The Brown Bear Saloon was a small, wooden structure that looked more like a two-story winter hunting cabin than a bar and restaurant. The tile floor was stained a dark chocolate color from the continuous tracking of dirt and mud, and the walls and ceiling were littered with dollar bills stapled and signed from passing travelers. Just a few months ago the days were over nineteen hours long, and the bar was packed with transients and backpackers alike. But those nearly twenty hours days were dwindling. The sun was setting earlier and earlier, and Alaskans were getting less time in the hot, constant sun. Winter was coming quickly, and snow was already building up in trails and unmaintained roads.
One afternoon, in the early November haze, a group of backpackers came in. They looked uncomfortably around the bar. It was nearly empty since a good portion of the locals fled south to Seattle to hole up for the harsh, dark winter. There were three of them, and none were distinguishable from the others. All of their gear was new and had the faint smell of freshly, unwrapped plastic that cut the stale, stagnant air of the Brown Bear.
“Whaddya want?” The bartender asked.
The group all looked at each other like they didn’t know what exactly they wanted. One of them stepped forward.
“Hello, sir,” his voice trembling, “my name is Everett, Everett Wilstone. We’re looking for someone who went missing.”
“Well, y-you see,” he stammered, “our friend, Wyatt, went hiking around here a while ago and nobody has heard from him since.”
“Sure,” the bartender said.
“Well, we got this from him back in August.” He spun his backpack around and pulled out a small, dog-eared postcard in a gallon zip lock bag. “It’s a postcard from Diamond Jim’s next door. We looked it up online.”
“Now, we don’t mean any inconvenience, but he said he picked up some liquor and supplies from next door and was going to head west, just a half mile or so to some sort of trailhead. You want to read it yourself?”
“Well, you see, Wyatt said he stopped in here for a few beers and to sleep in a bed for the last time before he headed out into the bush.”
Everett took his backpack off, and gently put the postcard back into the front pocket, and after he was satisfied it was secured, he pulled out a few pictures.
“This is him. Have you seen him?”
The bartender squinted at the man in all the photos. He stroked his unruly beard. He sucked his teeth and finally shook his head.
“He wears a unique pinky ring. It’s yellow gold, and has a salmon engraved on the top. It’s pretty ornate and I am guessing this isn’t a place you see a lot of pinky rings. Does that ring a bell?”
“Is there anyone that might know something?” One of the men asked.
The bartender didn’t say anything. He just motioned to the corner of the room where a man was sitting, alone. Then, the bartender walked through a door behind the bar, and into the backyard to continue his preparation for winter.
The windows were closed to prevent the cold wind from coming in, and a thin cloud of smoke hung in the man’s corner. On the table was a half-finished bottle of whiskey and the ashtray in front of him was filled with loose tobacco and hand-rolled cigarettes.
Everett picked up the photos from the bar, and the group went over to the solitary man. They stood around his table for a short time, but the man didn’t react. Every so often, he would take a sip of whiskey, but he didn’t say anything to the group.
“Hello, sir, my name is-“
“Smoky,” the man said.
“Not ‘sir.’ Just Smoky.”
“Ok, Smoky,” Everett said, putting the photos on the table. “This is our friend, Wyatt, and he’s missing-“
“I heard ya,” he said. “How much ya got?”
“Excuse me?” Everett asked.
“Listen, boys. I don’t know how things are done where ya’ll are from, but where I’m from-”
“Where is that exactly?” One of the men asked.
“Biloxi, Mississippi. Like I was saying, where I’m from if ya want help from a stranger, it takes more than a just pretty-please.”
One by one the men took out their wallets, and each threw a pile of crisp bills on the table.
“It’s gotta be more than that,” Smoky said without looking up.
Everett rolled his eyes and emptied out his pockets. He put $378.89 more on the table.
“That’s all I got.”
“Good enough,” Smoky said, and without counting it, he stacked it all up and put it into his pocket. He pulled out his loose tobacco and started rolling another cigarette. “I saw your man.” He said as he was licking his smoke and finishing the roll.
“What was he doing?”
“Well, he rented a room upstairs. At the time I was in-between jobs, so I was spending a lot of time here. My cabin doesn’t have some of the luxuries ya can find in civilization.”
“So you spoke to him?” Everett asked, sitting down in the chair across from Smoky.
