Wednesday, April 22, 2015
In the quarter finals of the Alaska Girls Basketball Tournament, the Lady Huskies of Anuktuvak Pass lost to the Point Hope Harpoonerettes. Tournament games were played at Sullivan Arena in Anchorage. After the game, the disappointed Lady Huskies with their coach and chaperones returned to the Marriott Courtyard. The coach had promised the girls another night in the hotel and a pizza party and so they intended to begin the long trip home the next morning.
The game ended at 3:00 in the afternoon and so the pep bus with classmates, friends, and family started the trip home immediately after the competition. Bad weather was expected on the North Slope and the driver said that it was important that they make good time to the airfield at Coldfoot where bush pilots would land to ferry people back to their village. A few people had driven their snowmobiles over the ninety miles of tundra between Coldfoot and Anuktuvuk pass. Bears emerged from their dens in late March, at the time of the State Girls Basketball Tournament and the animals were hungry after their winter hibernation so caution had to be exercised by those making their way overland from the highway at Coldfoot to the pass.
The girls were weepy at first about losing the big game, but they cheered-up when the pizza arrived. A couple of the girls had smuggled booze into the hotel and they got very drunk. Alika held her roommate’s hair away from the toilet as she vomited later that night. The bus ride up the North Slope Haul Road would be slow and bumpy and the rest room facilities on the bus were claustrophobic and noisome – there was no way to pump out the sewage until they reached Coldfoot. So Alika was glad that she had taken only a sip or two of the brandy that the other girls had swallowed in much greater quantities. It would be unpleasant to travel back to the North Slope hungover and nauseated.
The ride began uncomfortably: the bus driver was concerned about a blizzard predicted for the central North Slope and so the coach roused the girls early in the morning and made them climb onto the vehicle at five a.m. Donuts purchased the night before were passed around and the girls slept slumped in their seats after eating. They reached Fairbanks before noon and stopped at a McDonald’s before starting north for Coldfoot on the Dalton Highway. Alik sat with one of her cousins, Hannah. Hannah wasn’t a good player and she had spent almost all of the game with the Harpooneteers on the bench.
Hannah asked Alika about her uncle, Lonnie. "Did you see him at the game?" Hannah nodded: "I thought I heard his voice and I looked over my shoulder. I saw him standing up when I took that free-throw," Alika said. Hannah asked Alika where Lonnie was living. "He is up at PS 4," Alika said, "Doing something on the pipeline." "Those are good jobs," Hannah said.
The Dalton Highway turned to gravel and when the big semi-trucks rushed past them, little stones pelted the bus. The semi-trucks always drove confidently and too fast for the conditions, crowding the other vehicles bouncing and lunging along the Haul Road. In the gloom, Alika saw the pipeline running parallel to the road, an endless series of metal stanchions cradling the metal man-sized metal cylinder-segments of the pipe. The conduit accompanied them north, a sleek abstract snake held above the frozen pulp of the swamps and scrub woods.
"Did you see who was sitting with Lonnie?" Hannah asked. Alika said: "I was too busy playing." She regretted the tone of those words and repeated herself: "No, I really couldn’t see."
"Some old guy with long grey hair, wearing an army coat," Hannah said. She told Alika that she didn’t recognize the old man but that some of the other girls knew who he was.
"From Anuktuvak Pass?" Alika asked. She knew all of the elders in Anuktuvak Pass.
"No, but he used to be from the Pass," Hannah replied. "The girls said it was your grandpa, Fred."
"Grandpa Fred?" Alika asked.
"You know he was the greatest basketball player ever in the Pass," Hannah said.
"On the Huskies when they won All-State in 1975," Alika said. At the town hall, a display case held the All-State trophy from 1975 with a picture of the team standing sweaty and victorious on an amber basketball court as clean and smooth as a dance floor.
"I thought he was dead," Hannah said.
"We didn’t know. Grandpa Fred’s a loner. We thought he died in prison," Alika replied.
"Killed himself, right?"
"That’s what we heard," Alika said. "He was a lonely man."
"The coach told me that Fred introduced himself and shook his hand, just before the first game," Hannah said.
"We won that game," Alika said. "Maybe he was good luck."
"The best basketball player ever from the Pass," Hannah said. "Everyone knows that. He’d jump in the air like a salmon swimming upstream, like he had wings, and just hover over the basket."
"That’s what everyone says," Alika said. "I don’t remember him very well. I was just a baby when he went away. I remember that once he showed me a shell, a big pink shell from Hawaii or someplace. He put it up to my ear and said that if I listened I could hear the sea."
"Could you hear the sea?" Hannah asked.
"I don’t remember," Alika said.
"Did you talk to Lonnie?" Hannah asked.
"I seen him, but I didn’t talk to him," Alika said.
"Well, he was drunk anyway," Hannah said.
It was dark. Only the peaks of the mountains luminous with snow still glowed over the plain. To the north, where the road went, clouds like big black shields hung over the tussocks and ice-bogs. The girls went to sleep again and the only sounds in the coach were the rattling of the suspension on the gravel road and the soft snoring of the girls and their chaperones, heads leaning on one another’s shoulders. The coach sat in the front seat, alone speaking in a low voice with the driver. Both men spoke in English but they used many Quechun words. Quechun was best for describing the features of the landscape and the animals that sometimes skittered across the tundra, keeping pace with the bus for a minute or so, but, then, falling behind. Stars glittered in the cold sky behind them, but to the north there was only black darkness.
When the girls opened their eyes again, the bus was rocking with heavy rhythmic blows from the wind. The semi-trucks rolling down toward them from the north were sheeted in ice, windshields swept clean like black eye-sockets on the semi-cabs skull-white with crusted snow. Near the road, the pipeline, suspended over the tundra, beckoned, a sinister guide pointing north. From time to time, flurries of snow were flung across the road so that the bus had to pull to the side and wait for the air to clear.
The airstrip was north of the truckstop and motel at Coldfoot, near the cut-off to Wiseman. It was blowing hard and the cluster of lights on the steppe blurred and, sometimes, vanished in the gusts of snow hurling across the highway. The coach said that it was a surface blizzard, white-outs close to the tundra, but, otherwise, clear overhead. There were intervals when the wind suddenly withdrew, as if frightened by its own rage, and, then, the stars shimmered in the icy vault of the sky. "The bush pilots will be able to land between the gusts of wind," the coach told the girls. They were drowsy and the long ride in the dark had wearied them so that no one knew what time it was and, as always, the last leg of the journey from the airstrip to their village was the most daunting – home was the destination most precious because the most difficult to reach.
The bus driver missed the turn to the airstrip. He drove in the blowing fog of ice to a river crossing and, when the snow suddenly cleared, saw the pipeline striding across the ravine clogged with ice, knuckles of truss suspended over the crooked meander of the stream. On the other side of the long concrete bridge, he turned the bus around and drove back several miles, guiding the vehicle by the right-hand edge of gravel sloping down into the pillowy dunes of snow. He found the dirt track leading uphill to a flat place on the tundra, a white rectangle marked at its corners with red lights where the snow whirled and leaped into the air, spinning like sparks rising from a campfire.
