War Creek

An excerpt from Chapter 1

Sunlight touched the cottonwoods, their leaves dark and glossy as if it were the middle of summer. Agnes slowed at the War Creek bridge, wishing she were among the tourists heading farther up the canyon to camp and fish in the shade of those fragrant trees. She paused to take in the warm June air and the cheerful declarations of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. A lone wisp of cloud blotted the sky like a dab of tissue. Her eye followed the Twisp River upstream, still dark and indistinct in morning’s shadows. Then she looked downstream—the direction of retreat. She considered turning around and speeding away. Her father’s words came back to her like a fresh slap: Don’t show your face around here again.

In the twenty years that had passed since she turned up pregnant and her eldest brother was killed in Vietnam, Agnes had not shown her face. She resolved to simply have it over with: help him pack his belongings and move out of the ranger station, then get out as soon as possible. It wouldn’t take a week.

She turned from the river road and crossed the bridge, where the War Creek ranger station waited. A compound of wooden buildings surrounded by tall ponderosa pines, the sight of it brought a sense of returning to another lifetime. Fifteen miles upstream from the town of Twisp, a farming and ranching community on the banks of the Methow River, War Creek had once been a half-hour bus ride to school. The town had grown but the farms along the lower Twisp River remained as Agnes remembered them—pastures dotted with grazing horses and Shasta daisies gone wild, patches of forest, the cottonwoods that shaded the water. The station was remote when she was growing up, but as she crossed the bridge that afternoon, the distance from town felt trivial. Perhaps because those final fifteen miles had come at the end of a five-hundred mile drive from Helena, Montana. Perhaps because she wasn’t stopping to let children out at every cluster of mailboxes. And, she noticed, the section of road upstream of the forest boundary, where county maintenance ended, had been paved.

Her sense of the familiar battled with the knowledge that she was no longer part of this place. She had grown up at War Creek, the hub of activity for a ranger district that had since been incorporated into the adjacent one. Officially closed, it now served as a place to park her father, the retired War Creek District Ranger. He stayed on as a volunteer to look after the place and the horses, give tourists advice on hiking trails, and generally maintain a Forest Service presence in the river corridor. Perennial tourists who came to summer cabins and campgrounds stopped to visit with him, and all the ladies brought him plates of cookies.

Agnes surveyed the ranger station before her. The corral rails, cribbed to scallops by generations of pack stock, had been replaced. The barn, tool shed, and house—a four-square structure that had been both family home and the ranger’s office—bore a new coat of Forest Service brown with crisp white trim. The rough grass was closely clipped, the apple trees pruned. A U.S. flag hung from the top of a warped pine pole. From all appearances, Ranger Bradford Clayton was still very much in charge.

She continued over the bridge into the compound and cut the engine. Her insides felt like a dropping elevator and she took a few deep breaths to calm herself. Then she closed her eyes and remembered: last night she dreamt about the bear.

Her eyes flew open at the sound of boots scraping floor planks.

He stood on the screened-in porch, faded flannel sleeves with blown-out elbows, weathered khakis, wide suspenders. A full hand shorter than Agnes, even in his prime he had been dwarfed by the other Forest Service men, but his broad shoulders and long torso made up for his lack of stature. Built to work, he used to boast. His chest had barreled and his crew cut of sandy red hair had gone silver and shaggy. He rocked from one foot to the other, pacing in place, arms crossed and hands tucked under as if he were chilled. Agnes smoothed the front of her blazer and checked her skirt for bagel crumbs before pushing the car door open.

A deep-throated growl issued from under the porch.

“Knock it off.” Clayt stamped his foot.

Agnes moved toward the house and Clayt stepped to the top of the wide porch stairs. They stood for a moment facing one another, he guarding the portal of his fiefdom, she the supplicant at the gate. Agnes broke the silence.

“I made it.”

“So I see.”

“When was the last time you saw a barber?”

He ran a hand through his hair and shrugged. “You look like you’re headed for a job interview.”

She had hoped her schoolteacher clothes would place her on equal ground—the professional adult, the poised and responsible one. But Clayt saw through this disguise, showing her the true nature of the equal ground on which they stood: both unemployed.

As if by signal they moved to the porch steps and took a seat on opposite ends of the same wide plank. They stared off into a row of ponderosas, the ones he had planted before Agnes was born, now thirty feet tall with trunks thick enough for house logs. Mismatched bookends, Clayt and Agnes: he was broad and florid-faced while she was slender and bony. His hair was wild and nearly white, hers glossy black and tied at the nape. They resembled one another only in the details a member of the family would recognize—eyes a blend of green and blue and gray, his in a permanent squint from years outdoors, hers cautiously appraising. They shared a high forehead and lips that pressed together in a reticent line. Each of them waited for the other to speak.

“Find a place yet?” Agnes asked.

“Got a situation. Young feller got hisself lost, head a Eagle Creek.”

Agnes made a small noise in her throat. Avoiding the issue already—not an encouraging sign. She hadn’t driven five hundred miles to help him recover a lost hiker.

“He’ll turn up, don’t you think?”

“Been missin’ since Sunday.” Clayt chipped a flake of loose paint off the railing with his thumbnail.

“I’m not sure what you can do about it.”

He pinned her with his glacial stare as if only an imbecile would say such a thing.

“There’s plenty I could damn well do, if anyone cared t’ ask.”

The growl from under the porch again.

“Tuck,” Clayt ordered. “Come say howdy. Far as I know she don’t bite.”

“The place looks good,” said Agnes.

Clayt glanced over his shoulder, shrugged and turned back.

“The paint job, Clayt. The new corral rails. I noticed. I’m just letting you know.”
He pressed his palms into his knees and stood.

They walked across the patch of mown grass to the corral and tack shed. Agnes absorbed all she saw, trying to sort what was new from what she remembered. Behind the barn the footpath had grown over and would have been hard to find if she didn’t know where to look. Two horses murmured softly as they came around from the back of the barn.

“Howdy, boys,” Clayt said. “This here’s Jasper,” he told Agnes as he scratched the tall bay horse’s forehead. “That’s Agate.”

“He’s a good looking boy,” Agnes said. Agate, a paint, greeted Agnes with a gentle snort.

“Ship shape,” Clayt said. “Never know when they’ll pay another surprise visit. I tell you the supervisor’s a woman?”

A mule joined the horses and leaned against the corral rails. “And I’ll bet this one’s name is Socks,” Agnes said. Every mule she could remember was a rich chestnut brown with white socks on all four legs. The mule’s chest was matted with pine pitch. She picked at the pitch and inquired about the female forest supervisor.

Clayt shook his head. “Sorry sight—don’t know one end of a horse from th’ other. She’s never even been a ranger—not that there’s any real rangers anymore. Where’n the hell do they find these people.”

“I know a woman ranger in Montana,” Agnes said. “She’s good.”

Agnes had worked for the Forest Service in Montana during the summer in the years she had taught school. She had loved the assignments, from cleaning campgrounds to patrolling the backcountry on horseback. She had grown up in the agency’s arcane culture and had always admired the dedication of people who worked long hours in the hot sun, rain, and insects, just because they loved the place. If it hadn’t been so hard to get on permanent, she might have been a ranger herself, rather than a grade school science teacher.