A Jessie Arnold Alaska Mystery
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During the early hours of the morning, the storm had renewed itself. Now, just before noon, tide at its height, the gale was howling like a banshee and had become a wrathful avenger sweeping across Kachemak Bay, pounding wind-driven salt water against the shores of mainland and islands in an enormous, resounding surf that cruelly battered everything in its path.
In the midst of huge waves crashing far up the beach of one small island on the south side of that arm of ocean, near the outer edge of a cluster of islands that protected the waters of Tutka Bay, an old man valiantly struggled to launch a small boat into the maelstrom. The stones that formed the shingle of the crescent-shaped cove shuddered and rolled restlessly with the force of the incoming breakers, shifting beneath the water in a deep, uneasy growl, giving him no stable footing.
He was soaked to the skin, though he wore a rain slicker with a hood covering gray hair that was pulled back and tied at the nape of his neck, and his rubber boots, heavily full of water, did not help him maintain his balance. Rain, pouring from the dark sky, combined with the ferocity of the sea's flying spray to continually drench the wrinkles and creases of his face, filling his eyes till half the time he could see only what was directly in front of him, often not even that.
He knew that launching the boat was a foolhardy thing to do under the circumstances. But he stubbornly persisted, would have been ashamed of himself if he had not at least tried to take out the small wooden craft, start the ancient motor, and make an attempt to reach a second cove that lay half a mile to the east, beyond a long wall of surf-washed cliffs. The woman was in trouble, pursued by a madman, and he was guessing she would head for this other cove, where she might be able to locate some shelter and obtain what she could to defend and sustain herself. If he could make it there and find her, he might be able to help her, and himself.
A large wave struck the boat, almost spinning it out of his hands, but as its crest crashed over him, he put all his strength into a desperate shove that drove the craft farther from the shore and dragged him to his waist in the frigid water. As he held to the side and the next surge lifted his feet from the bottom, he threw himself forward, trying to kick and hoist himself into the boat. As it tossed in the violence of the sea, the edge of the gunnel dug into his ribs, bouncing and bruising his body. Recklessly, he grabbed at the wooden seat, pulled hard, and felt a sharp pain as something gave in his side: a rib-cracked. Dammit, he thought, rolling into the boat, gasping and holding his arm tight against the hurt, but there was nothing to be done about it.
When he could sit up, he was almost flung out again as a wave hit broadside, all but overturning the boat. Quickly he yanked out an oar that had been stowed beneath the seat and, except for a groan or two, ignored the agony under his arm in order to paddle the boat around so it was headed into the oncoming surf.
Then, he leaned, with a grunt, to start the engine before the capricious sea could swing the boat again. Pulling the starter cord was a painful torment. On his first try, it coughed damply. On the second, well-maintained, it sprang to life with a roar that, in the thunderous bellow of the storm, was only a whisper and a puff of oily smoke that the wind greedily snatched.
Aimed east to run before the waves, the boat slowly began to move on a course that would eventually bring him parallel with the fine of cliffs that he could barely make out across the rough waters of the cove. Each swell lifted the propeller out of the water, screaming in protest. The waves were even larger than he had anticipated-- eight, even ten feet high-and he knew again that he had undertaken a fool's errand. Never, for himself alone, would he have risked such an endeavor. But the woman might have need of him, if only for company and support in her dangerous plight, and it was part of his old fashioned, chivalrous nature to offer his assistance to women.
He thought of the cold eyes of the face in the mask, the person who had maliciously tricked and caught him off guard. Remembering his terror and tractable compliance at the threat, he was mortified and humiliated, though he could not imagine what he could have done differently.
In the deeper waters of the cove, the ocean swells eased slightly, grew more regular, and he instinctively fell into a small complacence with the rhythm of the rocking boat. Looking toward the cliffs that gradually grew larger, he had no warning-- did not see the massive wave that rolled into the back of his boat, crashing aboard over the engine, drowning it instantly with only a sputter. Powerless, with nothing to hold the boat on course, it slid sideways down the back of the wave, half swamped, until the next crest plucked and flipped it like a balsa-wood toy, hurling its single passenger into the sea with a cry of shock and protest.
He fought his way back to the surface, choking and spitting, to find that the boat had been driven ten yards beyond him and floated upside down, the engine gone-- ripped off in the disaster. In an attempt to reach it, he took three strokes and realized that it was drifting away faster than he could swim.