"No one can get through this storm," Alika said.
Hannah shrugged: "It’s just a white-out on the ground. I don’t think it’s even snowing."
"It doesn’t matter," Alika said. "No plane is coming through this."
"I just want do get home," Hannah said.
One of the girls who had been drunk the night before began to cry.
The busdriver got out of the bus and stood by the flat area bulldozed in the plane. Distant mountains shaped like crouching beasts stirred in and out of focus as the winds came and went. The coach was nervous. Although it was forbidden, he lit a cigarette and offerd one to thee busdriver. The two men paced back and forth on the edge of the landing strip, cigarette tips glowing orange and the red lights at the end of the runway blinking insistently as if in anticipation of something, although nothing happened.
Some of the girls got off the bus to tease the coach about smoking. He was embarrassed and threw the cigarette down, but the wind caught the butt and kicked it high into the air. The storm seemed to worsen.
An small fox trotted down the center of the runway, leaping, now and then, to avoid ribs of snow drifted across the pale winter-burned grass. The grass seemed luminous and the fox moved gracefully, without fear, approaching the girls shivering and huddled in the lea of the big bus.
"Don’t touch that fox," the driver said. "They’re rabid." Then, he addressed the small, alert-looking animal in Quechun. The fox nodded at the bus driver, surprised to hear the ancient language and, then, walked toward Alika. Alika squatted down.
"They bite," the driver said. "They’re all rabid."
The fox looked at Alika. Its eyes were very large and bright, catching and concentrating light that didn’t seem otherwise available.
The coach’s cellphone buzzed and he climbed into the entry-well of the bus to take the call. The fox was sitting like a dog on the edge of the runway. When the phone sounded, the animal stood up, bowed slightly, and, then, ran back down the runway.
The air-sock whipped in the wind, bulging and enormous against the walls of snow blown through the air. "No one’s flying," the coach announced. "We’ll have to get back to Coldfoot for the night."
The girls boarded the bus and the driver put the vehicle in gear, descending the slope toward the Haul Road. When the vehicle emerged from the shadow of the hill, the snow surrounded the bus and rattled at its windows and the driver could not see at all. For a half hour, the busdriver and the coach murmured to one another, speaking half in Quechun and half in English.
"I think we’re stranded here for the night," the coach said.
The girls moaned and some of them cursed.
"It’s a complete white-out," the driver said. "I won’t be able to stay on the road. We’ll end up rolling down an embankment or in the bottom of a creek."
Another ten minutes passed and the bus trembled in the wind. Then, there were lights. A big truck, moving in low gear was approaching from the north, scrambling through the snowdrifts as if making an uphill haul, although, in fact, the road was flat. The truck had glaring fog lights mounted like horns over its cab and beams cut the snow, lancing through the gusts to show the road. The bus driver edged to the side to let the truck pass and, then, accelerated to follow the vehicle. The truck was lit on all sides, its big trailer ornamented at each corner with amber lights and a grid of red bulbs across its rear. The semi-truck seemed to foam and steam in the blowing snow.
"It’s an angel," Alika said.
It wasn’t difficult to follow in the wake of the big truck. At Coldfoot, the bus turned from the highway. All the rooms in the motel were occupied by people waiting out the storm and the parking lot was crowded with trucks idling in sour clouds of diesel exhaust. The coach tipped the desk clerk to let the girls sleep on the floor in the lobby and use the toilets in the hotel. The next morning was clear and cold. You could sight your eyes down the pipeline is if it were the barrel of an enormous gun and see to the very edges of the earth. After the first customers checked-out, the manager let the girls use the bathrooms in the vacant rooms for hot showers.
"We’ll be home by lunch," Alika told Hannah.
The girl lunged upward releasing the basketball at the height of her jump. The ball arched high and ricocheted off the backboard. The crowd in Sullivan Arena was silent, holding its breath – but when the ball missed the basket and caromed off the backboard, half of the spectators cheered and the other half groaned and, then, the game was over. As he walked out of the arena, Lonnie saw a man from Anuktuvak Pass that he knew and said that he thought that the coach had lost the team for the girls – "they weren’t far enough ahead to go into defensive play," Lonnie said. The man nodded sadly.
On the street in front of the Arena, Lonnie felt a hand on his wrist. It was his uncle, Fred. Until the first game in the quarter-finals, Lonnie had been under the impression that Fred was not only dead, but long dead, a suicide self-hanged in one of the lock-ups on the North Slope. But evidently this was not the case because here was Fred, wild-looking with a mat of grey-black hair hanging over his shoulders and a wild and glittering eye. Fred sat with Lonnie during the first game and part of the second, but, then, vanished – presumably, Lonnie thought, to have a drink in one of the toilets. To some degree, Lonnie was relieved when Fred had vanished – Fred was kin and an elder and there was no doubt that he was an experienced man, knowledgeable about the customs of most every penitentiary, jail, and halfway house in the Alaska penal system, but there was something a bit uncanny about the man. Fred put you under an obligation simply by shaking your hand, although it was never clear what this obligation might require and it was best, perhaps, to avoid him. But this wasn’t possible. Fred had his hand on Lonnie’s wrist, a cold, iron grip, and he was obviously down on his luck, swaddled in a dirty army surplus jacket and wearing boots that were threadbare, a man as soiled and dim as a moving shadow on the broad sidewalk in front of the lights and glass of the Arena.
Lonnie’s new pickup truck was parked in the cheap lots down along the harbor. They passed a couple bars, Fred lurching toward the door at each place, but, then, restraining himself. At the last bar on the boulevard, a place displaying a big white bear over the door, Fred yanked hard on Lonnie’s arm and they went inside. The name of the place was The Polar Bar. It was crowded in the place, refugees from the basketball tournament. Fred ordered them beers.
Lonnie asked Fred where he had been the last few years.
"Out in the back-country," Fred said. "Hunting, fishing. On my own."
"I thought you were in jail," Lonnie said.
"That too," Fred told him. "But I’m a free man."
"Are you guiding?" Lonnie asked. He knew that Fred had worked as a guide, leading hunting parties over the tundra to the places where elk and caribou could be shot.
"No, not recently."
Fred asked Lonnie what he had been doing. Lonnie said that he was working for Alyeska, the pipeline company, up at PS 4.
"That’s what I thought," Fred said. "I seen you up there. I come around to check on you."
"I didn’t know," Lonnie said.
"Well, I’ll tell you my hunter name."
"You don’t need to," Lonnie said. "That’s okay."
"No, I want you to know," Fred said.
"I don’t want to be responsible for your name," Lonnie said.
