Road Talk by Cherime MacFarlane

I’m James and Angel’s aunt. Angel works for Chapman Aviation Salvage. James is the owner of the business now. Aunt used to be a relatively loose connection in Alaska years ago. Since so many families come up here and leave family and friends somewhere down in the Lower 48, sorry, contiguous United States, we tend to make another family up here.
Road Talk
Road Talk by Cherime MacFarlane
I’ve known the boys for years. I was three grades ahead of both of them, James and Angel. James hung around with Angel during school. A true case of opposites attract. Angel and James made a friend for life the day they helped me out. Some ill-tempered driver bombed through a puddle next to the sidewalk by the playground and splashed breakup slush all over me. With the hem of his shirt, Angel cleaned off my face. James gave me his jacket, and they took me into the nurse’s office. James went home without his jacket that day. Angel spent the rest of the school day in a filthy shirt. He often wore ragged clothing to school, but Angel made a point of being clean, no matter what. I understood what that simple sacrifice meant to him. I will cheerfully admit to helping James get Angel through school. Several book reports and other papers had Angel’s name on them but got produced as a joint effort between James and me. Capable of doing the work, Angel often had to work after school. If Angel didn’t work, he wouldn't eat. Angel talked Luther into a job in his junk yard, he went there immediately after school and began removing parts from cars. Luther would have given Angel time off to get his school work done. Angel was the problem. He didn't want to be “beholden” to anyone. James and I were different. Since we were family, we could bail one another out. After graduation, Angel went to work for James and his father at Chapman. It was good for both my “nephews”. The old man began slowing down some but refused to admit it. James needed someone he could trust to keep on top of things when his father had him flying all over the state, gathering up parts. After James and Dorcas got married, the old man retired. Angel became even more important to Chapman. The three year age difference meant I met someone and got married way before my boys. My love, a transplant from Oregon, worked in the fishing fleet. We met in a bar when he was busy tying one on after having completed a lucrative season. After all the hype on the television about how dangerous fishing is, you might think I became a widow due to some horrid tragedy at sea. Instead, a miserable disease took my soul mate away. Life insurance is a good thing. So is the fact that Alaska is not a community property state. He signed for every medical treatment he had. When he died, all unpaid bills died with him. I was well provided for, in Alaska terms. I live in a paid for cabin out in the Matanuska Valley, close to Dorcas’ parents. They look out for me, bless them. I never need to worry about my driveway getting plowed. In turn, I am always available for dog kennel help if there is a need. In summer, when they are off on mission trips, I take care of anything their property needs. As I said, we make our families. I have one major vice, driving. At the cost of gasoline up here, it is a vice. I will go anywhere at the mere suggestion that someone needs to drive somewhere for any reason. Every now and again, if James needs something picked up somewhere, something that will fit in the back of my 4X4 pickup, I’m right there, ready to make the trip. Angel called me one day in mid-summer. A guy had crashed his plane and needed parts. In exchange for an engine from Chapman, he agreed to give up a couple of things James had been trying to pry out of him for years. I don't understand much about aircraft parts, even though I've been hanging out with those two for years. I know a couple of the big names, however. Piper, Cessna, and de Havilland. This particular old boy lived in the back of beyond out past Chitina on the road to McCarthy. Several years back, before the Wrangell - St. Elias National Park and Reserve area got established in 1980, the man had a fly-in wilderness thing going out there. Somehow or other he crashed a de Havilland Beaver. This aircraft is the real work horse of bush flying in Alaska. The guy still had the engine, and it wasn't sitting outside subjected to the harsh winter temperatures either. The whole engine had been sitting in a garage on his property, covered. Those engines were as rare as rare could be. James and Angel salivated over the prospect of finally getting their hands on the thing. But taking the engine out to McCarthy with James' plane wouldn't work. The creek up near the guy's place flooded the area leaving a real big gouge in his private runway. The man had a big fight going on with the Feds as they didn't feel he had the right to bring in heavy equipment to fix it. If he was going to get his plane fixed, someone with a 4X4 who was a bit nuts needed to freight one engine in and exchange it for the other. The boys got on the phone to me immediately. I know the area somewhat, have no fear of mud bogging, and not a lot of good sense, either. Angel advised me I had to take along a little muscle as neither engine was a lightweight. And I needed to throw in spare wheels and tires. I figured I'd take the winter studs along and the small hydraulic jack, just in case. I wouldn't worry about getting a ticket for having studded tires on in the summer on that road. The goal is to get off the road to McCarthy with the least damage possible, and at times that can be rough. Let me explain here. The road is built on the old Copper River and Northwestern Railway railroad bed. That means old railroad spikes often surface, and if your tire happens to find one ... I'm sure you get the picture. A while back, two Alaska girls patched up a tire with a tampon, kayak glue, and duct tape. Since it was their third flat on the road, they had no other means of getting to Chitina. It is one rough road. That was why I figured taking the regular spare and two others might do the trick. To make matters worse, the more a vehicle weighs, the more likely it is to find a spike. Hauling the engine increased the chances of a flat or blowout by fifty percent. I thought maybe one of the boys would go along for the ride. I agreed to meet James at the Palmer airport with a rented engine hoist in the back of the truck the next morning at about 8:00 am. James would reimburse me any out-of-pocket costs. Good with it, I backed up to the Hite garage, rolled the engine hoist out to the dirt loading ramp at the side of the barn, and got it into the back of the truck. The Reverend wouldn't mind the kids using the thing since James is his son-in-law. On the dot of 8:00 am, I sat waiting at the Palmer field. James flew in, a little hot as usual, taxied over to the truck, and got out with this guy I've never met. The look on my face must have given me away because James immediately started with the introduction. "Hey, Molly B. I want you to meet Louis. Lou, for short. He's working with us for the summer. He's used to crew on that crab boat Davis Lee was on." It had been four years since Davis Lee died. The crew had attended the funeral, but I don't recall much about it. I blanked everything. I'm still not good about dealing with that shit. I did not want to get into any of it, not without a full box of tissues. The guy stuck out his hand and short of telling him to get lost, I had to shake. I didn't recall Lou at all. Then again, he isn't all that remarkable where looks are concerned. Dark hair, dark eyes, and a face that looks as if it has seen a lot of wind burn over the years. Wrinkles around his