The willows lashed at his face as Charlie struggled through the snow, weighed down by the ice quickly encasing his tattered snow boots. Despite the freezing temperature, a steady stream of sweat stung the blood-encrusted lacerations creasing across his weathered face.
Out on the delta’s ice-covered expanse, the occasional howl of the pack could still be heard, buffeted by the steady drone of the snowmobiles working their way toward him.
The wolves’ focus had shifted only momentarily by the movement of people along one of their well-used travel routes, the pangs of hunger quickly re-establishing priority over a passing curiosity. Regrouping in the willows bordering the large frozen lake, their objective was now foundering in its attempt to get away.
The band of willows seemed impenetrable, but a survival instinct propelled Charlie toward the small creek winding its way into the forest of white spruce and the possibility of escape. The small cabin, sheltered by a thick canopy of evergreens, offered the sole advantage over his pursuers. The rusted 12-guage stored under the mattress might be his only defence.
Their advantage was he was breaking trail, making their pursuit that much easier.
But first they would have to find the opening.
Charlie hoped the slight lead he gained on his pursuers might have been enough, giving him time to put some distance between them before backtracking and jumping off the trail unnoticed. He had landed a couple of good blows and both men were struggling back to their feet when he pulled the keys from their machines and tossed them into the wind. He knew they would be able to quickly bypass the ignition switch and start the snowmobiles without the keys. Still, it might be all the time he needed.
When they caught up to him, Charlie hoped the view down the barrel of a shotgun might be enough for them to reconsider their options and leave him alone. Back in town, cooler heads might prevail, hopefully reducing the likelihood they would do something stupid. Either way, he knew they had a score to settle and wouldn’t give up easily. Staying in the bush might be in his best interest for a while, at least until things settled down, but only time would tell.
The snap of a willow branch somewhere behind him reminded Charlie his focus right now was just making it to the creek.
Pushing forward, he crawled the remaining distance through the spider web of crisscrossed branches, completing the final few feet by grabbing the stem of a thick willow and pulling himself through the tangled mess to the top of the creek bank.
As he lay in the snow catching his breath, Charlie was distracted by the yipping of wolves closing in for the kill. They were much closer than he had realized.
Desperate to reach the cabin, Charlie willed his waning energy into one last push to rise to his feet, but slipped and rolled headlong down the bank, snowballing into a heap on a patch of ice. Remaining facedown, the cold against his cheek provided a brief respite from the sweat and stench engulfing his body as he took a much-needed rest before struggling to his knees.
At that moment, the rising crescendo of wolf yips suddenly went silent as a young cow buffalo crashed through the willow thickets and plowed her way down the creek bank, a trail of blood streaming from a series of gashes shredding her hindquarters.
Standing less than a dozen metres away, Charlie’s presence barely seemed to register with the animal as she stood motionless on the ice, staring over her shoulder at the large dark wolf regarding her from the top of the rise. Sporting a blood-matted coat of yellowing fur, the alpha male sat for a moment before being joined by six other members of the pack. Taking their cue from the large male’s teeth-bared snarl, the younger wolves lay panting on either side of their leader, awaiting his next move.
Wary of the wolves, but deciding they were more interested in the buffalo, Charlie rose slowly to his feet just as his pursuers waded through the willows and stopped on the creek bank above him.
Realizing they had landed in the middle of a standoff, the two men quickly assessed the situation and exchanged comments that were barely audible to Charlie. The larger of the two, sporting a swollen right eye that reinforced the meanness in his stare, nodded to the other man, took one last look at their quarry and turned back toward the willows.
The smaller man looked down at Charlie as his scowl morphed into a smile that didn’t escape the older trapper’s gaze.
“See you in town, Quentin,” Charlie called out, as he sidestepped slowly toward the other side of the creek, keeping one eye on the wolves while searching the far bank for a route into the forest.
His movement seemed to trigger the alpha male into action as the wolf rose slowly and led his charges down the steep bank and onto the ice, circling the young buffalo and the old trapper.
Quentin’s smile broadened as he pulled the flaps of his fur hat down around his ears. Saluting Charlie, he took a final look at the scene unfolding on the creek then disappeared into the willows behind his partner.
Charlie wondered what his next move might be. He was standing on a frozen creek surrounded by a pack of wolves intent on killing something. For all of his years trapping in the delta, he had never known wolves to make even the slightest overture toward a human. He fervently hoped they wouldn’t start now.
Chilled by the plunge in air temperature as the winter sun dipped below the willows, Charlie tried valiantly to project a steely resolve to the seven wolves and prayed their ability to smell fear didn’t reduce his chances.
Gradually, Charlie sensed their attention shifting to the buffalo and he felt a slight sense of relief.
The embattled bovid must have also sensed the shift. Charlie assumed the injured animal was resigned to her fate as she slowly turned her head to survey her seven attackers. Her quick breaths subsided and she emitted slow, deep pulses of warm air that billowed into small white clouds of steam above her ice-encrusted face.
