This essay was originally published in Clackamas Literary Review, Fall/Winter 2000.
Chicken. The word sticks in the mouth, a flaccid piece of greasy skin. It conjures up unpleasant images: yellow fat congealing between skin and flesh, the way chicken bones look, grey streaked with black, scraps of meat clinging to the bone. Think of the way the word is used: You’re chicken, kids taunt each other, and the words are meant to wound. Are you chicken? I’m not chicken. And finally there is the bird itself, that ball of foolish feathers that has forgotten how to fly. The dumb cluck and the beady eye, cruel with stupidity. The way they will run after their heads are gone, blood pumping from the neck. Chicken.
* * *
Some people say the old-timers, the miners who were the first white settlers to the Forty Mile country, wanted to name the town ptarmigan–after the white grouse that is now Alaska’s state bird–but they couldn’t spell the name. That’s the story, anyway, and as good a one as any. I don’t know how it really got its name. But if you drive north up the Taylor Highway–a misnomer for the narrow strip of gravel that ribbons through the wilderness towards Canada–you end up in the part of Alaska called the Forty Mile country, in a mining town, a place so small it has only one public building: a post-office. Open part-time. And then there is the bar/roadhouse/gas station that makes up most of the town. And that place, that tiny nondescript place carved out of the wilderness on a gravel road, is called Chicken. Chicken, Alaska.
The Forty Mile has been called God’s Country. Just past Chicken, the low hills climb higher and higher, and the Top-of-the-World Highway scuttles up the hills towards Canada like an insect. Up there, above the treeline, you can see forever, hill disappearing into low hill and the sky curving above like the view from inside a silk balloon. Up there, you see gyrfalcon, the white god-birds of the arctic, hear their piercing cries as they dive down for the rock ptarmigan that live at those heights. Up there you know the stillness that blows through a person in wild places. Up there, you might be the last human being alive.
But you are not. You are following the narrow gravel road that leads to Canada, to the roadhouse before the border run, at that time, by a man named Action Jackson. There you can buy gas and American cigarettes, and you can check your guns at his place if you want to cross the border into Canada, to follow the road down from the tundra to the Yukon river, and gamble at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s in Dawson City.
But this story is not about that part of the highway. This story is about Chicken, Alaska, and a hunting trip, and a woman who stripped for some hunters in a bar.
* * *
One August, my husband and I borrowed a truck from one relative, a three-wheeler from another, a rifle with a good scope from a friend. We were off to the Forty Mile country for caribou, the only kind of wild game I would eat. We were students then, with little money, and knew a caribou or two would keep our food bills down over the winter. Truthfully, we weren’t that serious about hunting–it was more the adventure of it: a week of camping in mountains just becoming burnished with gold, and the beauty of the drive itself. We were like many people who had grown up in Alaska: we couldn’t just go camping–we had to have a point to it, and hunting gave us that. We loaded up and drove, headed for the Taylor highway and the Forty-Mile caribou herd.
My husband and I went caribou hunting one fall. That seems like a simple enough statement, but writing it, I am immediately aware of how much must be explained. My husband who is no longer my husband–even I am no longer the woman I was. And the hunting, too. I grew up in Alaska, and I took hunting for granted, even though I never really did it myself. But it seemed, then, that everyone else did. When I was in high school, half the male population of the school would be out the first few weeks–that was moose hunting season. From August to late September, Alaskan newspapers are full of hunting sales, of advertisements for custom game-cutting, ads for four-wheel drive “hunter’s specials.” And in the interior of Alaska–where winters are cold, dark and long–mid-August is autumn.
* * *
So we went. Loaded up the three-wheeler, and our guns–the 30.06 and his hand-gun, the .44–and drove east from Fairbanks towards the Canadian border. My husband had grown up in Alaska, from a family of hunters, and he was vain about his shooting skills. He talked a lot about hunting; I figured he knew what he was doing. I had never been hunting before, never shot the 30.06, though I’d shot the .44 and had been knocked back on my ass, ears ringing in spite of the plugs. I wasn’t planning on shooting either gun. Instead, I imagined hunting like this: we drive somewhere, make a nice camp. Ride around on the three-wheeler for awhile, then see a herd of caribou and John would shoot one. The Forty-Mile herd was a big one; I figured it would be easy to spot.