dark eyes and at the corners of his mouth tilted upward when he smiled and said hi. Not a real tall guy, Lou was just kind of average all the way around. I did not like this action one little bit. I didn't know the man, and I would be stuck in a vehicle with him for probably somewhere close to twenty hours. "Listen, Lou, I need to talk to James here a minute." I grabbed James' arm and propelled him to the front of his Super Cub. "What goes here? I have no idea who that guy is. I'm not sure I want to in a vehicle with the man for as long as this will take." "Molly, I wouldn't have brought him along with if there was any other way. I've got to drop this engine off with you and head out to Dillingham. Dorcas can't hold down the fort 'cause she's down in Seattle with Mom. Frankie has a case of the stomach flu, and that leaves Angel to hold down the office." "I do not want to talk about anything. I don't need any stories about him and..." "Molls, honey. The guy is pretty quiet. Since the start of summer, I've maybe heard two complete sentences out of the man. The only reason I found out about his being on the boat with Davis Lee was when I mentioned sending you; he knew your name. I asked him how he knew you, and..." James shrugged. "Molls, I wouldn't send you out with someone I didn't trust. Since he's not the chatty type, I don't think he'll get on your nerves. Please, Molly. I need this engine swap to happen, and so does the guy it's going to." "If this goes to hell in a hand basket, you will never hear the end of it, James Chapman." James grinned. He knew I would do the job. "No surprise there, Molly. But, I don't think Lou will get your back up. Too far, anyway." I took a swipe at him, and James danced back out of the way. He was messing with me. I hadn't been on a long run since the beginning of summer, and James understood I was due for one. He also knew I had the camera along and would take any good shots I saw. So the next question was the timetable. "What's the name of the guy this is going to, and when do I have to be there?" "Thanks, Molly!" James gave me a hug before pulling out his cell. "Here it is. I'm gonna give you the guy's sat phone number. If you call him from Chitina, he will start out and meet you at mile 55. The State has a wayside rest area there with amenities, and you can switch the engines out, rest up, and head on back." I put the info into my phone and looked up at James. "So when did you tell Brewer to expect me?" "Well, it takes ordinary people about four hours to get to Chitina, so I told him to expect to hear from you about 11:00 a.m. or so, unless the troopers get you, then it'll be about noon." "Dang it, James! Do not jinx me! No slow jerks and no troopers, 'kay?" I took another swipe at him and connected this time. James yelped. "I'm gonna tell Dorcas you're smacking her man around. See how you like that action." I grinned at him. "Well, when I tell her how you're picking on me, we'll both gang up on you. Don't give me that shit." He walked around to the other side of the plane and yelled at Lou. "Keys are probably in the ignition on the truck. Why don't you back it around so we can get the engine loaded and you two can get gone." With a slight nod of his head, Lou walked up to my truck and got in. I watched as he put the seat back a little. "James, if he doesn't put the seat back exactly..." James reached out and pulled me into a quick hug. "Woman, will you take it easy here? Give the man a break. I swear he's not an axe murderer, and he has manners. Easy, Molly B., Lou is just muscle to get the job done. You're the boss, and I already made that clear to the man." I shut up. There was no use carrying it any further. It was just a job, and I needed to get it done. The fact that I would be in close confines with a man for well over most of a day just happened to be part of the working conditions. The fact is, I haven't done anything with a guy in the last four years. I don't want to. There isn't a man on the planet at this time that can measure up to the one I lost. There's only one man I want to be around. Since I can't have that one, I'm not looking for another. I may never be in the market for a man. Some city chick might need a man, but I don't. Anything that breaks around the cabin, I can fix. The only thing I can't fix is my truck, and that is why I own one that is only a couple of years old. When the mileage gets near ninety thousand, the truck gets traded in for a new one. I always get the largest available warranty they have. My insurance covers windshield replacement as I usually go through at least two windshields while I own the vehicle. This is Alaska. Gravel is all over the roads. Pebbles flying at glass at speeds of around 50 mph can do a lot of damage. My current vehicle has less than thirty thousand miles and already has two cracks in the windshield. But since the cracks are low across the bottom of the glass, I'll wait before replacing it. Although, this little jaunt out McCarthy way may well result in a new one. The guys got the engine out of James' plane and into the back of the truck fairly quickly. I used the tie down straps to secure the load. James knows I always secure my loads. I'm the pilot, and I want to be sure this heavy sucker isn't going to shift around and possibly damage something. I had the tires and wheels in front and behind the engine hoist. The engine sat on a folded up old blanket. I had just enough tension on the chain securing the motor to the hoist to keep it upright. The old blanket padded both the bottom of the engine and my truck. I love my truck. It is a sweet little thing with a six cylinder engine. I had the option of a four cylinder, but sometimes you have to bite the bullet. In this country, a 4X4 with a four in it is like a cat in hell without claws. You have to have some power. It might save your life, or someone else's. The bed is full size, and I have space in the back where I can cram in two adults in a pinch. Their knees will be against their chests, but in an emergency, that's how it goes. When I was satisfied that engine wouldn't move more than a fraction of an inch in either direction, it was time to fly for both vehicles. James gave me a quick hug. With a nod to Lou, he hopped in the plane to go gas up and get to Dillingham. Lou didn't say a word when he walked over to the driver's side of the truck. I was about to give him hell and remind him who was driving until he scooted the seat back where I originally had it positioned. With a slight grin, the man stepped back and held the door open. "Ma'am." I lowered my arms from across my chest, walked over and got in. He walked around, got into the passenger seat and buckled his seat belt. Without another word, we took off. Out of orneriness, I didn't immediately turn the volume down on the stereo when it automatically came on. The BlueTooth in the stereo was hooked to my phone; the play list is hard driving music. That means anything with a fast beat. Then it occurred to me that he had probably experienced the loud music when he moved the truck over to load it. He hadn't turned the volume down, and he didn't say a word. My scare the guy off tactics weren't getting anywhere so far with this man. I opened my window and hit the power button, releasing Lou's so he could open it if he wanted to. I didn't need to be nasty. Lou had a job to do and my making his life miserable because he happened to encounter me wasn't fair. I got gassed up, we grabbed some snacks and drinks and took off. The day was one of those when I was glad I had the camera. I wanted to see if I could get a couple of shots at the pull out past Palmer. That spot is the perfect place to see the Matanuska River from up the valley to