It was cold-- so cold. He tried to recall what he had been told should be done to avoid hypothermia in the lethal temperature of Alaskan waters, and thought he should curl into a fetal position, because he would lose the most body heat from his head, armpits, and groin, but he also knew, sadly, with dread, that any effort would be futile. There was too much water between himself and the beach, and there would be no rescue-- no one knew he was there.
Cyclic storm swells raised and lowered his floating form and waves came tumbling mercilessly in from the west to wash over and leave him gasping. Numb with cold and weakening quickly, he forced himself to put forth the effort to stroke toward shore, a singularly unproductive activity, but one that gave him an excuse not to give up.
As his body core rapidly cooled, he began to hallucinate and to talk gibberish to himself.
"Old fool. Millie? Where is... ? Thank you... yes, I know that... I'm so cold... Just remember... A martini would be nice... she should... till you're... don't like this... at all... home again... can't... Damned old fool... you were meant... for me." He imagined the boat, upright, on calm water, and reached out for it... heard the tinkling of a piano... smelled sausage frying.
In a brief moment of clarity, before his limbs stilled and he slowly disappeared beneath the surface of the cove, he hoped the woman would be all right without his help. She was a nice person-had been kind to him, though he had frightened her at first.
Jessie... her name was Jessie.
As the sun went down behind a western stand of trees, staining the clear sky the brilliant fuchsias and golds that are often a part of fall evenings in south-central Alaska, the breeze, sharp with a hint of frost, stirred itself into a gust of wind that whistled around the eves and tugged a flight of fluttering dark yellow leaves from a tall stand of birch, sending them swirling through the air like a flock of small voiceless birds.
Climbing the front steps of her snug log cabin, with an armful of harness that needed repair before the new season of sled dog racing, Jessie Arnold paused to appreciate nature's generous pallet and the circuitous, soaring reminder of fall. The wind ruffled her already tousled honey-blond hair and flapped the tail of the jacket she had worn all day working in the dog lot. Though a little sad that all the brightness would soon be stripped from the trees to the ground in a patchwork of gold, leaving their limbs to stand in stark skeletal silhouette against the sky, she knew she would welcome the arrival of winter's clean silence that would blanket her world in drifts, smoothing all shapes to curves and roundness.
She had never been successful in deciding which part of the year she favored in Alaska's constantly shifting panorama of extremes, and vacillated between spring and fall, the two seasons when change was swift, seemed to occur almost overnight and with little warning. A turn of the head in April, and in what seemed a moment, when she looked again, everything was green and bursting into blossom. Then, one day in September, she would notice that, along the full length of the tall stalks of fireweed, its magenta flowers had gone to fluff that drifted in the slightest current of air. Or the distant honking of a ragged arrow of geese would draw her eyes heavenward to watch their restless passing. She would realize that the pelts of the forty-odd dogs in her lot were richly thick with new hair, come out early one morning to find them sleeping in nose-to-tail curls, hoarding their body heat.
For Jessie, there was always a languid, peaceful thoughtfulness that came with fall, a sort of drowsy contemplation of life's rhythms. Unlike the burgeoning energy of spring that quickened the blood like sap rising, it was a slowing of the mind and senses that harmonized with the environment, a summons to quietude.
The season suited her well, for she was born to it. The next day was her birthday and she knew that Alex had some kind of dinner celebration planned, for it had kept him grinning for days with anticipation, as he dropped tantalizing, cryptic hints that led nowhere. It was a deep pleasure and satisfaction to her that he liked recognizing significant days. It was a trait many men lacked, shrugging off its importance to the women in their lives. But Alex had been raised in a family that made much of holidays, savored every candle on the cake, fight on the tree, or grinning jack-o'-lantern. Greeting cards and small, often humorous gifts for him came almost as regularly as letters from his mother in Idaho. It was clear that keeping the continuity of her family circle going was important to Keara Lacey Jensen, and that it gratified her to please her firstborn son, for mail addressed in her handwriting often arrived for Jessie, too, though they had never met
She looked down and smiled as Tank, her favorite lead dog, pressed his cold nose against her hand, reminding her that he was eager to go inside-- a treat infrequently allowed-- that there were still things that needed doing before the end of the day.
"Okay... okay. Come on."