“Can you tell us where he went to?”
Smoky lit his cigarette and poured more whiskey into his glass. Everett noticed Smoky was missing half of his right middle finger, and when he looked up from his drink for the first time, just below the brim of his hat, they saw his left eye was milky white.
“Up the road a piece, you’ll pass a small river. Go down a little further, and you’ll see a few homes, and after that, there’s a street sign for Old John’s. Follow it down about a mile. You’ll pass an old bus, a junkyard, but mostly nothin’. Ya don’t need to worry about no bears this late in the season, so on that end, ya should be safe. It’ll end. If ya look to the left, there’s a trailhead. There’s only the one, and it’s hard to miss. Don’t be distracted by the warehouse or the government building down there neither. Once winter hits, those are emptied out. Once ya head out on that trail, you’re on your own.”
“Was that where Wyatt was headed?”
“Mmm-hmm,” Smoky grunted, “it’s called the Shesh Trail,”
Everett smiled at his friends. He grabbed the pictures off the table and put them into his backpack, and was standing up when suddenly, Smoky grabbed his arm. Everett felt the tight grip but didn’t fight it. He settled back into his chair. Smoky let go and took another sip of his whiskey.
“I got a warning for you would-be adventurin’ city-folk. Ya don’t want to go out in them woods.”
“We can handle it,” one of the boys said.
“No, ya can’t. Neither could your friend.”
“Watch yourself,” Everett asserted.
“No disrespect to you or your two friends here, chief. Where ya from?”
“New York City.”
“That must be nice. So, I’m assuming you’ve hunted before?”
The three men stared at each other.
“You boys ever tracked somethin’?”
Nobody said anything.
“Because I’m betting if ya had, ya’ll would know the fresh snowfall from last night won’t be a help. It would have covered up any tracks or clues. Also, when you’re tracking an animal, ya need to know their routines. Streams they go to, places they graze, mating areas. If I’m guessing, Wyatt missing for three months isn’t a good sign because this isn’t his routine.”
Stillness settled into the group.
“We didn’t even start reporting missing persons here until the 1980s. Just more city boys coming from the lower forty-eight to wrastle mother nature to the ground.”
“Ok. You’re right,” Everett said. “Come with us then.”
“I told ya, ya’ll can’t go in them woods.”
“We’ll pay you.”
“No,” Smoky replied.
“DEAPs say so.”
“What’s a DEAP?”
“Descendants of Early Aboriginal Peoples. It’s the term for the natives up here. Eskimo means raw fish eater, so lots of people didn’t take kindly to that. So, they changed it to Inuit, but that translated to, ‘the people’ and, well, the Tlingit tribe’s name translates to, ‘the real people’ so they didn’t care too much for that neither. It’s a whole fuckin’ thing.”
“So, what? The land is cursed or something?” Everett mocked.
“Not cursed,” Smoky said, “naw, that’s not the right word. I’d say guarded.”
“The Keelut,” Smoky said, taking another drag of his cigarette.
“What’s that? Some kind of Alaskan animal?” Everett asked, exasperated.
“No,” Smoky said, putting his cigarette out, “not at all.”
“Nobody knows exactly what it is. But it patrols those woods, and it hunts. I guarantee ya it hunts better than you three.”
“So, you think we aren’t going to look for our friend because of a story about…something?”
“Demon would be the closest English word. Maybe death.” Smoky took his full glass of whiskey down, refilled it, and drank half of that. “When I was a younger man, and I was new to Alaska, I thought the same things you boys are right now. That trail is practically abandoned, but it is the easiest way to get from here, to Anchorage if you’re hoofin’ it. It’s big too. A hundred years ago or so, they made it wide enough for people to bring a few horses out there for huntin’. You can drag a moose carcass, three horse wide if ya need to.”
“What does this have to do with anything?”
“So, back in the day, I was workin’ as a bootlegger. Now, out here, police aren’t going to come pokin’ around a man’s property even if they know he’s making a little moonshine liquor. But, you try to bring that into Anchorage and sell it? That’s when the boys in blue start to notice, and that’s when people get arrested.