the lower end. It's a cliff on a perfect sweeper curve and, in the summer, the State keeps it clean. There's a walkway up to the edge of the bluff. I have several shots, but you can never have too many good landscape photos. I dabble a bit in photography, so I try to remember to take the camera with me. There's no telling when the perfect picture is going to turn up in the viewfinder. I sell photos now and again to people wanting to make post cards and that sort of thing. It didn't take me long to get the camera out and attach the monopod to it. Lou didn't ask any questions. He got out of the truck and sprinted up the incline before me with his cell phone out. Not planning to stick behind the fence, I began looking for a place to get over the barrier when the man reached out for my arm. "Why don't you give me the camera, then you can lean on my shoulder." I took that suggestion. Having a firm shoulder to lean on made it easier for me to scramble up the sandy spot that others had been using for the same purpose. Without any comment on my being on the edge of a crumbling chunk of earth, Lou handed me the camera. Before I knew it, the man stood beside me. While I set up my shots, he got busy taking pictures with his phone. As soon as I put the lens cover on, his phone went into his shirt pocket, and he held out a hand for my camera. Silently, he took my hand and eased me over the barrier. What choice did I have? I had to thank him. I've come up here by myself a couple of hundred times at least, but he did make it a bit easier. However, his helping without my asking for it had me a bit flustered. He didn't give me any choice in the matter, and yet he wasn't vocal about my being careful. Not a peep out of him about how dangerous it was. Hell, I understand it's questionable, easing out there on the edge of that cliff. Sometimes you have to take a chance. Without any talk at all, we got back in the truck and headed east toward Sutton. It did occur to me the man understands about taking chances. After all, he has crewed on a crab boat. If that isn't high risk, I don't know what is. Now I got curious. What was he doing up here in the summer? How come he wasn't home or out on a salmon boat in Prince William Sound? What was a fisherman doing on the hard at this time of year? My brain had all kinds of questions racing around in it. But I didn't want to be the first to open a dialogue since I was the one who bitched about talking in the first place. My big mouth had put the brakes on anything I wanted to ask, and I suddenly came up with a bunch of things to ask Lou. I wanted to know why didn't I recall ever hearing Davis Lee talk about him; it was on the top of my list. I fidgeted all the way down the road toward Sutton. What ploy could I use to open the conversation? There are two long straight stretches before you come to the village of Sutton. There is a truck lane to give those going faster the chance to get around slow moving vehicles before getting into the climb to Eureka Summit. Ahead of me a big boat on a triple-wheeled trailer was under tow. As I came up on it, I saw that it was a fishing vessel. In the direction we were headed it was safe to assume it would be fishing for salmon out of Valdez. Now was my chance. "Looks like that one is headed for Valdez." "Probably." That's all he's going to say? He sure is a quiet guy. "Salmon fishing, I guess." "Yeah." I intended to pry out the information if I had to. "How come you aren't out on the Sound?" "No need. Felt like a change." Damn, he was making this hard. I thought I'd just stop being delicate and get down to the bone. "If you crewed with Davis Lee, how come I never heard him talk about you?" A hint of a chuckle huffed out of the man before he answered me. "You did. Just didn't know who he was talking about." He went silent again, and I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel. On top of being closed mouthed, he appeared to be playing cryptic games. Maybe it was pay back for being a bit of a bitch. Lou probably heard every word I said to James. Shit! I wanted an answer. "Why didn't I know who he was talking about? What's the big mystery here?" Before he replied to me, he took another drink from the water bottle. When Lou spoke, he still didn't answer my question. I got a request instead. "Want to turn down the music a hair? I hate yelling if I don't need to. Did enough out on the boat." A reasonable request, I had to agree. So I cut the volume by about a third, and he finally said something without prompting. "Better." He took another drink of water. I was about ready to stop the truck and take him by the shirt front when he spoke again. "Davis Lee ever mention the Indian?" "He did." "That's me." Those two small words had me searching my brain for the things Davis Lee did say about Lou. The very first thing I came up with was an observation about how the man wasn't much for small talk. No shit! Then he reached out and turned the music back up to the level I had it on. Lou didn't want to talk. Crud. Now I felt bitchy because he wasn't talking, but my brain went into high gear recalling everything Davis Lee ever said about the man. "The Indian never chats. He only speaks if he has something to say. If he does say something, better listen. You probably need to hear whatever it is." And there were other things. "He knows his stuff; nobody is more dependable, and the man is tough as nails." Davis Lee thought a lot of this man, Louis. I pictured the two of them working together out on the boat, and the need for Davis hit me as strong as ever. What wasn't quite so bad was the cracking of my heart as it broke inside. I could picture his smiling face without wanting to curl up into a ball and hide. I supposed I had made progress of a sort. I forgot about Lou over in the shotgun seat and thought about Davis Lee as I drove through Sutton toward Eureka Summit. It was the first time in a very long time I tried to think of him. I pulled memories up of the good times; I could finally picture some without feeling like I wanted to pull over and cry until I couldn't move. For over twenty miles, neither of us said a word. When we finally rounded the turn that brought the Matanuska Glacier into view, Lou broke the silence. "Stopping? It's quite a sight." I'd driven past the glacier so many times; it was almost old hat. "This your first time seeing the glacier up close?" "Yeah. Sure must have been something else when the first man came through here." That was the longest sentence I heard out of the man, and he was right. At one point the ice must have filled the entire valley. There are several good places to pull over, I got the truck off the road and parked. Both of us got out without speaking. I lined up a couple of shots, then closed down to just stand and take in the view. "I wonder how they crossed the thing?" I commented. Another one of his little chuckles sounded off my right shoulder. "A man will do a lot to find something to eat or a place that's easier to live in." "I wonder what kind of prey would tempt someone out onto a glacier that might open a crevasse and swallow them without a trace." He tapped my shoulder. "That. Turn your camera." Lou pointed up the slope behind us. On the other side of the road, a moose picked its way over a patch of rough ground. He was right. Now that he mentioned it, I could see why a hunter would keep on following as big a prize as the one he pointed out. "That's a lot of meat, isn't it? I see what you mean." "Yep, it's like fishing. You keep on going and hope you hit the big one." That made sense to me. Before fishermen got money for the catch, they went out on the ocean to find food to eat. I agreed. "An empty belly is a good motivator." When