Salmon Stream

“When a Zeppelin train collapses – thankfully without loss of human life – into a shallow mountain stream during a celebrated salmon run, the resulting carnage might as well be intentional animal genocide.

“The cables on the train haven’t parted or even required more than standard maintenance since being installed by the Elwha Klallam tribal council, over a half century ago.

“The Elwha tribe resembles others in that their traditional and customary use of sweat-lodges gives them an instinctive understanding of the potential of steam….”

With a snort, Agent Skene broke off quoting from the Hydrogen Examiner Weekly – the Olympic Peninsula’s American Enclave’s only newspaper – slapped it down on his desk, and flattened it out before sitting back and folding his arms. They were big arms, inherited from the Scots ancestors who had gifted him his red-gold hair and the big ditches along his jaw when he smiled. Only he wasn’t smiling.

” ‘Traditional and customary’ war is more like it, if the tribe finds out who snapped that cable.”

“I’d be more afraid of the tribal fish biologist.” said Vial, the small brunette who served as his secretary and assistant.

There was an audible low whine as her left eyelid lifted. He wished she would make time to see a mechanic and get an upgrade for her distance implant. It was the only piece of body-machinery she owned, but its brass-and-silver sparkle added interest to an otherwise average face. Skene suspected she didn’t want to – or couldn’t afford to – trade out the lens, cut and polished from an unusually pure apple-green peridot. She did love that color; everything from her bustle to her high-button boots was some shade of green.

“Why him in particular?” asked the agent.

“Did you know he’s full Quileute?” Vial raised a fine black eyebrow that was all her own.

Delgado waved his hand. “The tribes used to stop their wars to celebrate the coming of the first salmon of the year. They’d stop if it meant it was time to pick salal. No native would harm a salmon run, just to gain an advantage.”

“But – .”

“Look, Vial, you’re not from out here. You have to understand the tribes don’t work by the same rules. They’re not like us. Look at those cable systems, for example; supported by Zeppelins anchored at one-mile increments, the cars supported below the cable and powered by steam engines that run along the cable itself, while the wildlife and birds pass safely below and around. They were the original model for all the modern consolidated tribal cable-ways, in the Amazon and through the Yukon and Siberia.”

D elgado continued reading:

“The Elwha Zeppelin cable way is part of the Consolidated Pacific Tribes cable system originally instituted by the Chinook Nation, who imported specialists in steam cable lines long before most of their tribal members were literate in written languages, trading top-quality otter skins, gallery-quality basketry and jewel-point arrowheads in exchange for the services of Msrs. Garnier and Pelletier, famous inheritors of the French engineering tradition, who later funded and launched Narcís Monturiol i Estarrol’s “Ictineo” steam submarine empire.”

“Is that reporter writing a news report or going for a history prize?”

“The point I believe the paper is trying to make is that the Indians own everything out here.” Stene grabbed his black coachman’s hat and made for the door. “Let’s find out who we can invite to lunch and see if he loosens up about this little catastrophe.”

****

In the view dining room of the Crab House, one of middle-value restaurants in the Enclave, Washington State Transportation Department Officer Lee Shing savored the juicy pink morsel he had just forked out of a smoked salmon salad, provided on the ticket of the Northwest Native Intranational Relations Agency, for which Stene was the senior outreach agent. Shing took a sip of the glass of Mac N’ Jack ale provided with the meal before speaking.

“Nobody can get in here without cable tickets,” he said. “Unless they charter one of the Makah tribe’s big double cedar haulage canoes. Otherwise, there is no way to get around except all those thousand-year-old, foot-deep barefoot trails through trees big around as houses. The Enclave is lucky we’re allowed in for resource trading and cable maintenance.”

Vial blinked with an audible click. “Somebody wants to bring in roads.”

Shing squinted. “No, not roads,” he mused.

“Why not?” said Stene.

Shing said, “Roads are municipal, paid for by taxes. They don’t compete with anybody, or offer a financial advantage. They’re only there for the horses and carriages or steam lorries to run on between the railway spurs.”

“Oh, then – the railways?” offered Vial between spoonfuls of crab bisque.