In fact it rained steadily, the drizzly rain that falls in cold, greasy sheets in Alaska in August. In fact, we had no idea where the Forty-Mile herd might be, or where to look. The country is big; where to begin? So we drove up to the roadhouse at Chicken to have a beer and consider.
My husband and I were drinkers then. Like many trips, this one promised to be more of the same: we’d drive, spend the evening getting drunk, then camp, or drive home, depending. Once we drove to McKinley Park from Fairbanks and back with a case of beer and a bag of barbecue potato chips. We consumed both on the drive there and back, and of that trip I remember little more than flying along the empty highway at 90, singing along with the tape-deck, the little Datsun my husband drove shaking at the speed. We were like that then.
So Chicken. We drove up, had a beer. Talked to the bartender, a woman of about fifty, grey hair cut short as a man’s. She hadn’t seen any caribou, said she thought the Forty-Mile herd was maybe two valleys over. That might mean twenty miles or two hundred. We looked at each other, shrugged. Had another beer. We didn’t have the hunter’s instinct, couldn’t imagine dragging about on the three-wheeler through the tundra and rain and muck for a caribou.
“How about a bear?” she asked.
“How about one?” my husband asked, fiddling with the label on his Bud.
“You want to shoot a bear? We got too damned many around here. Saw two griz at the dump in the past week. If you hang around there tonight, you could get one for sure, and do us all a favor,” she said as she wiped at the bar.
We looked at each other again, both vaguely intrigued with the idea of shooting a grizzly.
“Can’t eat it,” John said.
“But the skin would be nice,” I said, seeing a bear skin rug in front of a fireplace in a log cabin I owned only in my imagination.
“We don’t have a bear tag,” he said, ending my reverie.
“Too bad,” she said.
We finished our beers as the rain began to clear, paid, walked back to our truck.
“Fuck hunting,” John said, and we headed up past Chicken, up the Top-of-the-World Highway, checked our guns at Action Jackson’s, and drove on to drink and gamble in Dawson City.
* * *
We stopped in Chicken again on the way back from Dawson City. We were both tired, and needed to stretch our legs, and I found myself actually looking forward to using an outhouse instead of squatting in the bushes sodden with three days of rain. A pallid sun had come out, but otherwise the scene was the same: the wide driveway gravelled with tailings from the gold operations, the low and ugly wooden building squatting in the open space. In the background loomed the dinosaur shape of a gold dredge, and all around the valley scarred with tailings. This was gold country still–which is why people lived here, wrenching the precious metal from the earth, reaching into her living body and pulling out her bones.
This time we were not the only guests. A motorhome, huge and out of place, loomed in the parking lot like a small house. A beat-up black truck was parked at an odd angle. And us. The truck we had borrowed was acting squirrely; sometimes starting, sometimes not, so perhaps we should have known better than to turn it off. But we were foolishly optimistic. After he shut the truck off, John turned the key again in the ignition, and there was silence after a muted click. It had done this before in Dawson, then started mysteriously about an hour later, though we hadn’t done anything to it but let it sit.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “If it doesn’t recharge in a bit, I’ll get someone to jump us.”
Inside, the same woman was behind the bar, her broad back swathed in a plaid wool shirt. She turned around and nodded at us. “Get anything?”
“Nah,” John said. “Went to Dawson instead.”
The room was long and narrow, walled in splintery wood. A scarred bar ran the length of the place, and between the stools and the wall a few tables were squeezed in. We made our way to one of these. At the bar, three men sat in a group, dressed in jeans and camouflage jackets. Hunters. On the corner stool, a thin biker-type, with long scraggly hair and a wallet on a chain, leaned morosely over his beer. One stool over from him, a fat blonde woman swayed in time to the music on the jukebox.