"It’s okay," Fred replied. "I’m an old man. I won’t need the name much longer."
He said something in Quechun. Lonnie didn’t understand. The words were old and Fred spoke them with an accent that wasn’t used in every day conversation.
"What’s that mean?" Lonnie asked.
"Leaves-no-footprints," Fred told him. "It’s a good name for me."
"That’s a very fine name," Lonnie replied.
"When I come to see you, I come in fur and feathers," Fred said. "You won’t see me knocking-about because I’m stealthy, ‘Leaves-no-footprints’, got it?"
"I got it," Lonnie said.
There were a half-dozen TV sets ranged around the room and the screens showed girls playing basketball. Some of the people in the bar hooted whenever a basket was scored.
Lonnie said that he worked with another man at PS 4 "pigging" the pipeline.
"What’s that mean?" Fred asked.
"PS 4 is not just a pumping station. It’s got a launch portal for the pigs," Lonnie said.
"Pipeline inspection gauges – big cylindrical capsules. They pig the pipeline from Prudhoe down to PS 4 where we’re supposed to catch them and pull them out of the system. Then, we use a natural gas syringe, the launch portal, to load up another set of pigs and blast them downstream toward Valdez."
Lonnie said that there were two kinds of pigs, the mechanical ones that reamed out wax deposits inside the 48 inch ID pipeline and the NKK ultrasonic transduction pigs. The NKK pigs were complicated devices fitted with sensory devices and data collection equipment. As these pigs moved with the oil flow down the pipeline, they directed an electronic beam into the shell of the pipeline. The electronic beam measured the gauge, or thickness, of the pipe, searching for corrosion and irregularities in big metal tube.
"Leak detection?" Fred asked.
"Pre-leak," Lonnie said. "We want to catch any loss of metal, any kind of corrosion thinning the pipe walls before there’s a spill. The NKK are data-collection pigs."
"I knew you were doing something like that," Fred said. "That’s what I observed.
Lonnie told Fred that the pigs that he and his colleagues launched at PS 4 traveled with the crude over the Brooks Range, then, south along the Dalton Highway, all the way to the Valdez terminal where the oil was secreted from the pipeline, stored in immense tank farms, and, finally, shipped by freighter to the refineries in the lower 48.
"That’s more than 400 miles," Fred said.
"Closer to six-hundred, Pumping Station 4 all the way down to Valdez, thirteen river crossings and three mountain ranges, like a roller-coaster ride," Lonnie said.
Lonnie said that they kept track of the pigs by monitoring GPS data broadcast up from the moving gauges to the TAP satellite. The GPS data let them know where the pigs were located in the line.
"I’m not supposed to tell you this," Lonnie said. "But, sometimes, we lose a pig in there. Generally, it’s one of the mechanical plungers, one of the pigs used to ream out the wax deposits inside the pipe and push the clog downstream. There are currents in the pipe, rapids and slow sections and squeezes too – I don’t know why. You get turbulence in the line and I’ve lost pigs and never found them again. Maybe, they just break up. Or you get one that goes off into a diversion, a side-track for sampling for something, a lot of times at PS 8 or, even, more downstream."
"You ever lose a NKK?" Fred asked.
"One of them fragmented a couple years ago. If it happens remote from a pump station you’ve got trouble."
"I suppose," Fred said.
Fred finished his beer. He looked around the bar, a little disgusted.
"This is a preppie place," Fred said. He meant that there weren’t many native people in the bar and he felt a little uncomfortable in his old combat coat and bad boots. People cheered a successful free-throw shot.
"What you’re saying about the pigs gives me an idea," Fred said.
"I’ll tell you later."
Fred looked at Lonnie and grinned. "I need to get back up the Haul Road to the Slope. You can give me a ride up to PS 4 right?"
Lonnie looked uncertain.
"I’m your uncle," Fred said. "We’ll have a good time. I’ll provide the booze and beer."
Lonnie shrugged. They went outside and walked toward the harbor where Lonnie’s truck was parked. Fred admired the vehicle: "Nice pickup, you got a crew cab and everything."
"It’s a good job up there."
"Pipeline work pays well," Fred said. "I should know."
They got into the truck.
"You’ll show me those pigs, right?" Fred asked. "At the launch station."
"If you don’t work for Alyeska Pipeline Service, the pump station’s off-limits."
"Bullshit," Fred said. "I know they bring busloads of tourists to some of those places."
"Not PS 4. That’s a critical spot. You got to squeeze the juice up over the pass. The high-point in the system," Lonnie said.
"I’ll come in fur or feathers. Seagull or fox. No one will know," Fred said.
" ‘Leave-no-footprints,’ right?"
"That’s right," Fred said.
A couple miles out of Wasilla, Fred told Lonnie to pull into a truck stop. Lonnie said that he had plenty of fuel. "It’s a beer stop," Fred said.
Fred bought a 12 pack of malt liquor. "This should get us to Fairbanks," Fred said.
The air in the great valleys felt cold and damp, so heavy as to be incapable of motion. It was dark and the villages were still and shuttered and, even the animals were hiding in their dens and nests. Now and then, a truck dragged along behind the beam of its lights approached them and, then, vanished in the vast darkness through which they were passing.
Fred said that he wanted to visit an old man who was ailing. The old man was confined in a nursing home with dementia. Through relatives, he had sent a message to Fred that he wanted to die among his people in a native village far from the cities and highways.
Lonnie said: "You can’t do anything about that. He’s crazy anyway."
"I know," Fred said. "But I want to see him one last time."
The old man was named Isaac Petit and he was in a nursing home in Fairbanks.
"We have to stop and see him," Fred told Lonnie.
"I don’t know," Lonnie said. "I got to get back to work."
"It won’t be much of a detour," Fred said.
Fred said that Isaac Petit was Canadian by birth, enrolled in the First Nations band that used to be called the Dawson Indians. When Fred first met Petit, he was about 32, tall and handsome. Petit had a law practice in Juneau, specializing in native land issues and he was a flamboyant presence – he wore a turquoise bolo tie, black shirts with pearl buttons, and the braid of his long, dark hair fell to the middle of his back. Once, he had been the attorney representing Anuktuvak Pass and he was famous (or better put "infamous") in the tribe’s history.
When the pipeline was proposed, Fred’s people at Anuktuvak Pass were fearful. The pipeline crossed their hunting territory and they were concerned that construction activities would disrupt the caribou migration on which the village depended. People envisioned the pipeline as an iron wall and imagined the caribou in their brown herds corralled by it, trapped and starving on the barren tundra. The elders said that if the caribou perished, the people would perish also and so a delegation was sent to Juneau to protest the pipeline and, if necessary, take action to stop its construction. The representative from the district where Anuktuvak Pass was located suggested that the delegation from the village meet with Isaac Petit.