I folded up the monopod, I was smiling. The moose picture would probably be a good one. Nice backdrop, a close-up, and the animal actually turned its head in my direction. "If the empty belly belongs to someone you're responsible for it's an even bigger call to action." Davis Lee had been correct about Lou. He spoke when he had something worth saying. I got over to the driver's door, and before I reached for it, Lou had the thing open and popped open the other door for me to put the photography stuff away. I wasn't used to having stuff done for me since Davis died. He did things like that. Davis Lee opened doors for me, made coffee in the morning, and even cooked when he was home, and I still worked. Entirely out of the habit of being treated like a lady, it did fluster me a bit. I did wonder what the man's motives were, being me. But I just didn't see this guy wanting into my pants. He's my age, and there's younger stuff to be chasing out there. I had a real desire to find out what was going on in Lou's head. Curiosity bit, and I decided to find out what made this particular silent type tick. He was an enigma, and what little I did know about him didn't give me any clue to the workings of his mind. How to worm it out of the man was the problem, but there were quite a few miles ahead to work out a plan. As you're driving east on the Glenn Highway toward Glennallen, once you pass the old lodge on the east side of Gunsight Mountain, behind you is a spot with an excellent view of the mountain. What sets this scene apart is the ribbon of asphalt that winds around the base of the mountain. The only problem is, there's no actual pull off. Furthermore, I didn't want that big boat to pass us. I pulled off on the shoulder, what little there is, didn't bother with the monopod and jumped out of the truck. The camera came on as I slid out of the door. A harrumph kind of sound issued from Lou, which I ignored. The camper I passed had turned off at a view point pullout a couple of miles back, and I didn't think they would get back on the road too soon. The fishing boat was the only one I cared about, and the driver wouldn't be stopping to take pictures. After taking three quick shots, I hopped back into the cab, tossed the camera to Lou, got my belt back on, and put the truck into gear. "Would you please stuff the camera into the case for me? If you'd stick the case back behind my seat, I would appreciate it." "That's not exactly a good pullout. Not much shoulder." A certain amount of sharpness in the tone he used with me over my actions had me ready to call him on it, but I held my tongue. We had a lot more miles to cover and being at odds a third of the way into this drive probably wasn't the best of ideas. Of course, the small matter of the correctness of his observation registered. But I was real good at pulling off on the side of the road, catching the pictures I wanted, and getting back on the road before whatever I had passed like a bat out of hell, caught me. Davis Lee had calmed me down a little when we got married. Since his death, all curbs were removed. Like a horse without a bit in its mouth, I wouldn't be easy to rein in. I did what I liked and to hell with the rest. If I got a ticket, fine. I would be the one paying the damn thing. I thought I was doing pretty good keeping my mouth shut when I wanted to jump Lou's shit. It's my truck and my hide. If I feel like taking a chance on getting either one creamed out, that's my problem. Like a smart man, he put the camera away, slipped the case behind my seat, and kept his lip zipped. That made me happy. I wanted a few pictures of the Tazlina Glacier shining in the sun. It would be easy to get them because of the long pullout alongside the highway at the summit of the pass. My problem stemmed from the boat and a couple of motor homes. All three vehicles were bunched up behind each other, and I caught sight of them through the viewfinder when I snapped the pictures of the highway. I wanted the pictures, and decided it would be worth the trouble, so I looked over at Lou. "Listen, I'm going to pull over up here. I want pictures of the glacier, but there's that bunch of motor homes and the boat behind us. You want pictures, snap them as quickly as you can. Don't bother with any other stuff. We don't have time for you to be polite to me. I don't want to work to pass all three going down into the basin. Places to pass are slim between here and Glennallen." Lou grunted. I figured that might be as much of a reply as I would get here. My lack of manners irritated the man. That was just too damn bad. I never claimed to be Miss Manners. Besides, all that polite stuff left me feeling as if I had to live up to being someone I wasn't. I jumped out of the truck without cutting the ignition, raced out and got what I hoped would be good shots. We jumped back into the truck and took off again. One of the motor homes could be seen just coming up over the brow of the hill as I sprayed gravel over the pullout when I punched the accelerator. Not another word was said as we raced down the road. With the windows open, and the tunes loud, I could ignore the irritated man in the opposite seat. All was right with my world. Lou's, maybe not so much. As we neared Glennallen, it occurred to me I might have been somewhat harsh. I could have phrased the whole thing differently. Two things had occurred to me and bounced around in my brain. As James' employee, I probably would see him around. The other thing, garden variety curiosity nagged at me with all kinds of questions. He avoided the questions I put to him earlier. Perhaps not quite avoided, I think the term might be evaded. Another thing ate at me. How much did this man know about me? How much had Davis Lee Smith said to him and the other crew members about us? I didn't have an idea in the world how to go about finding the others, but Lou was right here in the truck. Once again, it seemed I had done what Davis ragged me about more than anything else; opened mouth and inserted foot. Instinctively I knew acting sickeningly sweet with this man was out of the question. His back would probably go so high up; he would insist on my letting him out of the truck. Then he would hitchhike back, and I would get a bunch of guff from James, Angel and Dorcas. No, Lou wouldn't succumb to eyelash batting. There was no hope. I had to apologize. Damn it all to hell! Those two little words, I'm sorry, were the only thing that might have a hope in hell of working, and I had better be sincere. I spent the twenty miles into Glennallen framing the thing I hoped would reestablish a rapport of sorts. The first thought in my mind, why not stop at the restaurant in Glennallen and buy the man lunch, seemed like a good idea at the time. But I screwed up with the "buy the man" part. "Nope. I buy or nothing." I surely should have guessed that from the door opening reaction. "We could each pay for their own..." Equally stupid on my part. Lou shook his head and glared at me. "No." "Alright then, you buy the food! I give up. After we eat, we'll get on down the Richardson to the turnoff for Chitina." He pointedly opened the door to the restaurant and put one hand on the small of my back when I walked in. I jumped as if he touched me with a cattle prod. Then I began to feel slightly guilty. I doubted he meant anything by the gesture. It was his Mr. Manners showing. Jeeze! If I had known what a mess this would turn out to be, I might have found my own "muscle." The only thing going well on this trip was the picture thing and the drive. Come to think of it, I'd driven this at my usual pace, 65 mph where I must and 85 mph the rest of the time, and not heard one complaint or mumble out of the