One of the hunters turned around. He was older than us, gaining on forty, with a huge beer belly and a bald forehead that shone even in the dim bar light. He had a handgun in a holster strapped to his belt. Smaller caliber than John’s .44, but I beyond that I didn’t recognize it. “You all hunting?” he asked.
“We were,” my husband said. “How about yourself?”
“Yeah, we’re out for caribou. Seen any?”
“Nah. We went up to Dawson instead. We hear the Forty Mile herd isn’t anywhere near here.”
“That’s what she said,” the hunter said, jerking his head toward the bartender. “Still nice to get out. Get away from the wives.” His eyes flashed across me, then swung back to the blonde at the bar.
I couldn’t figure out who she was with or what she was doing there. She was already drunk though, that was clear. She swayed on the bar stool, tossing her lank hair not quite in tune with the music. As the hunter talked to us, she turned our way, and her blue eyes narrowed at me. She wasn’t as old as I had thought, maybe a little older than me, maybe not. She sneered, stuck out her chest. Turned back to the bar. The dynamics there were strange, so I turned to my beer, my husband, and we began to talk, making the trip sound more interesting than it had been. It had, in fact, been odd, unsettling, but we didn’t talk about that. We planned on what we’d tell our friends about the trip, the outrageous lies to explain why we had no caribou. We were both young–just past 25–and we’d only just got married that past spring.
The bar was small, and even with the music, conversation carried. The way the tables were squeezed in, between the bar and the wall, there was no place to look but at the bar. Nothing to do, really, but watch and eavesdrop. And I was nervous, listening hard for subtle signs of trouble, so I wouldn’t be surprised when it came.
Because I’d let myself be surprised in Dawson City. Hadn’t watched the signs, paid attention to the stares. I had been so charmed by the place itself, by the goldrush atmosphere, and the turn-of-the-century houses, the sourdough cabins. As a child I had loved Robert Service, the frontier poet, and now I saw the bank where he had worked, the cabin he had lived in. So I hadn’t noticed other things, how people stared at me on the street. I had just had my hair cut and colored: it was spiky on top, and dyed a deep burgundy that looked dark brown, but glowed like wine in a certain light. I loved the color of it. Loved it so much I somehow believed that the looks I was getting were because of my hair, that people in Dawson hadn’t seen the spiky cuts and color that seemed to be all the rage everywhere else. I did notice, though, that it seemed that everyone in Dawson was white. I hadn’t noticed right away, not the first night in Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, the small casino, where we’d had a beer and watched other people gamble, too money conscious to want to play ourselves. Most of the gamblers were white-haired tourists, who didn’t look twice at me. And though the bartender had been slow to serve me, and had been brusque when she finally did, I didn’t think anything of it.
But the next morning, I looked around at the faces peering out of the rain from beneath baseball caps and rain ponchos.
“How come there’s no Natives around here?” I asked John.
He shrugged. “Maybe there’s no village near here.”
Maybe not, I thought, but how could that be? Both Alaska and the Yukon Territories had high Native populations, and while a certain segregation seemed to be the rule, I had never been anyplace in Alaska without seeing Native faces. Now, years later, I would be wary. Now I would know that an all-white town in a place like that was all white because it wanted to be. Now I would understand immediately what the stares meant. But I didn’t then.
So later that night, when we walked into a bar and grill to have a beer and some food, I should have noticed how all the other people in the place were white. I did notice that when we walked in, me with spiky hair and brown face, John’s blonde hair vivid in the dark, that everyone turned around and looked at us, and the silence that fell over the place seemed longer than the moment or so it must have lasted. We sat down at a table near the bar. I suppose I should have got it then, should have understood when no one served us, when we sat there for over fifteen minutes and no one came, though the waitress stared coldly. But I didn’t.
“Do you think we need to go up to the bar?” I asked John, and he looked around in puzzlement. He shrugged, headed up, but when he made it to the bar, the bartender headed off in the opposite direction, and he stood at the bar alone.