Along with the rhythmic breathing of the wolves, which seemed unconcerned about the protracted pace of the hunt, the scene had a slow-motion feel to it, belying its inevitable outcome.
With a series of short yips and snarls, the alpha male momentarily diverted his attention away from the buffalo to the other members of the pack.
At the same instant, the buffalo charged the large male, taking aim at the leader’s exposed flank. The younger wolves responded quickly, nipping at her hindquarters to deflect her advances while carefully avoiding her potentially lethal hooves.
The alpha male deftly sidestepped the buffalo’s initial outburst, but her surprising speed caught him off guard with a sideways head butt that catapulted the large wolf into a snowbank. As the younger wolves counter-attacked the buffalo on her flanks, the older wolf was able to regain his footing and rejoin the effort, the thrust and parry of the battle slowly moving the cow and her pursuers farther down the creek away from the old trapper.
Easing his way into the forest and finding the packed trail, Charlie slowly put the fading vocalizations of the wolves behind him. The trail was easy to follow, but he felt a new heaviness to his stride, hinting at the monumental effort it had taken to elude his pursuers.
He was not getting any younger and it was starting to show.
Even twenty years ago, he would have given the two men a run for their money, and truth be told, there would have been a degree of satisfaction in laying a beating on Quentin Spence. But now approaching seventy, Charlie was no match for either man, at least physically.
His survival now depended on delving into the knowledge that kept him going for years as an active trapper, harnessing the teachings of his father and mother who had raised him in the bush until the government stepped in and forced his attendance at residential school.
Throughout school and early adulthood, Charlie returned to the bush whenever he could, relying on his ability to find the furs that were fetching the highest prices on international markets to get by. The delta’s muskrat or “rats” were his bread and butter, but when the longhaired furs of lynx and wolves commanded top dollar on the fashion runways of Europe, he focused his efforts on the forests bordering the massive wetland.
The small line cabin in the woods was a by-product of those days, providing Charlie with a convenient halfway house that saved him time travelling to his main cabin, a larger log structure along one of the delta’s major rivers. Although it was rudimentary, the smaller cabin was well stocked, even despite its lack of regular use in recent years.
Fortunately, Charlie had happened to visit the cabin just a few days earlier, breaking a trail that now provided solid footing under the fresh snow.
As darkness overtook him, Charlie felt his way along the route and estimated how much longer it would take before he could finally put his feet up in front of a roaring fire. He always left the tin jenny prepped with newspaper and dry kindling, a box of matches sitting at the ready on top of the lid. In less than an hour he should be able to cover the remaining distance and would finally be able to shed his burden of heavy winter clothes, distributing them on the wooden pegs scattered around the cabin to dry out overnight.
As much as he wanted to stay longer, he would have to go back for his snowmobile in the morning. But he needed to be well prepared in the event Quentin had tampered with the machine, leaving him stranded on foot in the vast delta.
No one was expecting him back in town for several days and even then, no one would be looking for him right away since he rarely kept to a schedule.
His granddaughter had pleaded with him to use the new single-side band radio she bought for his birthday, but Charlie had left it unopened on the kitchen table, thanking her but suggesting he would only use it when he couldn’t take care of himself anymore.
If he could lift his heavy feet any higher he probably would have kicked himself for the stubborn streak that inevitably inserted itself between his granddaughter’s concern for his safety and the pound of pride that was his calling card. With luck, it wouldn’t be his undoing.
Despite the darkness, Charlie instinctively found the turnoff to the cabin, following the path of bent willows directing him along the snowmobile trail to a massive white spruce on a slight rise of land in the delta’s main basin.
The silhouette of the cabin was barely noticeable in the filtered starlight under the canopy of evergreens. Pulling off his mitts and fumbling for the handle, Charlie lifted the latch and pushed the door open. Peering into the darkness, he stepped over the threshold and headed to the woodstove in the corner. He reached out and grasped the box of matches in his cold fingers as he knelt before the stove. Opening the door, he struck a match and laid it at the edge of the old newspaper, watching as the tiny blue flame morphed into an orange blaze that quickly engulfed both paper and kindling.
Within seconds the kindling sparked and popped, sending small embers up the tin chimney into the night sky. Grabbing a large piece of wood, Charlie laid it gently on the fire and closed the door, opening the draft to maximize airflow into the stove. Rising from his knees, Charlie felt for the damper on the chimney and turned the handle. As the flames burned hotter, he rubbed his hands and stood for a moment, relishing the heat.
As his eyes adjusted to the light, he found an old candle on the windowsill above the small table and struck another match. The wick slowly caught and Charlie watched a tiny curl of black smoke as it rose above the table and wafted past him toward the bunk bed along the back wall of the shack.
“What took you so long?” The deep voice reaching out from the lower bunk was accompanied by the metallic click of a shotgun hammer being cocked.