|Image by Lukas Riebling via Wikimedia Commons|
Walt fed the campfire with twigs and dead pine needles, though it had taken a can of Sterno to get it started. Earlier in the hike, Marlin had pointed out a small hawk on the other side of a clearing that Walt couldn’t identify. The brochure’s rustic lunch tuned out to be PB&J. Whatever inherent mystique a Yukon trail guide might have, Walt was destroying it.
Marlin hummed a tune, watching for Walt’s reaction. The guide had to recognize the song. He had to.
“Cut that racket out,” Walt said.
Ah success. “Don’t you like the song?” Marlin asked.
“You’ve been carryin’ on with that nonsense since the trailhead. Christ himself would have told you to knock it off by now.” He tossed more needles in the fire and searched around his feet for more.
“I heard that singing or talking in the woods will keep bears away,” Marlin said.
“They’ll stay away just fine with or without you making jibber-jabber.”
“But, don’t we need to worry about bears?” Marlin asked. They both had guns strapped to their hips, though Marlin doubted his would do anything more than annoy any wild animal.
Walt adjusted a camouflage baseball hat while he looked around. “Dunno. We’ll put the food up in a tree and keep the fire going. If a bear comes, he’ll probably be too busy trying to get the peanut butter jar open to pay us any mind.”
“So then what?”
“We let him eat it, and run like hell back to the truck.”
“Won’t the bear chase us?”
“Never saw a bear more interested in people than peanut butter, unless they smell like bacon.” He fished around for another stick and poked it at the flames. “You got any bacon?”
“I’m a vegetarian.”
“Oh, right.” Walt paused. “Then why’d you hire out a fishing guide?”
“I eat fish, just not meat.”
“Fish is meat. Don’t see fish in the produce section,” Walt said.
“It’s complicated,” Marlin said.
“Must be. Never seen a fisherman with only one rod and two flies on a backcountry trip before.”
“I like to travel light.”
“Yeah? Then what’s weighing down your pack?”
“That’s the heaviest nothing I ever saw.”
Just notebooks, a camera, a digital recorder, and a tablet. But if Walt knew that, he might get spooked. He could decide to go underground again, and Marlin would lose his trail forever.
They sat by the fire, neither saying a word for what seemed like hours. Marlin began humming.
“You make that racket on purpose, or do you even know you’re doing it?” Walt asked.
“Don’t you recognize the tune?” Marlin found himself leaning in for the answer.
“Not hardly. Sounds like a drunk bee in a tin can.”
Walt shook his head and went rummaging through his pack. He tossed Marlin a plastic-wrapped sandwich oozing peanut butter and then held up a Slim Jim.
“You want your jerky?”
“No, you go ahead.”
After dinner, Marlin tried drawing Walt into conversation, but the man would only reply with grunts and monosyllables. He gave up and stared up into the sky, watching the night’s first stars emerge as Walt’s knife rasped over a branch, peeling strips of bark into a little pile at his feet. More stars came into view as the sky darkened, and Walt’s whittling took on a steady cadence. Marlin followed a winking light through the sky, and was trying to decide if it was a jet or a satellite when he realized Walt was absently humming a tune in time to his knife strokes. The notes repeated every few seconds into a series, the series changing keys every third round, the song Marlin had heard hundreds of times, with words etched so deeply in his mind that he could remember them when his boyhood telephone number, his career record as a high school wrestler, and his second girlfriend’s first name had long faded from recall.
Marlin sat up and turned to Walt.
“You do know that song.”
Walt looked confused for a second, then scowled at the whittled stick. He tossed it into the fire.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” Walt said.
“That was Baby, Can You Dig Your Man? by Rico Hayfield.”
“Hell if it was,” Walt said.
“Probably just stuck in my head because you’ve been humming it all day long,” Walt said.
“No, you hummed it like you used to sing it, Walt. Or can I call you Rico?”
Walt’s shoulders slumped. “You with the IRS?”
“No, I’m just a fan.”