I heard one of the men at the next table say loudly–so loudly I couldn’t help but overhear–“The only good Indian is a dead one”–but even that I didn’t understand. It was such a ridiculous thing to say I couldn’t believe it. The whole scene was surreal, as if I had fallen into some trite western movie: a bar in the backwoods and a heroine who can’t get a drink. I also couldn’t figure out what was happening because I’m not Athabascan. I didn’t even think of myself as Native. Because I didn’t think of myself as anything those days. I am a Chicana, mestiza like most Chicanas, which means Indian too, but I felt shy claiming it because I had none of the outward trappings of Indian-ness, no connections to the Rez, no knowledge of another tongue or culture. But I look Indian, though then I didn’t quite understand that that was enough. So when I heard the man say those words, that old evil cliche, I looked around, wondering who he was talking to. And was surprised to see all those hostile white faces turned towards me.
It shook me up. Especially when John came back from the bar empty-handed; they’d flat out refused to serve him. Even he was shaken, his fair skin even paler with anger and surprise.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” he said, and he grabbed my hand and held it as he led me out. Someone called out “Squaw man” after us. I could feel John stiffen, but he didn’t turn around, didn’t let go of my hand. Outside, in the welcoming darkness, we looked at each other and took deep breaths of the night air. We were both surprised by the vehemence of their hatred, these Canadians who didn’t even know us. We were scared by them too, by the violence edging into their voices.
* * *
So in Chicken, I was nervous, listening for a sign that I should run, like a nervous dog scents the wind for change. We’d run out of things to say and we sipped our beers in silence.
The men at the bar were not silent. They were eying the T-Shirts tacked up behind the bar. The shirts said “I got laid in Chicken, Alaska” and had a picture of a scrawny cartoon chicken with wild eyes. There were black panties for sale too that said the same thing, minus the cartoon chicken. And the woman at the bar still swayed to the music, but now the balding man’s hand was sliding up her thigh. His hunting companions, younger men both, were drinking shots with their beer, and their voices were turning raw with drunkenness. The biker-type still sat straight forward, staring at nothing behind the bar.
“I give good head,” the woman said. She spun completely around on her stool when she said it, and her eyes were hard as she smiled like a malicious child. “Don’t I Danny? Don’t I give good head?”
The biker grunted but continued his meditation on the wall. Apparently he was Danny, but other than his noncommittal grunt, there was no sign they were together.
The balding hunter threw back his head and howled. He elbowed his nearest companion, a skinny young man whose face was pitted with acne. “Hear that? She gives good head!” His companion grinned.
The woman got up from the bar and began to dance in the narrow aisle between the stools and the tables. She was unremarkable in every way. Her hair was the color of birch leaves in autumn after they’ve lain on the ground for awhile, their color leached away. Her face a dimpled moon, reddened by sunburn and pimples. She was puffy as a loaf of risen dough.
And now she swayed to the music on the jukebox, tossing her dirty hair. She shook her heavy, loose breasts at the men at the bar. She laughed.
“Oooh, Mama. Shake that thing.” Baldy spun around to watch her, winking at his companions. The skinny one watched too, his angular face sliced by a bad-toothed grin. The third companion sighed, sipped on his beer. And Danny, the biker, ordered another Bud.
“Hey, you want a T-shirt?” Baldy asked. He spoke to the woman’s breasts. “I’ll buy you a T-shirt.”
“Yeah?” She climbed back up onto the bar stool, her ass flopping over either end. She lifted her breasts, plopped them down on the bar like two bags of sand. “I’d like a T-shirt,” she said.
Baldy elbowed his skinny companion. “She says she wants a T-shirt!” He winked at Skinny, then turned back to her, let his hand come to rest inches from her right breast. “I’ll buy you a T-shirt then. Bartender, get this woman a T-shirt.”
The bartender, looking on with the tired eyes of someone who had seen it all, pulled a couple of shirts from a pile behind the bar.