Fred said that Petit’s office was full of impressive ivory scrimshaw, carvings on walrus tusk and whale tooth. Inuit masks with eerie slit eyes hung on the wall behind Petit’s pretty white receptionist. Petit’s desk sat on a tract of gorgeous purple and red Turkish carpet and, on the wall, there were pictures of the lawyer standing with his arm around glamorous European movie stars. Petit explained that when he was 17 he had gone to Los Angeles to seek his fortune. Hollywood wasn’t making many Westerns anymore and so there weren’t a lot of roles for an imposing Indian brave, but his agent found him work in spaghetti Westerns produced in Spain and directed by Italian filmmakers. For five years, Petit lived in Rome and Madrid, appearing as a warrior in a number of Westerns before tiring of the business and returning to Los Angeles. He used money that he had earned in the movie business to pay tuition at a law school in San Diego and, after he had passed the bar, moved to Alaska where he specialized, as he said, in defending native American land rights.
"Why didn’t you stay in the movie business?" one of the men from the Pass asked Mr. Petit.
"I didn’t like horses. I was an incompetent Indian. My people were salmon fishers. We traveled by canoe. But in every movie, they put me on horseback and I was always falling off and those wop directors said I was the most inept redskin they ever saw," Petit told the delegation.
The delegates from Anuktuvak Pass asked Mr. Petit about the pictures showing him with European actresses.
"I went to nightclubs with them all. In Rome, Naples, Madrid. Big movie stars," Petit said. "And, you know, it didn’t always end with a handshake. Too skinny for my taste, though."
"Much too skinny," the elder from the Pass said.
Mr. Petit told the delegation that he was from Dawson and his people were the survivors of the great Klondike goldrush of the last century and that nothing was worse than a great mob of white people suddenly taking an interest in Indian country. "You stand to lose everything that you value," Mr. Petit said. He said a few words in his language to make his point, but the dialect was unfamiliar to the people from the Pass and they didn’t understand his words.
"Let me tell you this," Mr. Petit said. "Far worse than the pipeline will be the construction crews who come to build it. They will lure your children away from your land. They’ll bring disease and whisky and prostitution. Those are the influences you’ll have to resist."
The elder asked Mr. Petit what could be done. "Restraining orders, lawsuits," Mr. Petit said. "But mostly lobbying at the State House. I talk to the legislators, explain the impact of the pipeline, and persuade them to pass laws to stall it out. That’s how you stop a project like this." Mr. Petit grinned to the delegation and showed them his teeth capped in bright gold. When he told people from the Pass the amount of his retainer, several of the elders laughed out loud at him.
"Where would we get money like that?" the leader of the group asked.
"Everyone pulls together. The village pools its income from guiding and trapping. Some of you were in the military. You put together your army pensions, the school subsidy – maybe, you delay paving the streets for a couple years –"
"What streets?" the group leader asked.
"I don’t know how you assemble the money, but you do what has to be done. This is a matter of survival, the survival of your people," Mr. Petit told them.
"I was in the Aleutians," one of the elders said. "I have a little money coming from the Navy."
"Exactly what I mean," Mr. Petit said.
The leader of the group asked if Mr. Petit would reduce his fee.
"Not a chance," he said. "There’s plenty of North Slope communities that need my services. If I don’t work for you, I work for some other place. If you want the best, you pay me."
The delegation went into the restroom by the elevators to discuss Mr. Petit’s proposal. Although Fred was the youngest member of the group, he was outspoken. "I don’t trust this man," Fred told the others. "But what choice do we have," one of the elders asked. "We take our rifles and snowmobiles and shoot at the crews building the pipeline." "When did that ever work," the leader of the group said. "We will make it work this time," Fred said.
The leader said that the village had no choice but to hire Mr. Petit. Fred replied that this was a terrible mistake. When the others went back into Mr. Petit’s hushed and ornate office, Fred took the elevator to the parking lot next to the building and stood outside smoking a cigarette.
Fred told Lonnie that the village made payments to Mr. Petit four times a year for almost ten years. At first, Mr. Petit said that he had filed a lawsuit on behalf of the village and, sometimes, he made reports as to the progress of that litigation. According to Mr. Petit, the Judge was carefully considering the petitions and other papers filed by Anuktuvak Pass. When the elders asked to see copies of the petitions, Mr. Petit said that this would cost additional fees and, in any event, there was no one in the village who could understand the intricacies of the legal proceedings. Apparently, the lawsuit was unsuccessful because Mr. Petit, then, reported that he was lobbying lawmakers in Juneau and that he had received firm promises from several legislators that they would stall the progress of the pipeline by requiring studies of the project’s environmental impact. His quarterly charges to the Village now included large expenses for meals and alcohol purchased for lawmakers. Apparently, these measures were also unsuccessful because Mr. Petit reported to the villagers that he had changed the emphasis of his opposition to the pipeline – he was no longer trying to prevent the pipeline from being built, but, instead, lobbying powerful business interests to require that the conduit be mounted on stilts so that caribou and other wildlife could pass beneath the oil pumped from Prudhoe Bay. The village’s funds were exhausted and, during the last couple years, when most of the young men from the Pass were working to construct the pipeline where it crossed the Brooks Range, much of the money used to pay Mr. Petit’s fees came from tithes collected from the men and boys employed by the Transalaska Pipeline Corporation also known as Alyeska, that is wages earned working to construct the very pipeline that Mr. Petit had been retained to oppose. An Inuit clan near Deadhorse opposed the pipeline where it crossed their hunting territory and the elders in Anukvutak Pass were surprised to read in the newspapers that the lawyer hired by Alyeska to secure rights of way across the Inupiak Eskimo land was none other than Mr. Petit. There were recriminations in the village, but, by this time, everyone in town was dependant upon revenue earned working to build the pipeline and so the elders counseled that it was best to say no more about Mr. Petit and to accept that progress was inevitable and that it was the patriotic duty of the native people of Alaska to support the production of oil for a nation that was embattled in the middle East and vulnerable because energy-dependant and that, at this late stage, nothing could be done to right the wrongs that the Juneau lawyer had inflicted on the people.
"What could have been done?" Lonnie asked.
"I don’t know," Fred said. "It’s complicated. That lawyer probably didn’t intend to cheat us. He just followed the money. But, in the end, he was working for the pipeline. But it didn’t matter because we were all working for the pipeline too."
"So why do you want to talk to Mr. Petit now?"
"I want to know if he remembers us," Fred said.
The lights of Fairbanks glittered ahead of them. It was too cold to sleep in the truck, but Fred knew a woman who lived in a trailer on the outskirts of town. The woman had once been a stripper who called herself "the Seal." She was old now and immensely fat and her chin was bristly with a yellow beard. Fred and Lonnie slept on the floor and it was a hard and freezing night, the chill from the earth coming up from below and piercing through them and, just before dawn, the Seal’s dogs came from her room and nuzzled the two men awake. There was no water – the Seal said her pipes had frozen again – and so they bundled together in Lonnie’s vehicle and drove into town to the Mecca Bar.
