Read Winter Study Online

Authors: Nevada Barr

Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Suspense, #Mystery & Detective, #Mystery Fiction, #Women Sleuths, #Pigeon; Anna (Fictitious character), #Women park rangers, #Rocky Mountain National Park (Colo.), #Isle Royale National Park (Mich.), #Isle Royale National Park, #Michigan, #Isle Royale (Mich.), #Wilderness Areas, #Wilderness areas - Michigan, #Wolves

Winter Study (4 page)

“The ice is singing,” Robin said. “It’s always moving, shifting. Sometimes it cracks like a gunshot. All kinds of sounds.”
Anna
blocked out the fact that Jack Frost was gnawing her bones and opened
to the song: far off, underfoot, a murmur of instruments not yet
invented, hollow lutes and soft drums, the warble of birds without
throats just beyond the threshold of hearing, as if it came into the
mind on some other wavelength. In Texas, the wind sang in that same way
when the rock formations were just right. Music so deeply ingrained in
the world, Anna felt if she could listen long enough and hard enough,
she would learn a great truth.
Before
enlightenment was achieved, the snowmobile came shrieking back down the
hill from the bunkhouse. Dragging a trailer — a lidded aluminum box the
size of a coffin set on skis — the machine raced over the lake and came
to a stop beside the moose’s body.
“Adam Peck,” Ridley said as the driver turned off the engine. “He missed our meet and greet.”
“Hey,”
Adam said affably. He looked to be in his forties, and, when he pulled
down his muffler to speak, Anna noticed he hadn’t a beard but a lush
mustache of the kind seldom seen anywhere but in pictures of Civil War
heroes.
He sprang off the snowmobile with the sharp suddenness of a switchblade knife opening and lifted the trailer’s lid.
“Camera,” he said, like a surgical nurse might say “Scalpel.”
Robin
began taking pictures of the moose from all angles. The buzz of a
scientific find — or an audience at a freak show — began over the size
and peculiarity of the antlers, the number of ticks, the marks of
starvation on the body.
Due
to moose predation, balsam fir, the favored food in winter, was almost
gone from the island, and the once-thriving herd — nearly fifteen
hundred when Anna had been a ranger on Isle Royale — was down to around
three hundred animals.
“Will
hunger make the wolves more aggressive?” Menechinn asked. He’d been
watching the recording process, with his arms folded across his chest
and his chin buried in his neck scarf.
“It will,” Robin said.
“I’ve never seen an increase in wolf aggression that was tied to food availability,” Ridley said. “Only to sex and turf.”
“There’s always a first time,” Adam sided with the biotech.
Ridley
shrugged. “Are we ready for the ax?” he asked Robin. “We need to take
the head,” he explained to Anna. “It’s a perfect example of the
peruke
deformity.
If we leave it, the critters will get it.” Already ravens were calling
the good news of the slaughter to each other and cutting up the pale
sky with ink-stained wings.
“Here.”
Bob Menechinn held out a hand for the ax. “I’ll do it. Man, it would be
something to have that on your wall, wouldn’t it?”
“Step back,” Ridley warned them, ignoring the offer. “This is going to be messy.”
Ridley
wasn’t much taller than Anna, five-eight maybe, and slight, but he
swung the ax like a man long used to chopping his own wood. Hefting it
back across his shoulder, he swung it in a clean arc, the strength of
his legs in the blow.
The axhead buried itself in meat and bone behind the moose’s ears.
Anna’d
thought it would be the way the guillotine was depicted in the movies;
a single chop and the moose’s head would roll free of its body. Except,
with the antlers, it couldn’t roll. With the long, bulbous nose, it
couldn’t roll. Moose were not beasts designed for a beautiful life or a
dignified death.
Ridley
put his mukluk on the thick neck and yanked on the ax. With a sucking
crunch, it jerked loose, and blood flew like a flock of cardinals over
the ice.
The head lolled. Great, dark eyes stared upward; the executed watching the executioner botch the job.
“He looks stoned.” Bob laughed. “Or is it a she?”
Ridley’s ax hit the animal between the eyes.
“God
dammit,” he whispered, took a deep breath and swung the ax again,
severing the head but for an eight-inch strip of hide that Adam quickly
cut with a mat knife he produced from somewhere in his ragtag clothing.
Ravens
were landing before they’d finished wrapping the moose’s head in a
tarp. They hopped and scolded; their feast was growing cold. Bolder
birds dashed in to snatch bits of flesh from the open neck wound; easy
pickings, with no tough hide to tear through. By the time the carcass
was consumed, all manner of smaller creatures would have had a good
dinner; maybe the meal that would give them the strength to make it
until summer, when the island provided in plenty.
With
the severed head wrapped in black plastic and stowed in the snowmobile
trailer, Anna and the others shuffled back to the Beaver and finished
transferring gear and food into the trailer around the moose head.
Because of the size and awkward shape of the antlers, the trailer’s lid
had to be propped partly open. Adam driving, Bob behind him, and