“Small,” the woman said, though she was obviously not a small. She reached out for the T-shirt the bartender held, but the balding man intercepted it.
“Not so fast,” Baldy said. He was grinning so hard I thought his face would split with it. “We’ll pay for the T-shirt. If you put it on in here.” The back of his hand brushed the side of her breast.
And my husband looked at me. All this had taken only a matter of moments, much less time then it took to retell. And we looked at each other, weighed our beers in our hands. We wanted to go, but where? The truck was dead, and the bar was too small to move in; we couldn’t get away.
“Come on,” Baldy said. He was knotting the T-shirt up in his hands. “I’ll buy it for you, if you put it on here.”
Skinny was emboldened by the game. “Show us your tits!” he crowed.
The biker looked up at that, once, sharp. Then turned back toward his beer. And the woman was smiling, taking the knotted T-shirt in her hands. She was basking in the attention. The third hunter, the silent one, finally looking up from his contemplation of his empty shot glass, began to pay attention. Behind the bar, the bartender sucked her teeth loudly, then left the room.
All three hunters began to chant. “Take it off, take it off.”
Then Skinny turned around toward me. His gaze lingered below my head. “How ‘bout it?” he said.
My husband stood up then, stood between us. For a moment Skinny’s throat worked nervously, then he turned back to the blonde. We got up and walked out of the bar.
In the adjoining store, we looked at souvenirs, idling away our time. We were nervous, the tenseness in our muscles like coiled snakes. It was nothing, I thought. Nothing. But the shame I felt was deep and hard to shake, and beneath that lay fear. I was younger than that woman and better looking. And I looked Native, a fact that made me vulnerable. I had heard too many stories of Native women raped in bars not to be afraid, even with my husband at my side.
The bartender leaned against a display case full of T-shirts and fur hats. “Good thing you got out of there,” she said, looking directly at me. “You might consider just getting in your truck and driving on.”
“We’d like to,” my husband said. “Battery’s dead though.”
She jerked her head toward the bar. “You’ll have to get one of those shitheads to jump you then. I came in on my four-wheeler.”
“Maybe we’ll try it first,” I said. “Maybe it recharged itself.”
The bartender peeked her head through the door into the bar. Came back looking disgusted. “Jesus Christ!” she said. “What a slut.”
“Guess we’ll give the truck a try,” my husband said. “I’d like to get out of here.”
“You and me too, “ the bartender said, shaking her head.
We walked out the door, gravel crunching under foot. We could hear howls of laughter from the bar and the woman’s high pitched giggle.
The truck wouldn’t start. John turned the key over again and again, but there was only the dull click in response. “Goddamnit!” he said, pounding one hand on the steering wheel.
“Ok, I’m going in to see if I can get one of those assholes to give us a jump. You stay here, ok?” He leaned down to rummage around under the seat, came back up with his .44 in its holster. He set it on the seat, then got out of the truck. He didn’t say anything else.
And now I was afraid. John’s uneasiness made mine spiral up towards real fear. The gun on the seat seemed menacing as a scorpion, tail curled over its back for the sting. To see it meant he was afraid; to see his fear made me moe fearful. The moments clicked by.
I hadn’t sat there long before the woman came out of the bar, naked from the waist up, her breasts swinging like pendulums as she walked. She was trailed by the hunters, who grabbed at her and laughed. Her breasts hung down to her waist, and the waistband of her jeans dug into the rolls of fat around her belly, leaving red marks. She was a pale and soft as lard. She twirled around in the pale August-after-the-rain light, lifting her breasts to the sky and pinching her own nipples between her fingers. She laughed and laughed, sticking her tongue out suggestively. She moved like an obscene wind across the parking lot. I tried not to look at her.
Just when I thought I would have to get out of the truck to escape their presence, John came out, the morose biker at his heels. Neither of them looked at the woman, swaying grandly in her constellation of hunters. John came to our truck, the biker moved towards his.
“He’s gonna jump us,” my husband said. “You know what? That’s his old lady. So he says, anyway. Jesus.”