"I’m surprised this place is still here," Fred said. "It’s the last one. Used to be wall-to-wall beer joints up and down this avenue."
A couple of people were sitting outside the bar buried in blankets and plastic stolen from a construction site. It was quiet inside and smoky. Seal washed her face and crotch in the bathroom and they ordered drinks. Fred put some quarters in the jukebox and they listened to old-fashioned country music. Later, there was a fight and a man was expelled from the bar. He kept trying to return and, at last, pushed himself inside, brandishing a gun. The police came and took the man away. Fred talked to Seal in Quechun and Lonnie couldn’t understand what they were saying. She became angry and tried to push Fred down but he was too strong and so the two of them grappled for awhile, neither of them having any clear advantage, and, then, they were hugging one another and mumbling in Quechun again. It was noon and the bartender served ham sandwiches to them. They went outside and the air seemed very clean and clear, smelling of the ice in the nearby river like mint and evergreen after the polluted atmosphere of the smoky tavern. Lonnie had trouble finding his truck. It wasn’t exactly where he had parked it earlier and, when he started the vehicle, it coughed at him like an old man with tuberculosis. They drove to another bar called the Mineshaft and went down steep steps until they seemed to be far underground. Seal wasn’t with them any longer and Lonnie couldn’t remember where she had gone or if they had taken her some place. After awhile, Lonnie and Fred tried to leave the Mineshaft but the steps were too steep and they seemed irregular, shifting underfoot treacherously so that they couldn’t leave. The final game of the State Girls Basketball tournament was underway and people gathered under the bright screens to watch the girls charging up and down the blonde wooden floors and, when the ball was flung upward into the air, Lonnie thought that he saw sparks making a halo around its trajectory – this was the friction between the spinning ball and the heavy, inert and famous air inside Stevens Arena, a glamorous tribute to the girls running and dodging one another and leaping high into the air while the crowd in the arena made sounds like the waves of the sea.
Thirst was hectoring him. The thirst argued with Lonnie like a drunk in a bar, an incessant, inescapable rant that made his throat raw and his head ache. Someone was singing. Lonnie couldn’t recognize the language – it wasn’t English nor was it Quechun or any other Athabaskan tongue. The singer was an old man and he rolled the "r"-sounds that came from his lips and, when Lonnie opened his eyes, he saw that Leaves-no-Footprints was driving his truck, a bottle of whiskey clasped between his thighs, steering with one bony finger looped over the wheel. Lonnie peered into the backseat: in the gloom, he saw eyeglasses catch the light from an oncoming car – an old man wearing blue-striped pajamas was singing Volare. The old man was large and looked powerfully built and the braid in his grey hair flopped down to the middle of his back. He wore the gloves that Lonnie kept in his glove compartment but his feet were bare and seemed bluish in the twilight.
"Who is this?" Lonnie asked.
"Meet the famous lawyer, Isaac Petit," Leaves-no-Footprints said.
"What is he doing in my truck?"
"You were passed-out," Leaves-no-Footprints said. "I went to the nursing home and found Mr. Petit and we talked – we had a good talk."
"What is he doing in my pick-up?"
"He’s been drinking and singing. Songs that he learned when he was a movie star in Italy."
"What is he doing in my truck?" Lonnie asked again.
Leaves-no-footprints cleared his throat: "Mr. Petit wanted to make amends to the people in Anukvutak Pass. It’s part of his recovery, you know, the AA program. You have to practice rigorous honesty and, then, you must make amends to the people who your addiction has harmed. It’s one of the twelve steps."
"So he wants you to take him to the Pass?" Lonnie asked.
"That’s what I gathered," Leaves-no-Footprints said.
"But he’s drinking right now," Lonnie said.
"I think he’s got Alzheimer’s, dementia, really bad. I think he’s forgot that he’s in AA, at least, for the time being. It’s the Alzheimer’s. And so I’m afraid he’s relapsing ‘cause he forgot he was in AA. Isaac, you’re in a relapse, right?"
"Hell, yes," the old man said. He asked Leaves-no-Footprints where they were going.
"You don’t remember?" Leaves-no-Footprints said.
"I can’t remember shit," the old man said.
The road had been recently graded and the blade had cut deep, down to reefs of bedrock that the truck rumbled across, jarring Lonnie so that he put his hands on his temple and cradled his head. The hangover made him think that life wasn’t worth living and that there was no way he could survive the rest of his days, at least not in this condition. But, then, Lonnie considered that he would feel better in a few hours, probably good enough to drink himself, and, then, perhaps, things would be better. He turned his face to the cold window and cooled his forehead on the glass.
They stopped where the road made a big curve around a rubble-heap of collapsing cliffs. On the top of the mountain, little pine trees bristled like sentinels overlooking the North Slope Haul Road. The old man hobbled barefoot to the side of the road and pissed. His stream was weak and a little foul-smelling plume of steam rose from the dirty, gravel-laden snow pushed to the side of highway. Opposite the ruined turrets and fortifications of the cliffs, the pipeline on its outstretched spans of iron marched northward, a metal line-drive cannon shot fired through the ragged, wind-stooped brush. Far away, on an icy hill, the pipeline cast a cold gleam skyward, reflecting a moonbeam or, perhaps, the twinkle of a star. The four-foot cylinder and the array of arches holding the pipeline upward, like an offering to the cold sky, seemed to buzz faintly – it was as if some sort of energy made the pipeline hum.
"My feet feel frozen," Petit said.
"I won’t matter," Leaves-no-Footprints said. He told the old man that it was time to take his pills.
"Are we going back to Dawson Creek?" the old man asked.
"Pretty soon," Leaves-no-Footprints replied.
Hugging himself through the light pajamas, the old man crawled into the back of the truck. "Time to take your pills," Leaves-no-Footprints said again. He gave the old man a handful of antihistamines.
"What is it?" Lonnie asked.
"Just benadryl to help him sleep," Leaves-no-Footprints said.
"Grazie," the old man said. Then, he swallowed the pills with a swig of whiskey.
Lonnie felt well enough to drive. He took the wheel. The sun rose tentatively, then, hid its face in a swirl of cloud and blowing snow. Fingers of white drift reached across the highway, evaporating into puffs of powder when the tires hit them. The trees were now growing horizontally, crushed against the steppe in impenetrable thickets of branch and twig that burrowed down into the brown and grey grass. Plates of ice covering pothole lakes reflected the wan light suffusing the sky.
"Where are we?" Leaves-no-Footprints said. He had been sleeping.
"An hour north of Coldfoot," Lonnie said.
"We’ll be in the mountains soon enough," Leaves-no-Footprints said.
Lonnie fiddled with the radio but couldn’t pick up a signal.
"Don’t mess with the radio," Leaves-no-Footprints said. "I’ve got something I need to tell you."