With a last appreciative glance at the fading hues of the sky, and a deep breath of the pungent, earthy odor of fall in the air, she stepped briskly forward to open the door into the warmth of the cabin. Flipping a switch that illuminated two table lamps and an old fashioned fixture over the dinner table , she dropped the harness in a heap by the door. She kicked Off her knee-high rubber boots and went to add wood to the fire in the potbellied iron stove and water to the cast-iron dragon atop it that puffed humidifying steam into the room from its nostrils, then stood for a minute looking at the space which pleased her as much as the scene she had appreciated outside.
The room she had entered was as wide as the cabin and full of cheerful colors. A huge sofa, covered in quilts and afghans, Uttered with bright pillows, sat close to the stove. Near it, two overstuffed easy chairs squatted like blowzy housewives in print dresses, ready for a good gossip. A large desk, much in need of refinishing, took up space against one wan, cluttered with the correspondence and paperwork necessary for managing a kennel.
The back half of the cabin was divided. On the left was a kitchen area, open to the larger room. Though a cookstove, refrigerator, sink, and countertops crowded this space, the impression was that they had been arranged wherever they fit best, shelves added to the walls one or two at a time as they were required, then stacked with dishes and pots and pans. Under the countertops, blue checked curtains hid shelves designated for food storage. A much-used oak dining table sat close, surrounded by a rowdy crowd of mismatched kitchen chairs hand-painted in lively primary colors.
To the right, walls enclosed a small bath off a bedroom largely occupied by an inviting king-sized brass bed with a pile of fluffy pillows above a wonderful quilt Jessie had found on a trip to Ketchikan. It glowed with a variety of blues that were scattered with tiny silver stars, but the special delight of it was the subtle colors sweeping across it in swirls and curves that portrayed the northern lights. One wall of the bedroom was filled with shelves of books and keepsakes-- including Alex's collection of mustache cups-- on shelves; another held hooks and more shelves, for the hanging and holding of both their wardrobes.
As she hung her jacket on a hook by the front door, the phone rang. Crossing to the desk, she picked up the receiver.
There was the soft sound of an open fine, but no one answered.
"Hello. This is Arnold Kennels. Hello?" She waited, frowning, then started to hang up, but as she began to take the receiver from her ear there was a sudden, short, perhaps twosecond burst of sound followed by the click of a receiver being returned to the cradle.
Wrong number. Exasperated, she hung up. People could at least acknowledge her hello, couldn't they-- apologize for their mistake? Shrugging, she turned away, dismissing the incident
To fill the silence, she put some Celtic harp music on the CD player and went to the kitchen. Scrubbing her hands free of the dirt accumulated in feeding and caring for forty dogs, she stirred, then tasted the kettle of stew that simmered fragrantly on the back of the stove, added a little pepper, and was soon cheerfully involved in mixing a batch of biscuits to accompany it.
The better part of an hour later, Tank, who had stretched out luxuriously on a braided rug in front of the fire, suddenly raised his head in alert attention, and Jessie, at the desk with a book and a pile of papers, heard the sound of Alex's truck coming up the long drive to the cabin. The husky did not bark-such behavior would have been beneath his dignitybut made a small affectionate sound in his throat and sat up eagerly to face the door.
Boots thumped on the steps and Alaska State Trooper Sergeant Alex Jensen energetically blew in with a gust of wind that swept across the room to breathe down Jessie's neck, eliciting a shiver that hunched her shoulders.
"Hi, trooper. O-o-oh, it's getting cold out there."
"Yup. Going to freeze tonight for sure. '0, it sets my heart a-clickin' like the tickin' of a clock, when the frost is on the punkin and the... ah... something's... in the shock."' He fanny-bumped the hand-hewn door shut, sealing out the invasive wind, and quickly set about divested himself of boots and coat
Jessie smiled, familiar with his periodic inclination to quote scraps of poetry, often in imprecise fragments.
"What's that? Kipling?"
"Nope. James Whitcomb Riley... I think."
Crossing the room in long strides, he leaned to kiss her welcoming mouth and cast a curious glance over her shoulder at the paperwork. "Whatcha working on?"
"Rest of the stuff for the last junior mushers training this week."
"Glad to be almost done with it?"
"Yes, but all four of the kids I've been working with are doing really well. Two of the older ones want to come out to work in the lot this fall, and I can use the help with the young dogs. You hungry?"
"Starved... and something smells good in here."
"Moose stew seemed like a good idea in this weather. Toss that pan of biscuits at the oven and we'll eat as soon as they're done. I'll be through here in a minute."
"Hey, making the biscuits is my job."
"Yeah, well... I had an extra couple of minutes after I fed the guys, and I figured you'd be ravenous when you hit the porch."