Walt gave a short, mirthless chuckle. “I’ll bet. You from some network wanting to do a ‘where are they now’ story? ‘Cause I’m not interested.”
“No. Just me.”
Walt nodded. “How’d you find me, anyway?”
“It wasn’t easy,” Marlin said. “A group of us met up on the Internet and pooled our clues together. Sightings, rumors, family history, that kind of thing. Then we divvied up the globe and started searching. I got Canada.
“Nothing happened for years, then I came across some guy’s pictures from a fishing trip, and he joked that their guide looked like Rico-what’s-his-name’s old man. When I looked, I knew it was you. The rest was simple.”
“What did your online buddies say?”
Marlin felt his face warm. “I held out on them. I wanted to be the first one to find you, and make sure it actually was you, and not some mistake.”
Walt dug at the bottom of his pack and pulled out a chrome flask. He smelled at the contents then held it out to Marlin.
“Well, you found me, congratulations. Share some Scotch with me?”
Marlin tipped the flask back, and erupted into a coughing fit.
“Yeah, it ain’t for everyone,” Walt said, taking the flask back. He took a swig and held it before him, sloshing liquor back and forth.
“Why’d you stop putting out songs?” Marlin asked. “It’s like you disappeared when your song dropped off the radio.”
Walt poked at the fire. “I had a song, and people liked it. The record company gave me a ton of cash as a signing bonus and promised a big check once the receipts came in. Figured I had it made, and plowed though money like every day was my last.”
“What did you spend it on?”
“Trips, feasts, friends, women, even a castle in the middle of a Scottish swamp. It cost, but why worry about bills when I could always write another song, right? Except when I sat down to write, nothing came out.”
Walt shook his head. “Nah. I think I just had that one song in me and didn’t know it. Took me a while to realize that, but by then I had lost everything but a bunch of creditors and tax men.”
“And you ended up here.”
Walt gave a little shrug. “The Yukon has always been a place to run away. Living is cheap, if you know how to go about it and, for the most part, no one asks questions. So while I may not be the world’s greatest trail guide, I get by.”
The Scotch started going to his head, so Marlin sat down. “You could go back, you know,” Marlin said. “There’s a small group of fans that’d be willing to help you get your problems sorted out. Maybe get you back touring again, even if is for that one song.”
Walt stared at him over the fire, then up at the stars. He took in a deep breath, and shook his head.
“No, too late for all that.”
“Everyone declares bankruptcy now, it’s like ordering a burger.” Marlin leaned in. “Your song is the thread that runs through my life. I can’t explain it, but through high school, college, and out in the world, something in your music helps me make sense of it all. I know others feel that way too.”
Marlin walked around the fire and put a hand on Walt’s shoulder. “You owe it to us to come back and sing again. Maybe you’ll find another song in you too.”
“I doubt it.” Walt put the flask away and hefted the food sack. “Let’s turn in for the night.”
“Will you let me help you get back to the real world?”
Walt looked at him and sighed. “I’ll tell you in the morning.”
“Okay.” Marlin stood and steadied himself against the liquor. “Need any help with the camp?”
Walt gave him a tight smile. “No, I got it. You just go and rest now.”
He was the first to find Rico Hayfield. Marlin watched the stars with the song echoing in his head before sleep took him.
The next day, Walt rolled a bundle into the ventilation shaft of a collapsed copper mine. The body would join that of a tax agent, a bounty hunter, and one other resourceful fan. Walt’s tongue burned where it had plugged the poisoned flask in a feigned a sip. That was okay; it would stop hurting in a week or two.
“You weren’t the first to find me, Marlin, sorry.”
He took off his cap and sang Baby, Can You Dig Your Man? before replacing the rusted metal grate over the shaft’s entrance. The fundamental truth of it all was that he had only one song in him, and too many bodies in the ground to risk leaving the Yukon and finding another. Walt didn’t feel sorry for himself; most people went their whole lives without finding a song of their own.