Lonnie looked over his shoulder. The old man in pajamas in the backseat was very still. Lonnie wondered if Petit had died. Then, he saw that the old man’s lips were moist and that he was blowing saliva bubbles, breathing very deeply as he slept.
"An old buddy of mine is meeting us up at PS 4," Leaves-no-Footprints said.
"A reunion?" Lonnie asked.
"Who is he?"
Leaves-no-Footprints shrugged: "A cousin of a cousin. The first time I was in prison – it was his fault."
"Cody was a teamster, driving truck on the pipeline. I was welding. We were all rich, no one had ever seen so much money, but we knew that it wasn’t going to last forever. The fat paychecks made you nervous because everyone knew that one day the job would be done and the camps along the Haul Road would be dismantled and gone forever and things would go back to the way it had always been – except that pipeline would be there, to remind us of the jobs that had vanished and the money that no one had anymore..."
Leaves-no-Footprints gestured out the window to the pipeline hanging in midair on its steel stanchions, the barrels of the huge tube zigzagging up a barren, rocky hill, vanishing over the rise, but, then, visible again on the horizon as a steel scaffolding on scuffed tundra against the remote leaden sky.
"It was pretty much the end of the job, down by Keystone Pass in the Chugach canyons and the woods, narrow country after the tundra up in the Arctic Circle, lots of rockfalls and people getting sloppy on the clock and injured. Cody told me that the roads were too steep in those hills and not sufficiently graded and that trucks were always falling into the ravines, people getting mangled or killed, but no one cared in the rush to get the pipeline completed. And, then, it was all over – January 1977 and the camps were closing and the workers were looting the job-sites, shipping tools and welding equipment back home to the lower 48. The company looked the other way because it was too expensive to auction most of the equipment, particularly since it was used and pretty much battered, too costly as well to ship the stuff back to the States in that condition and so the supervisors, more or less, gave you the wink when you carted tools away, even valuable things like x-ray equipment for the welds, light vehicles, forklifts and front-end loaders, chain saws – you know, there’s places like Arctic Village right now north of the Brooks Range still using the Snowcats that workers liberated from the company once the job was done."
"I’ve seen those things," Lonnie said. "Still marked as Alyeska property."
"It was sort of a frenzy and we thought we were entitled, more or less entitled because of the difficult conditions on the job and the risks and the people that we knew maimed or crippled for life in accidents. Plus, Cody and me were still mad about the lawsuits and our opposition to the pipeline in the first place, the destruction of the wilderness and all that. So, one afternoon, Cody came to me and said that he was going to keep his truck, the entire semi-trailer and tractor combination – he was going to keep the truck because as far as he was concerned, he had earned the right to the vehicle. So, he picks me up at the camp down at Valdez and says we’re gonna go for a little ride to see the country. Cody told me that it wasn’t theft if no one cared, if the company didn’t want the truck anyway, and he didn’t make any effort to hide the fact that we were driving an Alyeska Pipeline vehicle – the truck was bright yellow like a schoolbus and plastered with words saying that it was owned by the company – it didn’t matter, Cody told me, every truck driver was going home with the truck that he had driven, that was a perk of employment."
"So what happened to the truck?" Lonnie asked.
"We took it on down the highway through Canada to Seattle. Coming across the borders, we told the authorities that we were hired to drive the vehicle down to its purchasers, someone in San Francisco, but, then, we got to San Francisco and didn’t want to stop there so we drove the truck to Denver and, then, to Memphis and Miami and, after Miami, we took the truck out on those islands, over the bridges to the Keys, all the way to the very end of that road in the middle of the sea, to Key West, that’s where we ended up..." Leaves-no-Footprints looked out the window. The land rose in great ramps to the pinnacles of the frozen mountains. From some perspectives, the pipeline adjacent to the bumpy gravel road seemed like a great iron ladder ascending toward the spear points of the summits, a monstrous endeavor urged upward as if under duress. But, at other times, the pipeline looked fragile, a system of barrels rolling unsteadily downhill. It could be one thing or another or nothing at all if you gazed away in the other direction toward the distant frieze of mountains.
"How long did it take you?" Lonnie asked.
"I don’t know," Leaves-no-Footprints said. "A couple weeks. One thing just led to another: we went with the flow – that’s what people used to say – just go with the flow, follow the current. The roads told us what to do and we followed them and, for days it seemed, we were inside the highways, among the trees that were crushing against the road from all sides – being from up here, God’s country, it was hard to get used-to, claustrophobic...but, then, it just opened up and we went across those long bridges one after another on the sea and came to where the road ended in Key West."
"How do you pay for the gas?"
Leaves-no-Footprints looked over his shoulder to the old man sleeping in the backseat. "I should have known better," he said. "Cody told me that he had his Teamsters severance check and that it was a lot of money, but, all the time, he was using the company credit card – he had a credit card. I knew he was lying about the check but I pretended not to know because I didn’t want to get in trouble."
"Did you get in trouble?"
"What do you think?"
"You got in trouble," Lonnie said.
"Cody’s coming up to meet us at PS-4. My old buddy. You can ask him what happened."
"No, I don’t believe you," Lonnie said. "Why would he go there?"
"I invited him," Leaves-no-Footprints said. "I told him that I had some money from an uncle and that I was supposed to repay a debt."
"Sure," Leaves-no-Footprints said.
The old man in pajamas in the back-seat muttered something to himself in his sleep. The truck caught on a wash-board gouged into the gravel road and lurched, fishtailing to the side.
"Better watch out," Leaves-no-Footprints said. "You crash this vehicle, I’ll have to turn myself into a snow-goose or a ptarmigan and fly the rest of the way."
"Whatever you say," Lonnie replied.
"Here’s how it ended," Leaves-no-Footprints said. "We were Key West and that was the end of the road. So we found a parking lot and left the truck. It was warm and sunny and you could sleep outside at night by the sea-wall. There were submarines in the harbor and the people were all either hippies or soldiers. The wind blew all the time and I had a big shell, a big pink shell that I bought from someone on the beach, a conch. I kept that in prison with me for years as a souvenir. You put your ear to it and you could hear that sea whispering to you."
"So what happened?"
"Cody and me, we met a girl. The girl said she liked Cody, but I knew it was me she wanted. We got drunk and I went with her down on the beach, where those palm trees were lined-up straight in a row. The sun went down and the stars came out over the sea and you could hear the submarines splashing and moaning in the channel and, then, the cops came and handcuffed me, put me in jail. See Cody got jealous, he turned me in, and said that I had kidnaped him at knife-point and made him steal the truck and use the credit card. That’s what he said. You know what the headline was?"
"What was it?"
"Eskimo nabbed in Theft, ‘Eskimo,’ that’s what they called me – I said I wasn’t no fucking ‘Eskimo,’ that I was Athabaskan, but no one listened, no one paid any attention at all. I got extradited, convicted, sent back to Port Mackenzie. They kept me in jail for years."