"Just buttering me up 'cause your birthday's tomorrow," he accused her, clattering the pan of biscuits into the oven. "Won't work, you know. I'm wilier than that. Smell a bribe a mile away."
Content in his presence, she watched him moving purposely in the compact kitchen, a grin on his face like that of a mischievous small boy with a secret, as he closed the oven, lifted the Rd to peer atthe stew, and fished a long-neck of Killian's Irish Red Lager from the bottom shelf of the refrigerator. He held up a second bottle. "Want one?"
"No, thanks. When I finish this, I'm planning to dip into my sacred stash of Jameson."
"I'll get it. Ice water?"
"Yes, please. Now who's buttering who up?"
"A little spoiling, maybe. Not buttering. I save buttering tiff I have a real reason for it. Then you're in trouble, because no one butters better than I do."
He stuck his head out of the kitchen space and twisted his face into a comic leer, waggling the wide handlebar mustache on his upper lip suggestively. "I could, however, be persuaded to do some kind of buttering later tonight, if you're absolutely set on it."
Jessie laughed and, realizing there was no chance of gathering her scattered concentration long enough to finish her work, abandoned it and began to collect and organize the papers she had spread out.
"Hey. Whatever. Dirty old men need love, too."
Along with the clink of ice and glass, she could hear him at the sink, muttering a tongue-twister she had never been able to master-butter, obviously, still on his mind.
"Betty bought a bit of bitter butter, put it in her batter, made her batter bitter. Betty bought a bit of better butter, put it in her bitter batter, made her bitter batter better."
Where had all this silliness come from? What could have put him into such an exuberant mood?
He brought her shot of Irish whiskey in a small snifter and set it, with a separate glass of ice water, in the space she had just cleared on the desk.
"What, no butter?"
"No butter," he told her. "This is just a well-deserved 'Happy Birthday."'
Beside the drink, he laid a small package wrapped in gold paper and tied with a matching ribbon.
"Alex!" She swung around to look up at him over the back of her chair. "It's not till tomorrow."
"So? Tomorrow's tomorrow. This is tonight's birthday present And, if you are really a good girl..."
She reached up, took hold of his shirtfront, and pulled his face down to give him a kiss.
"You... are too much."
"Open it," Alex directed, and laid a gently encouraging hand on the nape of her neck.
Jessie picked up the present and held it for a moment in the palm of her hand, considering. She hoped he couldn't feel her heart beating wildly, for at first sight of the gift it had an but leaped from her chest. The package was tantalizingly close to the size and shape of a ring box. Was it? Did she want it to be? Slowly, she untied the ribbon and carefully loosened the tape, holding the paper to avoid tearing it
Time. If this was what she suspected, she needed time to decide how to respond. Whenever the question of marriage had entered her mind, she had, with purpose and determination, resolutely shoved it aside. Now she found herself confused, both wanting and resisting the idea. Glad he was behind her, could not see her face, she held her breath and cautiously lifted the hinged lid of the jeweler's box she had freed of its wrappings.
"Oh, Alex! O-o-oh!"
Against black velvet a pair of diamond studs for her ears caught fire in the fight of the desk lamp.
Exhaling a sigh that could have meant anything, Jessie brushed them with the tip of one slightly trembling finger, then glanced up to see the delight in his eyes.
"They're beautiful," she started to say, but, halfway through the words, her throat closed without warning and his face swam in unshed tears that blurred her vision. How could one be both relieved and disappointed all at once? she wondered fleetingly.
Astonished, Alex dropped his arm to encircle her shoulders.
"Jess. Don't you like them? What's wrong?"
Then, without waiting for a response, he swept her up and carried her to the sofa, where he sat down, cradling her on his lap like a child, and tipped up her chin, so he could see her face.
"No... no." She smiled, as the tears disappeared. "Nothing's wrong. Really. I love them. They're gorgeous. You just caught me off guard, that's all. Surprised me. What a present!"
He reached to the arm of the sofa for a kitchen towel she had forgotten there and handed it to her.
She hugged him hard for a moment and complied.
Much later, when they had eaten, washed the dishes, returned a reluctant Tank to the dog lot, and were half asleep in the big brass bed, under the quilt that glowed with northern lights as bright as those that pulsed across the autumn sky high over the cabin, Alex heard her whisper.
"Some kind of buttering, trooper. But we'd better be going somewhere tomorrow night where I can wear these!"
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