man. Usually, most men started to grumble under their breath or outright complained about my driving within the first twenty miles. Once we got seated and had looked at the menus, I took a casual glance at the man, only to find he had already folded the menu and was watching me. "Whatdaya want?" "A BLT. We made pretty good time, don't ya think?" I fished for complaints. "Yup." And that was it. Not one word came out of his mouth about my driving skills or lack thereof. I wondered if working on the Bering Sea for all those years knocked all fear out of him. Then, came the tiniest little lift of the corner of his mouth. The small grin nearly got lost in the fine weather lines on his face. "You trying to get a rise out of me?" A little shrug followed that long sentence. "You're competent. I'm good." Just like that, no more comments out of his mouth. Louis was okay with my driving. I wasn't sure how I felt about that. Maybe I had tried to intimidate him a little. This man was a puzzle and a half. All my usual methods of keeping males at bay did not get the desired effects with this guy. He had me off-balance, and I didn't care for that one lousy bit. Worse, I suspected he was doing his best to keep me from getting the answers to the questions I had. This situation could not continue. Once I got him off the main road onto the McCarthy highway, I planned to grill him. As it happened, stopping for lunch worked to my advantage after all. That fishing boat, the one on its slow way to Valdez, got in front of us. Tourist season in Alaska means the narrow two lane roads are full of vehicles. The few places open enough for passing didn't work out due to the amount of traffic. We crawled along behind the boat and had slim to no chance of passing it. If the guy didn't obey the pull-over-when-you-have-traffic-backed-up-behind-you rule, we were stuck. Climbing the big hill right out of Glennallen, there wasn't any place for the thing to pull over anyway. I just throttled back, and we crawled up the hill behind the big boat. After turning down the volume on the music, I dove right in. "You never did say why you aren't out fishing. What's the deal?" "I'm done. Pushing forty real hard. I've been at this since I was a kid. I need something else." Things began to look up. I got about three whole sentences out of the man. "How come you didn't go back home? Surely your family must miss you?" With that question, the gloves came off. "For someone who didn't want to talk, you sure ask a lot of personal questions." True. "You started this." "Come again?" There was a note of confusion in his tone. "When you told James, you knew who I was 'cause you crewed with Davis Lee, you got me to thinking about stuff; remembering things." "How does that lead to my getting questioned about my history?" "I recalled stuff he said about you. That led to what I don't know about you." Lou wiggled around in the passenger seat as if he had suddenly found a pokey thing in the padding. "There's nobody to go home to. You and I are in the same boat, in a manner of speaking." I, for damn sure, would not let him go with that. "You a widower?" He stayed quiet a long time before he responded to the question. A little sigh prefaced the admission. "Yeah, I am. No kids either, like you." That shut me up for a while. There was a lot more I wanted to ask, but his reference to personal questions had me wondering if I wanted to go there. That was the big question here. Before I formulated what I wanted to say or do, he laid one on me. "Why no kids?" Suddenly, it seemed I had unlocked Lou, and I wasn't entirely pleased with the result. But he gave me no choice. Unless I planned to be super bitch, I had to reply. "Nature, I suppose. We never got around to the mechanics of the matter. Davis got sick first. Then it was imperative that I not get pregnant." At last, a break appeared in oncoming traffic on a straight stretch. I got enough of an opening to get around the boat. I punched the little six, and she roared to life. Once again, I was free and doing 80 mph, leaving the slow moving boat far astern. "Davis was a good man. Why the hate on for all things male?" I should've left Lou alone. I didn't want to answer the question. Yes, Davis Lee Smith was one in a million, and that was the entire problem. Perversely, I took the old Edgerton Highway turnoff. The dirt road would be slower than the straight shot down the new highway, but the twisting track might shut him up for a while. Not a logical decision on my part. He waited until we are a mile or so in before turning sideways in the seat. "I answered you. How about it?" This one was so far down into my being; I didn't know if I had a way to verbalize it. "Molly?" My name came out softly, and I almost didn't hear him. "I don't know if I can explain. Davis was more than good. The man was everything I ever wanted. It was like we slipped together and twisted into place. We locked together and....." I choked up and wasn't able to say any more. If one more word came out, I would need to pull the truck over and dig out napkins. I clamped my mouth shut; I couldn't speak. "Uh huh, and you aren't willing to try again. It's easier to be alone than to take a chance on finding that again." I blinked hard as I tried to keep from crying. I thought I might be in danger of hyperventilating. Damn it! "Pull over. Stop the truck." I couldn't drive this way; I knew he was right. I pulled as far over on the dirt road as possible, popped the seat belt, and hauled ass out of the cab. Back by the tail gate, I bent over and tried to stop the grief shit. It took a minute, but I finally got control of my body. Thankfully, Lou left me alone to get myself together. I didn't need anyone hovering over me. At the back of the still running pickup, I kicked a little dirt around and wondered how the hell I could get back into the cab. But there was a job to do and standing here wallowing wasn't getting it done. I had to do this. Several people depended on me, and it was time. If I didn't get going, we would be late. The slow boat ate up any margin we had. With a deep sigh, I got back into the truck. Without looking at Lou sitting quietly in the passenger seat, I snapped in the belt, put the truck in gear, and we moved down the road. Not a word came out of the man's mouth, thank God. I wasn't up for anything but driving; I can always drive. I sure as hell didn't want to talk. But it seemed Lou understood how I felt. I didn't hear a peep out of him all the way to Chitina. As soon as we got close to the lake, I pulled off into the parking area and called Brewer's satellite phone. Once he answered, it was time to drive to the one lane cut through the mountain. We crossed the bridge over the Copper River, and we were on the McCarthy road. It's a damn rough road, and it required all my attention to keep the truck where it should be. I didn't want to get too far over to either the middle or the side. There are places on the road where I would have loved to stop and take pictures, but that would have to wait for the return trip. The sun would be in the wrong position later, but that couldn't be helped. The delivery came first, so I kept my mouth shut. It took four hours to make the 55 miles to the rendezvous point. Some of the time wasted could be blamed on the shitty road, and some I blamed on the slow pokes driving the road itself. If the sign said 35 mph, the tourist driving would slow to 15 or 20. By the time we got to the meeting point, I could have chewed nails. Thankfully, we didn't any tire trouble to this point. That was a God send, 'cause I might have lost it all the way. I had pulled myself together somewhat. The need to concentrate on driving saw to that. Lou and Brewer took care