“My partner, Rex, came up with a great idea. It was about this time of year, so we knew there wouldn’t be anyone at that Shesh trailhead. The snow was fresh, but light. We had fifteen gallons, but we’d only need to bring about five gallons of liquor into Anchorage, sell it for $175 a gallon. It was pre-winter and people were a little more desperate. I know that doesn’t seem like much to ya’ll, but you can make that kind of money stretch if you’re self-reliant here. The only thing was the DEAPs said it was cursed land, but we didn’t care.”
Two of the boys leaned in more, waiting for this lore to continue, but Everett sat back, annoyed they were wasting time.
“We didn’t pack much, and we split the liquor, so we were each carrying under fifty pounds total.”
Smoky took out his loose tobacco and began to tremble as he was rolling up another cigarette. He dropped the long strings of tobacco on the wood table and tried to steady his nerves to finish rolling it, but quit halfway through.
“The hike should have taken all day. Maybe a day and a half considerin’ the weight and the snow. When we started, I knew something was wrong. I wanted to turn back, but I was scared Rex would think I was chicken-shit. So, I just kept walking. Once we got out there, I didn’t hear nothin’. No birds chirpin’, or rabbits gettin’ killed by foxes, no animals fightin’ or fuckin’. Nothin’. Just the soft crunch of snow as we went deeper and deeper into the belly of the woods.
“The longer we walked, the more we realized we was lost. We didn’t have a map, and without the trails bein’ maintained, we was just wandering through the wilderness. Then, when we was supposed to be walking into Anchorage, it got dark.
“We didn’t have supplies. We didn’t even bring flashlights because we didn’t want anyone to see us out there, and once that sun went down, we couldn’t see nothin’. We just laid down in the middle of the trail.”
Smoky shifted in his chair and drank more whiskey.
“Late that night, our eyes still hadn’t adjusted very much,” Smokey started whispering. “Maybe just a foot or so of visibility. That’s how deep that darkness was. Just as I was about to sleep, I heard a twig snap not far off. I elbowed Rex so he would know, but he was already doin’ the same. We sat there and listened as whatever it was moved around us, encirclin’ us. The soft crunch of the snow told us it was bigger than a wolf, but not a lot bigger. It didn’t attack, though. It just circled closer and tighter. Twenty yards, then ten, then five. Then nothin’.”
At this point, even Everett was interested.
“After thirty minutes we didn’t hear nothin’ else. Rex sat up. He was breathing all heavy like. Then I heard it. It was gentle at first, but it got louder. A growl. Just a few feet from us. I saw it through that pale, dim moonlight. Black skin. No hair. Sharp teeth. It opened its jaws, and I heard a wet snap, and Rex screamed as he was dragged into the woods. The whole time, I could see it’s glowing red eyes, fixated on me.”
Smoky wiped away a tear and looked out the tightly shut windows.
“And then, silence. No screamin’. No growlin’. No eatin’ or bones snappin’. I sat by myself in the cold. I cried. I pissed myself and sat in it through the night. I prayed, and I haven’t prayed since I was a kid. I don’t even believe in it, but I didn’t know what else to do.
“Then, after hours and hours, it was day again. I hiked forever and made it out of those woods before the sunset. I couldn’t tell ya how.”
The table was silent.
“Great story,” Everett mocked, “let’s go, guys.”
“Everett,” one of the men said, “didn’t you hear-“
“There’s no goddamn monster out in the fuckin’ woods,” Everett yelled.
“Suit yourself,” Smoky said.
Everett stormed out of the bar, upset his time was wasted. The other two followed him, more meekly, and they all went west to the Shesh trailhead.
That night, Smoky sat in his cabin. The woodfire stove would occasionally hiss from the melting snow falling from his leaky roof. He moved his table and lifted up a loose board and dug through the necklaces, old compasses, bracelets, and even an ornate gold pinky ring that all littered the dirt underneath his cabin and took out a map.
Smoky traced the boys’ path. “I’ll drive up to Anchorage tomorrow,” he said. “The boys will be desperate, and they’ll take their time, and I’ll meet up with them deep in those woods at night.” Smoky smiled in the fire’s soft glow, “Just more city-folk missin’,” he laughed.
Troy Bernardo is a writer and graduate student in the MAE program at Augsburg University. He is currently receiving a certificate in Creative Writing from Mesa College. He is an English teacher and lives in San Diego with his wife, Laura, and his two cats, Jax and Maya.