The biker’s truck shuddered into life and he drove over. A faded Harley sticker graced the window.
“Got jumper cables?” he asked. “Cuz I don’t.”
“Yeah, yeah, I just gotta find ‘em,” John said, rummaging through the collection of junk behind the seat. The hunters had dug out a video camera, and the woman was shimmying for it. The biker watched with blank eyes.
“Fuckin’ whore,” he said evenly, dropping his cigarette into the gravel.
“Who wants head?” she asked, in a matter-of-fact voice, as if she were a kindergarten teaching offering cookies and milk. She stared at the biker, ignoring Baldy who was pawing at her breasts for the camera. “You hear what I said, Danny?”
Whatever was passing between them, the biker was not biting. He watched her through narrowed eyes, but said nothing.
“I can’t find the cables,” John said.
“Guess I can’t help you then. I gotta go, teach that bitch a lesson. I’m gonna leave her here.” He got into his truck, pulled away.
“Hey!” She shrieked as he backed out of the driveway. “Hey! Wait a minute!” She jogged after the truck, breasts flopping, and he sped up, spitting up dirt and gravel on her.
“Asshole!” she yelled. “You can’t leave me here!”
But he had. And we stood there beside our useless truck, in a parking lot two hundred miles from anything, with three drunk hunters and a topless woman.
“What do we now?” I asked John, aware my voice was barely a whisper. I was scared, more scared, perhaps , then the situation warranted, but I had never seen anything like this, and I didn’t want to see more. Now the hunters were filming again. Baldy had his face buried in her tits, his hand squeezing her crotch. Skinny was rubbing his hands on his thighs, saying “ain’t this better than hunting?” And the third silent one worked the camera.
Skinny said, loud enough for us to hear, “that’s a pretty little piece over there too. I wouldn’t mind some dark meat.” He nodded my way.
I felt myself freeze, one hand still resting on the yawning hood of the truck. As if I were somehow responsible for this, as if just being female made me culpable. I knew it made me vulnerable. In a lightening bolt of pure malice, I knew I hated those men, that woman.
John’s face was grim. He slipped past me to the cab of the truck. Came out with the .44. Took it from the holster. For a moment time froze; even the woman stopped moving. He swung the chambers open, made sure it was loaded. Did everything slowly, deliberately. Slammed down the hood of the truck. Placed the pistol carefully down on it. All the while he looked at the men. They looked back.
Then he said, loud, to me, “I’m going in to talk to the bartender for a minute. Here’s the .44. It’s loaded. You know how to shoot it.”
I didn’t look up, was avoiding the spectacle of the hunters and the woman, but I heard John walk away. I picked up the pistol, both comforted and terrified by its weight in my hand.
Baldy said something I couldn’t hear.
“Shit, I didn’t mean nothing by it,” I heard Skinny reply. I looked up then; they were glaring at me, the younger one sullen and chastened. The video camera swiveled from the blonde to me. Its gaze like a blank eye. She was looking at me too.
“Native bitch,” she said, eyes narrowing. For one horrific and exhilarating moment, I imagined the pistol rising in my hand, my thumb flicking off the safety. I guess I didn’t want to kill her, really, but I wanted my fear to pass on to her, to those men–I wanted the power to make them all disappear. I hated them all, and I was afraid of the men, but in a curious way I hated her more, for in my mind she was the cause of all this, the catalyst that catapulted this ugly situation into action.
But my arm hung by my side, the pistol an anchor that kept it down. I got into the truck and locked the doors, chanted a sort of prayer to myself. Let the truck start. Let them get into their motor home and do whatever it is they are going to do. Just don’t make me have to see it.
It seemed like hours–but certainly wasn’t–before John came back to the truck, taking a wide detour around the men, who were now sucking on the woman’s breasts, Baldy rubbing his own crotch with the palm of his hand. John spit as he walked past them.