"What happened to Cody?"
"He made some kind of deal," Leaves-no-Footprints said.
"So what do you want to see him again for?" Lonnie asked.
"Forgiveness. I want to forgive him," Leaves-no-Footprints said. "I don’t have much more time left in this shape. I’m gonna be moving on, moving on soon."
The road clawed at them from below and the truck rattled. The old man in the back was snoring again.
"When I was in prison," Leaves-no-Footprints said, "we’d make us some berry hootch. Get nice and drunk. I used to dream. I was out hunting, on the track of some caribou with my 30-06. It’s bright as day and I seen the pipeline out there snaking across the sands by the palm trees. I shoulder my rifle and take a couple shots and one of them pierces the pipeline – poof! Then, the oil starts gushing out, spraying out of the pipeline like blood under pressure and pretty soon it coats everything, it’s turned the whole world black and I’m just standing there. Just standing there thinking what do I do now. How can I hide this mess? I’m gonna be discovered and cuffed and put in jail again. Then, I would wake up and see I was in prison, I was still locked-up so it didn’t matter. You know how I felt?"
"You felt bad."
"I felt bad," Leaves-no-Footprints. "So what happens? After a half-dozen years, they let me out and I go to my AA meetings faithfully, stay off the booze, purify myself in the sweat lodge. I get some jobs guiding and, then, one day, I’m out on the tundra and I have my 30-06 and there it is: the pipeline. It’s standing across the way like a huge round wall, stretching forever in both directions, and this perturbed me, Lonnie, it pissed-me off so much that I took the rifle and emptied it into the pipeline but I’ll tell you, either the thing repelled the shots or I couldn’t aim straight because nothing happened, I didn’t even hear the pipe ring when the bullet hit it – there was nothing, like shooting into a cloud or a snowbank. The people I was guiding told the cops that I had gone crazy and they put me in the hospital first and, then, the jail again, for a long time...I didn’t do well, got into fights. I was so sick my lungs collapsed and they said I was going to die so they had a priest come and give me the last rites. But I lived, I came out of it again, and, now, I’m here..."
"You’re here," Lonnie said.
The road wriggled between rocks and glacier. They reached the pass. Leaves-no-Footprints got out at the overlook and helped the old man in pajamas stand next to the car to urinate. The old man said he couldn’t go –"it’s too damn cold," he cried. When he saw that his toes were white and dead, he began to cry. "I’m going to lose my toes," the old man said.
"You’ll be alright," Leaves-no-Footprints said.
The snow was deep beyond the pass. Avalanches growled at them from the gorges and chutes in the mountains. The road curved down, around great white slopes. The folds between the mountains were clogged with snowdrifts the color of quicksilver in the darkness.
Leaves-no-Footprints told Lonnie that Cody would be waiting for them at the Avalanche Gun Rest Stop, a gravel loop leading up to a parking place a couple truck-lengths wide under an unstable white curtain of snow and ice hanging draped from a towering rock face. They saw the snowmobile lights from the road, above them at the overlook where the park service had placed an exhibit marker next to the gun-shack.
Cody was short with a barrel-chest and he seemed to have pneumonia or asthma. He wheezed painfully and his voice was moist, gurgling in his throat and ribcage. His hair was still mostly black and cut bowl-style over his forehead. Lonnie shook Cody’s hand and saw that his eyes were dull and inexpressive.
"Good to see you, brother," Cody said to Leaves-no-Footsteps. The two men embraced.
Lonnie pulled out the ramp at the back of his truck and they dragged the snowmobile up into the pickup’s bed. Cody crawled into the backseat of the truck.
"Who’s this guy?" he asked, gesturing told the old man in pajamas.
"A friend," Leaves-no-Footsteps said.
Leaves-no-Footsteps and Cody talked about driving the schoolbus-yellow Alyeska truck down to Key West. "They said we was ‘Eskimos’," Cody laughed. "That’s what they said about me," Leaves-no-Footsteps replied. " ‘Eskimos!’," Cody said again.
"What’s the purpose for this road trip?" Cody asked.
"You’ll see," Leaves-no-Footprints replied.
Pump Station 4 was on a knoll overlooking two apostrophe-shaped lakes, curved white shells of ice in the valley between high knife-edged ridges. The tundra was studded with the warts of pingos and, to the north, the pipeline seemed to burrow out of sight beneath a bank of thick fog.
Lonnie pulled off the highway and followed the gravel track upward, spiraling across the face of the rise toward the big round tanks and the lattice of pipes and valves at the Station. At the crest of another hill, a satellite tower outlined in red lights blinked at them. A couple hundred yards from the fenced and restricted zone around the grid of pipes and low metal scaffolds, Lonnie saw the dormitory, lightless at this hour, the quonset hut of the commissary, and a few pickups parked haphazardly in a scooped-out swale in the snowfield. The pickups were equipped with tank-warmers and connected to the generator shack that hummed monotonously.
"This is it," Leaves-no-Footprints said.
"Now what?" Lonnie asked.
"No point in wasting time," Leaves-no-Footprints said. "Show us the pig launch station."
"Just show it to us," Leaves-no-Footprints said.
The aurora glimmered overhead and sent streaks of blue and green flickering across the mirror of the frozen lakes.
"I don’t understand," Lonnie said.
"My two friends are going on a tour," Leaves-no-Footprints said.
Lonnie stepped out of the truck and used his key-fob to unlock the metal gate. It swung open on its pivot beckoning to them with suave elegance.
"Someone will come," Lonnie said as he put the truck in gear and made its tires scramble up the low slippery hill to the forest of apparatus.
"Not as this hour," Leaves-no-Footprints said. "The guards are all asleep or drunk. After I got out of the pen, I worked security at a couple places like this. I know the drill."
Cody asked: "What are we doing?"
On the road, Leaves-no-Footprints had explained how the old man in pajamas had betrayed their village. Cody knew the story and said that the old man with the frozen feet was a legendary villain. The old man said his prayers in Athabaskan and sang another Italian melody in his cracked, wobbly tenor and, several times, he asked for water or to be taken to the toilet and, then, tried to open the door on the truck’s king cab. But he was asleep now, groaning slightly between snores.
"We are going to put him in the pipeline," Leaves-no-Footprints said. "Then, Cody will open the valve and send him all the way down to Valdez."
"I’m not gonna do that," Lonnie said.
"Yes, you will," Leaves-no-Footprints replied. "It’s no harm done. He’s got one foot in the grave anyhow. I’m just sending him on the grand tour. Over the Brooks Range and Atigun pass, around the bends and turns and over the caribou migration routes and under the rivers – right through Keystone canyon and down to the terminal. He knows the way by heart. After all, he helped steal the easements and the rights-of-way."
"Pig in the pipeline," Cody said.
"That’s murder," Lonnie said.