Ridley, boots planted wide on the rear runners like a musher with a
mechanized pack of dogs, headed up to the bunkhouse.
The
Forest Service plane took off, leaving the ground in a surprisingly
short time and disappearing around Beaver Island as the pilot used the
length of Washington Harbor to get up to altitude for the flight back
to Ely.
The
sounds of internal combustion machines, simultaneously anachronistic
and a reassuring reminder that Winter Study team was not marooned on an
icebound island in the time of the mastodons, grew fainter. Anna wanted
to hear the ice singing again, but there was nothing but the quarreling
of ravens.
For
a moment, she, Robin and Jonah stood without speaking, eyes on the sky
where the USFS plane had gone. Then, as if moved by the same impulse,
the way a flock of birds will suddenly change directions, they turned
and followed the track left by the snowmobile. Ungainly in bulky
clothes, boots unsure on the slippery surface, Anna felt like a
toddler. Robin, doing a kind of Texas two-step, the soles of her soft
mukluks never leaving the surface of the lake, shuffled expertly along.
Partway
back to the dock, a supercub was tied down, a tandem-seat fabric
airplane used since before World War II for air reconnaissance, search
and rescue, hunting — any job that called for flying low and slow and
being able to land anywhere the pilot had the guts to set it down. This
one was a classic, down to the fat brown teddy bear painted on the
tail, and skis where wheels would be in summer. Lines, dropped through
holes cut in the ice and held there by lengths of two-by-four, were
gripped by the ice when the hole froze again, making as firm a tie-down
as any hook set in concrete.
“That’s my airplane you’re admiring,” Jonah said. “She’ll let you pet her if you kiss her on the nose first.”
Jonah was the team’s pilot.
Old,
Anna thought.
Moon,
was
her second thought as she realized that when the Beaver was coming in
on final approach it was Jonah’s pale old behind that dared the frigid
air to welcome them in proper style.
The
glare went off the lenses of his eyeglasses and showed Anna eyes the
palest blue she’d ever seen, the color of the sky with a high, thin
overcast. They’d probably taken on the tint from too many years staring
through the windscreens of airplanes. Jonah Schumann had to be seventy.
Seventy-five, maybe.
Jonah
looked as if he could see her doing math in her head and said: “I
normally don’t offer my lady’s favors to strangers such as yourself,
but she may have been traumatized by recent events. The old gal is
pushing fifty, and it would be a comfort to her to have the company of
a contemporary.” His eyes twinkled through the deadpan seriousness of
his words.
Anna
laughed and realized she’d not introduced herself. “Anna Pigeon, Rocky
Mountain.” Reflexively they both thrust out their hands to shake in the
approved manner, but with the mittens and gloves they were more like
two old declawed bears pawing at each other.
“Nice butt,” Anna said.
“Thank
you,” Jonah replied gravely. “Many women and some men have told me
that. You have already met my fiancée.” He was looking at Robin, with
her sweet, unblemished face perfectly framed by long, straight brown
hair. Anna had a balaclava with the drawstring pulled till only her
eyes and nose showed and, around that, to keep the cold from creeping
down the collar of her parka, a wide thick scarf. The only concession
to the cold Robin had made was a wool Laplander’s hat, the kind with a
pointy top and silly earflaps.
“In your dreams, Jonah,” Robin said.
“She’s shy,” he confided. “It embarrasses her that she would marry me just for the sex.”
Robin
ducked her head and looked inland. “I’ll walk back by the Nature
Trail,” she said. “I need to stop and take a look at the weather.” With
that, she was two-stepping toward shore, slender and graceful in her
minimalist wear.
Anna’s
twenties came back in a hot flash: the flattering but endless and,
finally, exhausting sexual references and jokes, the mentioning of body
parts, the sly looks, the double entendres. She’d thought that sort of
thing had gone down beneath the nineties tsunami of lawsuits and
political correctness. Maybe it had just gone underground, or, maybe,
it would not be dead till every man of her generation and the
generation before her was rotting in his grave.
She
and Jonah shuffled on toward the dock and his little airplane. On the
ice to the right was a waist-high pile of snow with a shovel stuck in
it. “Ice fishing?” Anna asked. “Pretty grim pastime without an
ice-fishing house. I hope it’s voluntary.”
“That’s
our well,” Jonah said. Then: “Doggone it!” He hurried over to the hole
chopped in the ice. “The little bastard is trying to poison us. He’s
done it before.” Jonah snatched up the shovel. On the side of the
excavated snow and ice was a patch of yellow. “Fox,” Jonah said. “A
pesky, pissy little red fox whose mother was no better than she should
have been.” Shoveling up the tainted snow carefully, he tossed it as
far from the well as he could. “I tell you, this little fur ball is
potent. One drop of his urine got in the well a while back.
One drop
and our water reeked of fox for two days.”
“Reclaiming his territory,” Anna said.

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