I unlocked the door. He got in the truck. Jerked his head back to the bar. “She’s got a shotgun out on the bar now. Says they can’t come back in. But she still said we ought to get out of here if we can. Who knows what could happen. I asked her if she knew anyone I could go get to jump the truck, but she didn’t. Everybody’s either hunting or back working their mines.”
“Try the truck,” I said, holding my breath for luck.
* * *
When I think back to this time, I remember how afraid I was, how afraid John was too, though we never talked about it at all, then or later. Only now, looking back so many years later, do I see that it wasn’t this incident alone that scared us so. It was the two things side by side, Dawson City juxtaposed with Chicken. It was the threat that lingered still from those words in the bar; it was my vulnerability suddenly made clear that made us afraid. And of the two of us, perhaps John was even more afraid. I think he had never really understood before what it meant to love someone who was not white, who was therefore vulnerable to indignities he would never face. The experience in Dawson had altered him, jolted him out of his sense of white privilege. And now it was happening again–though this time my vulnerability was doubled, because I was young and female, because I was not white.
I was afraid of those men. Perhaps without reason. Perhaps, sleazy and drunk as they were, rape was not part of their equation. Perhaps they would be happy enough with the video and a blowjob; perhaps that was all they wanted anyway. But the skinny one’s eyes kept sliding toward me, and warranted or not, I was afraid. I think it was not just them I was afraid of. I was also afraid for John, afraid of what his fear and desire to protect me would drive him to. Mostly, I was afraid of myself.
For I was accustomed to the worst from men. I don’t think I thought of it all at that moment, my scarred history, too long for such a young woman. I’d been raped. I’d been beaten badly by a man who meant to kill me. In my life so far, John aside, men did not usually protect. They hurt. And one thing I had learned from my history is that I would never be physically hurt by anyone again. I had the .44. If one of those men came near me, I knew without a doubt I would use it. It might knock me down, it might shoot wild, but I had handled those shells before, knew their size and heft, and knew the damage even a clumsy shot would do. I knew I could kill a man if I had to.
Though now, so many years later, I cannot judge the actual danger any better than I could then when fear-fired adrenalin rushed through me, I see how potentially explosive the situation was. Everyone, except the topless woman at the center of this scene, was armed–Baldy’s pistol easily accessible in its holster, and more guns in easy reach in the motorhome The hunters’ judgment was certainly off, effected by alcohol and by the promise of easy sex. Alaska was still a wild place in some ways, and gun battles had exploded over less. Perhaps this woman’s presence, in this place so far from town and so far from any sense of set rules, had completely unhinged them. Perhaps they conflated one woman’s availability with another. Perhaps my skin color, my status in their eyes as “Native” placed me in the category of available, whether I wanted to be or not. I don’t know what the woman’s motivations were either–a desire to make the now departed biker jealous? Even now I try to conjure up some sympathy for her–what had happened in her life to make her value herself so little?–but I cannot. I hated her. I hated the men too, because I was afraid of them, but I hated her more because I saw the malice in her eyes, heard it in her words, and knew that just like those other anonymous white people in the bar in Dawson City, she wanted to see me hurt, and I did not know why.
* * *
In the end, nothing more happened. John was slow turning the key in the ignition, but when he did, the engine caught and hummed as if it had never been dead at all. I exhaled. He put the truck in drive, and we drove away, leaving them all behind, players in a nasty drama with their unwilling audience fled.
Chicken. Ever since, it has seemed to me a blot on the landscape–that ugly little settlement and the stripped valley in the otherwise beautiful country. As I have said, in the wilderness up there, I’ve felt my heart rise with the pure wordless joy of being in a wild place. God’s country, though I’ve never liked that turn of phrase. Wilderness has no need of human gods. And on the face of that beautiful land, an ugly blot.
Chicken. I didn’t turn around to look, but in my mind I could see them there–the barebreasted woman, the circling men, the ramshackle building and scarred hills–and for the second time that day they were sprayed by gravel flying out from beneath the tires of a truck, stones cast back, pelting them in an unforgiving rain.