of the engine swap. Brewer's truck had a hoist mounted on the back of the bed near the tail gate. He lowered the engine we were picking up onto the hunk of plywood he brought along. With the de Havilland engine on the ground, the men moved the other engine into Brewer's pickup. The next step involved lifting the one from the ground up and into the bed of my truck. Once again, I made sure the whole thing got tied down tight. Since I'd been walking around, I worked most of the kinks out and was ready to take off again. I didn't want to spend any more time on this shit city road than necessary. The whole time, I kept thinking about what Lou said. I tried hard not to, but the Rev Em, Dorcas' dad, had made a few cryptic remarks along those lines recently. I began to wonder how many other people didn't bother to say anything, and I started to get a little angry. Who the hell asked any of them? It was my life, and if I wanted to sit in the cabin and hide from the world, so be it. I fumed silently as we started back the other way. I didn't choose this lousy hand I'd been dealt at all. I was working with it the best I knew how. Somehow, it felt like the silent man in the other seat was judging me, and the more I thought about it, the worse it dug at me. "Do you think I'm a coward?" "You don't know me. Why the hell do you care what I think?" I hated it when people answered a question with another question. "Yeah, but you know me, don't you? You listened to Davis talk about me for what, three years?" "Four trips. Yeah, he talked about you almost constantly." Beyond pissed, I was almost frothing at the mouth. What does Louis not know about me? Before I spit out all the nastiness sitting on the tip of my tongue, things got ugly. A sound like a muffled gunshot split the silence in the cab, and the rear end of the truck on the driver's side dropped dramatically. Every curse word I learned from Davis Lee came out of my mouth. Now, I had a real reason to be angry. A tire blew out, the rear one on the driver's side. Lou would have to dodge tourists while changing the tire. It would be dirty and potentially dangerous. "Jack?" Lou asked as I pulled the truck over as far to the outside as possible. The road was on a ridge line and had no shoulder. A steep drop off on the south side would have the scaredy cats hugging the center of the road. On our side of the road, the shoulder was none existent. The drop off wasn't as deep, but there was nowhere to park. With my truck broke down on this side, it would narrow the road down to a lane and a half. I killed the ignition and put on the four way flashers as I answered his question. "Behind you, on the floor. I brought a small hydraulic floor jack. There's a breaker bar back there and a 1/2 inch drive socket that fits the lug nuts. I think we shouldn't bother trying to get the spare off. Let's grab one of the studs. We need to get this done and get off this ridge ASAP." He didn't bother to respond. Lou jumped out of the truck, jack and breaker bar in hand. I would be the only defense he had. I stood beside him as he squatted down to get this job done, I made sure any vehicles overtaking us realized someone was working on a tire. If two big motor homes came along in either lane at the same time, the driver behind us would have to wait to get by my truck. It was far too narrow for shenanigans, and a few of those tourists with the big motor homes can be real jerks. The tire got changed in record time. The man can hop to in a pinch. We were off that ridge in under twenty minutes. I breathed easier once we got moving again. As soon as the ridge was behind us, Lou answered the original question. "Not a coward. Bet you kissed a lot of frogs before you found Davis Lee. There's nothing wrong with being careful. What would be a mistake is, locking yourself away from any possibility of meeting someone." I got what Davis meant when he said to listen when the man speaks. That was the most he had said to me during the entire trip, but it sure packed a punch. As I processed that mouthful, I got the truck several miles closer to Chitina before responding. "What if I don't find anyone who measures up?" "There won't be another Davis Lee. Not happening. Maybe you need to rethink your criteria here." "What do you mean exactly?" When I took a glance at him, I noticed a quick little shrug before he replied. "You're not the same young woman who fell for a high-flying crab fisherman. I'm not the same young fisherman who fell in love with a shy little girl in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. That isn't going to happen again." Intriguing. The man is a deep thinker. "What are you looking for?" That soft little chuckle told me what he is about to say might be halfway humorous. "Besides peace and quiet?" I must have immediately played porcupine, 'cause the next words out of his mouth were designed to smooth my feathers. "I'm not talking about you, M.B. I mean in general. I'm no fan of drama, manufactured drama for no damn good reason at all." "Oh, you mean you're looking for someone who is easy to be around. Kind of laid back and not into a lot of shit." He started laughing, and I took a look at the man. Lou wore a big grin. "Oh, hell no! I like spice. That's a whole lot different than someone who makes a big deal out of every little thing." "I kinda make a big deal out of stuff." Why on earth that came out of my mouth is anyone's guess. I regretted letting it slip out. Cringing, I waited for the rejoinder. "Nope, 'cause if you did, you would have hid in the truck and let me handle the tire while you sat in here and whined." That gave me a warm feeling and perked me up until I heard the little chuckle from the other side of the cab. I felt a blush reach into the roots of my hair, I studiously ignored him for the entire time it took to get back to Chitina. If he wanted quiet, he could have it. As we started across the bridge over the Copper, the sun was shining down on the river. A light breeze blew the scent of juniper and spruce through the window. I looked out over the wide river and at the man seated beside me. Lou was smiling as he looked at the fishwheels and dip netters strung out along the bank. It just slipped out of me. "How long?" Without looking my way, he replied, and the smile vanished, which was a real shame. "Eighteen years, here pretty quick." He understood what I was asking. Lou got quiet again, but this was a comfortable sort of silence. I headed straight for the tire shop in Chitina. The mechanic declared the tire dead, but he had another just like it. The price wasn't as bad as it could be, but we were number four in the lineup. We walked back to the Hotel Chitina and the restaurant to have lunch. No use stressing about it. That's life in Alaska. While we ate a leisurely, satisfying lunch in the old turn of the century building, we talked a little. Lou asked about my photographs and what I planned to do with the ones I took. I told him all about the post cards that the outfit I sell to makes. After lunch, I took the camera out, and we walked around the old town. Once I got all the pictures I wanted, we walked over to the gift shop. Pleased as can be, I pointed out a couple of the photos I took on several of the postcards on the rack. Lou grinned at my enthusiasm, which turned me pink immediately. By mutual consent, without a word spoken, we headed back to the tire shop. The truck was ready. I paid the bill and got moving up the road toward the junction with the Richardson Highway. On the steep hill out of the Tonsina River Valley, Lou asked about the photography again. "Why aren't you doing the postcards yourself?" "That would tie me down too much. I like driving and taking the pictures, but