"What he did was murder," Leaves-no-Footprints said. "He murdered the North Slope, the tribes, the caribou, you and me. That’s what he did."
Lonnie stopped the truck. Cold pedestals of iron rose in scaffolding around the culverts of the pipeline. A couple of pipe-inspection gauges, spiny with sensors and the size of truck tires, rested in a big, greasy channel iron, the steel piston of the syringe poised behind them. The flicker of the northern lights shimmered in the steel. Lonnie leaned forward to punch the horn on his truck, but Leaves-no-Footprints hand was swift to stop him, holding his wrist in a grip like an iron vise.
Leaves-no-Footprints said to Cody: "Did you bring that gun?"
"I have it," Cody said. Lonnie saw him take something small and shiny from the pocket of his snowmobile suit.
"Point it at my nephew so that he’ll do what I need him to do," Leaves-no-Footprints said.
Lonnie opened the truck door and stepped out onto the oil-smeared concrete next to the lattice of valves. Something was flapping in the cold wind, a funnel-shaped airsock measuring the direction of the wind. Lonnie knew that the flap was bright orange but it looked grey in the darkness, trembling in the iridescence of the aurora. The air smelled strongly of rotten eggs.
"Smells like shit," Cody said.
"It’s the sulphur in the oil," Lonnie replied.
"Someone shit his trousers," the old man said as they dragged him out of the cab.
"Put him in the pipe," Leaves-no-Footprints said.
"Then, I’ll shoot you in the knees and elbows and put you in the pipe with him," Leaves-no-Footprints said.
"You won’t do that Uncle Fred," Lonnie said.
"I just might."
"It don’t matter to me," the old man with the bare feet said. "It just don’t matter to me."
"See, he doesn’t mind," Leaves-no-Footprints said. "He knows it doesn’t matter at all."
They climbed up the metal-grate steps onto the platform. In front of the PIGS, the culvert was open, a half-crescent tub slick with oil. Lonnie and Leaves-no-Footprints picked up the old man, tottering on his frozen feet, and set him on his back in the open pipe. He opened his eyes wide to watch the northern lights flickering overhead.
"It’s sticky, it’s sticky," the old man muttered. Lonnie saw the plumes of the aurora borealis flickering in the old man’s eyes.
"Get it done," Leaves-no-Footprints said.
Lonnie took hold of the big handles welded to the pipe-cover and pulled it over the top of the tray. The metal squeaked and whistled on its hinges as it slammed shut.
"You send him down to Valdez now," Leaves-no-Footprints said.
"What’ll he look like when he gets there," Cody asked.
"He’ll be like an eel, all the rough spots rubbed off," Leaves-no-Footprints said. "Just his skull and eyes staring forward and his spine like a tail wiggling behind him."
"It’s 600 miles at least," Cody said.
"I’ll make it easy for you," Leaves-no-Footprints said to Lonnie. He took the revolver from Cody and put the muzzle close to Lonnie’s ear. Lonnie thought he could hear the gun breathing, a faint, menacing whisper and, then, the sound of his own blood, like waves of the sea captured in the pink orifice of a conch shell.
He pulled the valve lever and there was a thud as the natural gas charge dropped into place. Oil sluiced from side-pipes into the tray and, where the cap fit into the bevel of the channel, an ooze of the dark oil spread down the side of the pipe. Inside the syringe, the old man barked for a moment like a dog and, then, coughed as the oil drowned him.
"Fire it," Leaves-no-Footprints said.
Lonnie yanked the trigger on the natural gas charge and it made a dull, booming sound in the line. The ooze of oil on the capsule shook free and spattered them and the pipe shuddered like a dog shaking itself after a dip in cold water.
"There he goes," Leaves-no-Footprints said.
"Pig in the pipeline," Cody said again.
The sulphur in the air vibrated in his nose and Lonnie felt sick. He staggered off the platform and stumbled to the dog-leg in the injection line where he fell to his knees vomiting.
There was a thud and a muffled cry. Someone slipped and fell forward on the metal platform. Lonnie heard metal zippers skidding across the steel grating of the platform.
Cody was face down on the scaffold, a half-dozen feet from the syringe.
"Now, send him too," Leaves-no-Footprints said. "You send him down to Valdez and, then, we’re done here."
"He’s an accomplice," Leaves-no-Footprints said. "I told you what happened in Key West. Cody can’t be trusted."
Lonnie climbed up on the platform. The iron under him felt very cold, like an icy torch launching its arc of fire skyward, but freezing instead of burning.
"What did you do?"
"Knocked him out," Leaves-no-Footprints said.
They put Cody in the syringe tray, belly-down, body slick as a torpedo with the fresh oil coating the tray. Cody began to moan a little and so Lonnie slammed the lid down over him and engaged the oil pump. The pump chugged again and vomited some oil into the tray and Cody screamed as the viscous flood enveloped his jaws and nose. The gas charge thudded into place again and, then, thundered as it fired Cody down through the dogleg and, then, into the straight cavernous tunnel of the main line.
"What now?" Lonnie asked.
"I’ll go. No one will ever be the wiser."
"What about me?"
"You’re back at home, at work. What’s done is done. No one knows."
"I know," Cody said.
Lonnie felt terribly tired and the tears on his cheeks were freezing. He walked slowly back to his truck and opened the door. The stink of oil burned his eyes.
Leaves-no-Footprints was gone. Lonnie looked around for him. He got out of the truck and walked its perimeter.
Down between the two frozen lakes nestled like spoons together, something on four feet loped swiftly across the tundra.
Lonnie went to the dormitory. Someone was sleeping with the TV still running so that electronic voices vehement but indistinct sounded in the air. His thoughts were troubled and so he rose early for his shift.
The sun was shining, but the mountains were draped in clouds and had a scowling aspect. The pipeline was patent from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, product flowing according to specification. Lonnie recalled getting very drunk in Fairbanks and being trapped underground. The rest seemed to have been a nightmare. But when he checked his truck, a battered snowmobile, rusty brown like a cockroach, was squatting in the flatbed.
Alika woke to a half-dozen text-messages on her phone. She texted her friends some gossip about the trip to the basketball tournament. There was a community event later in the day to honor the team. Several of the dumpsters scattered around the village had been painted with the profile of a snarling dog and the words: GO LADY HUSKIES!
In the afternoon, the people gathered at the school gymnasium. The mayor spoke and several elders said a few words as well. The VFW honor guard marched with flags, making a circuit of polished wood floor. Then, the girls on the team took turns shooting baskets while the villagers cheered for them.
Alika stood at the free-throw line. She bounced the ball twice. The thud resounded, echoing off the walls, and the crowd fell silent. She held the ball close to her chest, aimed, and threw it upward. For a moment, the ball wobbled in the air, but, then, it found the pipeline and rose as if guided in its arc to the basket. The basketball dropped through the basket without touching the rim and the people gathered around the court cheered as if what had earlier been lost was now won.