“No, and for the same reason,” said Shing. “Nobody can make a profit through state-maintained transportation. Which you have to see the tribal cable system as; everything a chief organizes he organizes for his people. You know a Makah whaling chief won’t even take a taste of the chunk of fin blubber he hangs up in the longhouse? They get all their glory from giving, and that includes those cable systems. I’m amazed chiefs even ride in the cars.”

Stene took a mouthful of his own macaroni-and-cheese bake. He’d splurged carefully on the NNIRA bill by only asking for the pine-nut and chive additions.

He chewed and asked, “So you don’t know anyone who would gain by breaking up the tribal transportation system?”

“I sure don’t think so,” said Shing. “We depend on those cable systems around here, ourselves. There would be a lot of unhappy – and stranded – people if anything happened to the cables.”

“Darn,” muttered Vial.

Shing patted his mouth with his napkin. “Well, thanks for the nice lunch. Hope it just turns out to be an accident.”

****

Lunch two was at the Asian Bistro, with Franklin Gregory, who represented the tourism and gallery offices in the Enclave. Stene and Vial didn’t order, but Gregory was happy to ask the waiter a nice hot Thai lemon chicken on rice. Vial began the suggestions as Stene had asked her to.

“Lumber companies?” she said.

“They can’t compete,” said Gregory, having fun with his yellow-cedar chopsticks. “The tribes send out those five-foot-wide cedar and maple and fir boards, split carefully off live trees. Those big, thick slabs of fine wood don’t sell as junk scrap or pulp; they’re auctioned to specialty architectural houses, who are the only ones who can afford them. The Pacific tribes were discovered by the German art-houses almost immediately last century, and they’ve been using that to their advantage ever since.”

“Probably because they all follow the raven,” sniffed Vial, remembering the ubiquitous black birds with their grating calls, ducking in and out through the tops of the tall stands of trees.

“They all follow art commerce, that’s for certain,” quipped Gregory. “The Pacific tribes heard about our lovely diseases early on, and the chiefs quarantined the entire place until medical science caught up. They got into the habit of being perfectly happy with their own way of life, and they’re not about to change.”

“I still say we should follow the money,” said Vial. “We just have to find out how someone could possibly make a profit under the noses of the Indians without ending up floating off the back of Tatoosh Island.”

Gregory shook his head. “That’s old propaganda, from the wild old days. The elders would disown anybody who tried any rough stuff then, or today – or just turn him over to his auntie, which in a way is much worse. These have been business-people up here for millennia.”

****

After another fruitless lunch meeting, Stene and Vial stood on the walkway along the Enclave waterfront, that fronted on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Out on Ediz Hook, a long sandspit into the bay that belonged to the Elwha for food-gathering purposes, tribal people were gathering around one of the small clam-smoking huts. Skene squinted, trying to focus on the distant figures, that were to him no clearer than distant heron.

He murmured, “Something’s going on out there.”

Vial’s eye implant whirred quietly. She looked up at Stene. “There’s somebody we know out there, and it looks like he’s getting ready to go out on a long journey.”

“Who?”

“č̓apaccaqil,” said Vial, gulping on the complex consonants of a name that meant, “It looks like a canoe.”

” ‘ č̓apaccaqil?’ ” said Stene. He’s a Makah whaling chief; what’s he doing here? Trading?”

“No, he’s not in everyday clothes; he’s wearing regalia. It looks — ceremonial.”

“Some kind of negotiation,” said Stene. “This is odd; the tribes usually let us know about contacts between them, out of courtesy for trade.”

“Well, they’re not hiding it,” said Vial. “He’s got an an ocean-travel canoe out there, and it’s not loaded for fishing. Oh, my goodness; two of the Elwha are joining him. Well, that’s peculiar, they’re all using whaling paddles. And they’re the only one with the paddles.” She looked seriously up at Stene. “They’re an escort.”

“We’d better find out about this,” said Stene. “Those paddles are for silent running, and if they’re not taking harpoons, they’re going to be sneaking up on somebody.”

“If it’s war, we can’t be involved,” said Vial.