I've got no patience for messing with the actual putting it all together." Lou was silent as we sped past the turn off for the old Edgerton. I didn't even get questioned for continuing up the pavement to the junction with the Richardson Highway. Just before I slowed down for the turn onto the junction, a sort of low rumble came from the passenger seat. "The view is amazing." I knew this. I have seen this view many times over the years, and I never tire of it. Low in the sky at 11:00 pm, the sun lit the scene. That wide slant caused the light to hit the Wrangell's and the valley at their foot in a way you won't see anywhere else but in the high latitudes. It's incredible. "You've never been out here before?" "Nope." I took a quick glance at him after turning onto the Richardson, north to Glennallen. He stared out over the broad river valley and the mountains beyond with a look of amazement on his face. "How come you don't move out here?" It was a reasonable question, so I gave him an honest answer. "Too far from my support network. James, Angel, Frankie and the Hites are all in the Anchorage area or the Matsu Valley. It's not like I can't take care of myself, but..." I couldn't finish the sentence, and I didn't think I needed to. I'm reasonably sure Lou got the message. With a smile, I raced down the last little hill before rounding the curve to Willow Lake. I didn't need to look to know Lou was impressed. I heard the sharp intake of his breath as he spotted the view on the other side of the lake. As usual at this time of year, the pullout and the shoulder of the road on the other side were full of people just as stunned as my passenger. On an evening like this, the view is world class. I pulled off on the shoulder as there wasn't room anywhere else. Funny thing, with all the people parked there, you could hear the breeze stirring the spruce branches. Everyone, even the photographers seemed too awed to be making noise. He slid out of the truck, and I caught a little sigh, and then he mumbled. "Dear Lord!" Lou was captivated by the view. He turned toward me for a moment. "What are their names? You know?" "Sure. The big brooding one on the far right is Blackburn. The one that looks like a big sugar loaf is Wrangell. It's an active volcano. It smokes now and again. The other one is Mount Sanford, and the one with the big chuck out of it is Mount Drum." He shook his head in wonder as he stood there with his hands in his front pockets. "Aren't you going to take a picture?" I asked the man. "Naw. Not with a piddly little phone camera. Couldn't do it justice." Then he reached out to put a hand on my arm. "You've got good pictures, I bet." That light touch, his hand on my arm felt different. I hadn't had a man touch me that I didn't consider family for the last four years. Not sure what to think, I glanced at him. But he wasn't looking at me, Lou was looking at the scenery. I didn't pull away or tell him to move his hand that seemed like a bitchy move to me. He wasn't stroking me, or anything like that. I looked down at his hand. Not particularly large as men's hands go, his fingers were long, and there were scars all over them. One real jagged scar ran up from the middle of the webbing of his thumb to the cuff of his flannel shirt. I wondered what on earth did that. I decided to ask him later. Now, I needed to respond to his statement. When I looked up, those dark eyes were trained on me. I got nervous as if I've been caught doing something I shouldn't. I colored up and could feel the heat in my cheeks. "That looks like a bad cut." "Wasn't any fun at all." He nodded as he spoke. "What caused it?" I might be babbling, but my mouth kept on going when I knew I should shut it. "Halibut hook. Almost took me over the side. Tore out at the last minute, because I jerked hard enough to keep from dying." I gulped a little, and must have gone white, because he grinned at me, then put that hand up on my shoulder. "That happened a very long time ago. Don't think about it. Tell me, if you have a picture of this, can I get one from you?" I nodded in response. For some reason, I couldn't get the picture of that huge hook tearing Lou's skin away out of my brain, and it kept me from speaking. This man was as tough as they come. Suddenly, I wanted to know everything about him. A million questions popped into my thoughts, one after another. I turned to take in the view with him. Without any real thought on my part, the first question slid out into the companionable silence we shared. "Why did they call you "the Indian"?" "Cause I am." He took one real good look around him, looked up at the sky, then back at me. "And we need to move along here. Even at the speeds you drive, it's going to be bright and early in the morning when we get back to Anchorage." Back in the truck, all my questions still bubbled around in the mush of my tired brain. Four more hours to Palmer and in the twilight, stuff on the road can be deceptive. I needed to pay attention to the road. Moose hide in shadows. When we got to Glennallen, we gassed up the truck and headed inside to pay and grab some road food. Beef jerky and the highest caffeine content sodas available sat at the top of the list. Close to thirty miles out of town, Lou handed me a piece of the jerky. "I'm a Metis from around Prince Rupert, British Columbia." "I never heard of a 'metis' before. What kind of Indian is that?" He laughed loudly at my question before answering. "If you want to get technical, I'm an Anglo-Metis. You can tell because my last name is MacKie. My ancestor, a Scot married a native woman, Cree in fact. In Canada, we're recognized as an aboriginal people." "How on earth did you get involved in fishing?" "Needed the money. A job opened up on a fishing boat out of Prince Rupert owned by a sort of cousin. I worked for him until the bottom dropped out of everything in 1996." I chewed up my jerky and did a little mental calculation. "You crewed at fourteen? Do they even let kids work on fishing boats in Canada?" His hand materialized in front of my face with another piece of jerky. "Well, I turned fourteen part way through the season. Since he was a relative with the same last name, everyone assumed he was my dad." I caught his little shrug out of the corner of my eye. "We let them think what they wanted to. I needed the job, and he needed cheap help. It satisfied the both of us." I recalled something about the Alaska ferry, the Malaspina. I asked Lou if he got involved in that fiasco. "Were you part of the group of Canadian fishermen who blockaded the Malaspina in Prince Rupert?" "Nope. I had already moved on to crewing on the halibut boat out of Petersburg. While crewing on that vessel, I met another guy who planned on going crab fishing. When he checked with the captain, he found out they needed a second deckhand and asked if I wanted to try it. I went." That led to another question. One I was real ambivalent about bringing up. I decided to chance it. After all, he could decline to answer. "Where was your wife in all this?" Lou got real quiet, and I figured I had pushed it too far. "Hey, sorry. Don't bother with that one." I didn't expect what came out of his mouth next. "It's been a hell of a lot longer for me than for you. About the same time that hook ripped through my hand, my baby sat in a hospital with a bad case of bronchitis she picked up from getting caught out in a storm. She and her family had some nets set out around the island there. I didn't have a clue until the Mounties somehow got in touch with the US Coasties." After stopping for a moment, he took a deep breath and went on. "She never was physically strong. She had asthma, but her heart gave out first. Too much strain." The two of