in Montana. His first novel is Sleeping Bear.

Visit his website at ConnorSullivanAuthor.com.

 

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