“They’re not dressed for war. Or the Wolf ceremonies, which I wouldn’t expect, anyway, except on a home beach and woods, and in secret. I have no idea what’s going on out there, but I’m beginning to have a feeling they’re not dealing with just each other. Somebody from our people might have been doing what he’s not supposed to, and they’re preparing to take care of the problem.”

“It’s got to have something to do with the cable and the salmon stream,” said Vial. “What else would bring them together like this, outside of a trading or slahal fair?”

Stene drew himself up. “We’re going to have to ask. At this point, it’s agency business.”

Vial said nervously, “What if we’re wrong?”

“That’s what we’re paid for.”

****

Stene and Vial hurried to the canoe fleet drawn up on the beach, and bargained for passage out to the far end of the spit. They could have walked, but it was at least a three-mile walk through sand and pebbles, some of it puddling with high tide, and they would have had to stop and chat with everyone they met on the way out – etiquette demanded it – and when First Nations people really got into preparations for a journey, they could be out into the Strait and flying away on the outgoing tide, like a dirigible on a jet stream. As it was, Stene had to offer more money to convince his paddler to swing out in front of the chief’s canoe as it slid, dark and sleek as a wolf-eared sea-snake, out into the Strait. Stene stood up in the canoe and addressed the canoe in his most formal voice:

“Honored Chief! High-born people! Stay in your important journey and talk to a friend!”

The tribes were nothing if not polite; outsiders got into bad trouble with them by forgetting their manners. At a gesture from the chief the two paddlers stopped the canoe and held it in place as Stene’s canoe came alongside. Stene solemnly held out a handful of large coins.

“High-born chief, let me give you a small gift for taking your valuable time, to thank you for your kindness!”

The chief graciously waved away the payment. “I thank you, but it’s not a hurry.”

Stene’s paddler sighed with relief; he was off the hook for crossing the chief’s path. Stene put away his money and, using the evidentiality form that was so important to Wakashan speakers, even though he was using English, he said, “I have heard something has happened. I have heard it is said to be bad for the salmon.”

č̓apaccaqil studied him before answering. “Electricity needs dams,” he said.

Vial gasped and put her hand over her mouth. She’d never heard any Makah put anything so bluntly. Stene sat looking at the chief, brow harrowed with thought, and then he blinked so hard his own eyelids should have clicked.

He said, “Is the honored person saying someone wants to put a dam on the Elwha river to generate electricity? Without considering what could happen to the salmon?”

“It is said the salmon stream will be replaced with the stream of electricity.”

“That’s not possible,” said Stene. “Who could think such a trade-off would be even, except for the most selfish purposes?”

“This person is said be troublesome,” agreed č̓apaccaqil.

“Has such a person been near the stream?”

“Not for long,” snapped č̓apaccaqil.

Stene’s jaw dropped; he realized what he’d gotten himself into. He should never have paddled out and spoken to the chief. Now he must act as though he never knew anything about what had happened, or why. Someone had committed the ultimate sin among or against the tribes; completely destructive selfishness. The tribes took care of justice themselves, and anybody from the Enclave or its society fell under that justice on their land, on their streams. Now somebody had attacked the valuable and sacred salmon people in their home, threatening the tribes’ livelihood, and the life of the tribe of salmon people themselves. There was nothing Stene could do, not even report it to NNIRA. He would have to remain officially ignorant.

Without another word, he signaled to his paddler to back away, allowing the chief’s canoe to knife away onto the outgoing tide.

It looked like a canoe, a wolf-eared serpent of a canoe, indeed.

****

A body was found floating off the back of Tatoosh island; it had been there for a while, and the tissues were degraded beyond a point an analog computer could work out the DNA breakages. The feet were missing; they might have come away as a natural result of disintegration and floated off in their shoes, or they might have been removed to keep the dead person’s spirit from being able to move around and cause trouble.

The cable was repaired, the stream cleaned and repaired; the salmon people would be back next year, and in the meantime, all the tribes on the cable system would help feed the Elwha.

č̓apaccaqil spent a year away up the coast, supposedly as a guard on a women’s clam-and-berry-gathering journey, with his very strictest aunt. Not even he could have ignored his elders.


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