us fell silent as we both thought about love and loss. My brain did calculations again. "You were what, twenty one, twenty two when she died? How old were you when you got together?" I put one hand to my mouth. I needed to stop picking at old wounds. "Scratch that! Pretend I didn't even open my mouth." "It's okay; I don't mind. She was another shirt-tail cousin, and we got married as kids, I'd turned twenty. We had a couple of years, but time wise, maybe a year all together before it happened. Guess it's one reason I never went back. There's nothing in Prince Rupert or Canada for me anymore. It's been a very long time." "Did you become a citizen here?" "Nope. Got a green card. I never got loose and partied like the other guys. I keep my nose clean, so I can stay in this country." By this time, we finally reached Chickaloon, I felt pretty wiped out. I needed a bed, and Anchorage was just a bit too far for me to drive. The house was no use either. It was almost as far to my place as it was to Anchorage. "Is there a place in Palmer or Wasilla where we can crash? We both need to give it up for a while," Lou asked. "I'm thinking about it. I don't want to take a chance on the roach coaches in Palmer, but there might be a place in Wasilla." Pointing to my cell phone in the cup holder, I gave him a name, and Lou got busy finding us two rooms for the night. We got lucky, and I made for the lake in Wasilla. The hotel had a couple of rooms, a real wonder at this time of year. Lying prone for the balance of the night would be wonderful. On the queen size bed, I snuggled the extra pillow up under my arm and thought about the trip and Lou. Eighteen years the man had been alone. Lou was a nice man, even if he got so silent at times, I felt like I was by myself. Then again, not exactly. His silences didn't make me uncomfortable. What did he hope to find in a woman? If I was looking what did I want? Did I want to explore that particular possibility? Davis and I were more than good together. It was awesome and amazing. He was the best lover, friend, and husband a woman could ever want. But, if the right person came along...? Good question. What did the 'right person' look like? I wasn't looking for another Davis, but having someone just to be with might not be so bad. Someone easy to live with, for sure. I didn't want some guy ordering me around. That was one reason I shied away from exploring the available pool of men. I didn't intend to be an unpaid housekeeper, and I was leery of hooking up with someone who might become sick and die on me like Davis Lee did. But, insisting on a full physical from a guy would probably be a deal breaker. Then again, the whole thing with Davis did teach me there were no guarantees. Was I afraid to take a chance again? That just might be possible. In the morning, Lou sat waiting for me at a table in the continental breakfast area. A cup of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal were in front of him. "Morning," he drawled out before shoveling in another spoonful of oatmeal. I just nodded my head. No coffee, no talk. I greeted him after I got about half of the coffee in, but I still felt drained. The fragrant coffee and cold orange juice went a long way toward reviving me, so I headed back for another cup and a Danish. Fortified with caffeine and the beginnings of a good sugar rush, I was about ready to get moving. I didn't like putting on the same clothing this morning, but real soon I'd be able to get into my hot tub. When I opened my eyes after a long sigh, Lou grinned at me. "What was that all about?" Draining his cup, he pushed it to the side. "I thought about climbing into my hot tub with a glass of wine." The grin on his face widened. "Yup. I heard about that hot tub." Jeeze, what did Davis Lee tell him? Several excellent memories floating around in my head had to do with that tub. I was halfway tempted to ask what he heard, but the other half of me wasn't sure I wanted to know. Lou took pity on me. "I got invited over to your place for a dip a few times. I understand the tub is nice and comfy." Not sure quite what to make of that cryptic comment, I finished the last bite of the pastry and pushed the chair back. Time to get this show on the road. "Ready to roll?" "If you are." He kicked the whole thing back at me. Being reasonably intelligent, I shut up and got moving. Out on Eklutna Flats, Lou opened the conversation again, which surprised the hell out of me. "I understand there might be a pickup down on the Kenai in a few days. Want to go along for the ride?" I gave the matter some thought. I guessed there was more than a trip to the Kenai Peninsula on offer here. But the man didn't push me. The suggestion sat between us, and I gave it careful consideration. "You got a place?" He seemed surprised by the question. "Yup." "Anywhere near close to the shop?" "Uh huh." "How about if we stop there for a minute?" "You planning on pushing me out of the truck?" he inquired softly. "Nope." Two can play at the zipped lip game. He directed me to the apartment in Spenard. Without pumping me, Lou opened the door and invited me in. The place was as neat as his bunk probably was out on the boat. Not so much as a dirty dish sat in the sink. I stood in the middle of the studio apartment, looking around; Lou waited silently to find out what I was up to. He didn't say a word when I looked in the bathroom. The toilet seat was down. I grinned at that; a real holdover from having to keep the lid on it at sea. It didn't seem like he wanted an unpaid housekeeper that was for sure. I decided not to push for a physical. I'm just not that much of a bitch. If something happens, it happens. But, there was one more area of stuff I needed to clarify. He was short enough for me to be able to place my head on his shoulder. I liked that. And he stood still while I tried it on. He's taller than I am by a few inches. I hardly ever wear heels; I don't like teetering around, so that didn't pose a problem. But I got up into his personal space, lifted my head, and looked at him. Those dark eyes of his widened. "So, how about you kiss me. Let's see if all this road talk will lead anywhere." The man's face split into a broad grin. "Well now, M.B. You sure are a spicy bit. No doubt about it." With that, his hand found the back of my head, and his lips came down on mine. He didn't push the tongue thing right off the bat. Lou went at it easy, gently increasing the pressure as he pulled me close against that hard body of his. And, wonders of wonders, we fit. The man broke off to suck on my earlobe, and I had to put both hands on his shoulders to hold on. In a little bit, he went back to kissing my lips. I was content to let him and ran my hands up into his dark hair. Yeah, Lou could kiss. We both explored the possibilities a little before he took a tiny step back. "Next Wednesday. Meet me here, say 8:00 am. We'll head on down to Anchor Point. I suppose you're driving." A statement, Lou knew me, and I was good with it. I wasn't sure how far we would take this particular road, but I decided to give it a try. "Sure. You want to make the reservations?" "Yup. Will do. I suppose we best get to the shop." I started toward the door, and his hand found the small of my back. It fit fine there. He pulled the door shut, walked me over to the driver's side of the truck, and opened the door for me with a smile. I might like having doors opened for me. Louis could become a habit I might not want to break. 1Thank you for taking the time to read Road Talk. If you enjoyed it, please consider telling your friends or posting a short review. Word of mouth is an author’s best friend and much appreciated.

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