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 (8 page)

“They’re going in,” Jonah shouted in her ear.
A
wolf lunged, battening onto the narrow haunch of the moose. Trying to
throw off the beast locked on its rump, trying to keep the pack in
front of it where it could use its front feet to defend itself, the
bull spun around, the center of a tornado of gray-furred predators.
Blood spattered in a mutant circle thirty or more feet in diameter. In
the trees, the moose would have slammed the wolf on its rear into rocks
or tree trunks, tried to smash it with brute force. On ice, the moose
was at a disadvantage.
Blood
and beasts tangled in a macabre snow angel, then the moose broke off
and bolted for shore, the wolf still hanging off his haunch. A second
wolf drew down, long and lean, and streaked across the snow, then
lifted into the air, struck the moose’s other rear leg, bit down and
hung on. The moose, with this burden of death, fell to its knees. The
rest of the wolves began to circle. To Anna’s surprise, the bull
struggled to its feet, three wolves on it now. Twice more it fell and
twice more rose and fought on.
“Can we land?” Anna asked.
“I
don’t trust the ice. Nobody’s checked the thickness yet,” Jonah said.
He brought the supercub lower for the last act of the moose’s life.
Three wolves on its back, the others made side rushes, cutting at the
tendons in its legs. The moose stayed on its feet another ten yards,
then stopped.
As
if he was not being savaged by wolves but had chosen, like Geronimo, to
fight no more forever, he folded his long legs neatly beneath himself
and sank onto the ice. Wolves closed in, tearing at the moose’s sides,
ripping out entrails in a wild display of color on the white canvas of
snow.
Anna
breathed. Till that moment, she’d not been aware she wasn’t. The
savagery and death didn’t sadden her. As the wolves fed, she didn’t
feel anger toward the predators, nor did she feel sorry for the prey.
What moved her was the stunningly beautiful dance of life and death.
The bull was old. Tough as he was, he probably wouldn’t have lasted the
winter and, if he did, he wouldn’t live to mate next rutting season.
Today he had died as he was meant to, gone down fighting with a
respected enemy, his body nourishment for the next cycle of life. The
wolves would stay with the kill till they had consumed it; nothing
would be wasted. Ravens and foxes would feed. Come spring, fishes would
get the bones.
The cub banked and climbed, and Anna lost sight of the dinner party. “Did you get some good shots?” Jonah crackled in her ears.
“Damn.” Anna heard a breathy chuckle in return.
“Greenhorn,” he said without malice. “We got to head back. Look at the horizon east there.”
The
horizon had solidified into a dark wall. Clouds touched the surface of
the lake. Both water and air were the color of slate. A mile or so out,
whitecaps snapped to life on black water.
Jonah radioed Ridley to let him know about the kill and that they were returning to Windigo.
There
was a moment without response, then Ridley came back: “Robin saw fresh
tracks along the Greenstone Trail. It wasn’t Middle pack; they haven’t
moved. If you’re looking at Chippewa Harbor pack, then it’s not them.
It’s either East pack or a lone wolf. Could you swing by and check it?”
East
pack was so named because the east end of ISRO was its territory.
Wolves were warriors; they protected their turf, and the fights were
vicious and often to the death. East pack that far from home would
indicate a major disturbance in the population, proof of Ridley’s
assertion that “something stirred them up.” A lone wolf wouldn’t. On
ISRO, only the alphas mated. Maturing animals would often leave the
pack to seek another lone wolf with whom to start a new pack.
Occasionally they joined a rival pack. Most often, after a month or
two, they came home humbled. Wolves, like other sentient beings, had
their own minds. One female had been noted to move, apparently with
ease, between all three packs.
“Roger.
We’re nearly there,” Jonah replied to Ridley. To Anna — or himself — he
added: “A couple of minutes out of the way. We’ll make it.” As if in
answer to his effrontery, a gust of wind, running ahead of the heavy
weather, nudged the cub.
Jonah
dropped the airplane down till they were flying two hundred feet above
the Greenstone Ridge. They were traveling at airspeed of eighty-five
miles per hour, slow for most airplanes but incredibly fast for humans,
creatures designed to go no faster than a horse can canter. Trees and
rock outcrops flashed by, their nearness enhancing the sense of speed.
Anna enjoyed the rush.
They
followed the trail for three miles but saw no tracks, then a fist of
wind rocked the supercub and Jonah said: “This bird’s for home.”
Anna
watched the ground. Jonah watched the sky. She saw a dark shape where
dead grasses had been mashed. It looked like a moose bed, but, lying in
the makeshift nest, partially hidden by the lower branches of a stunted
spruce, a dark shape was curled up.
“Wait,” Anna almost yelled into the mike. “I think I saw something. Make another pass.”
“Not today,” crackled back over the headset. “Pilots are a dime a dozen. Old pilots are rare as hen’s teeth.”
Anna didn’t argue but she wanted to.
“What’d you spot?” Jonah asked.
“I
don’t know what it was,” Anna said. She tried to look back but gear and
seat belt trussed her as neatly as a straitjacket. “It looked like a
great big dog.”
The
shape, the black silhouette curled nose to tail, had looked like a
wolf. A monstrous wolf, more than half again as big as the biggest
alpha she’d ever seen.
5
That
night, the bunkhouse ran out of water. Since Middle pack had come to
Washington Harbor, Ridley had banned the use of the snowmobile for all
tasks, including hauling water up from the well. Wolves might be
impervious to Jonah’s supercub, but a snowmobile was an unknown
quantity.
At
first light, Anna positioned herself on the dock to get a final look.
Robin was collecting along the Greenstone Trail. Adam had gone with
her. Anna, Katherine, Jonah and Bob stood shoulder to shoulder, like
cattle in the wind, watching the Middle pack as the angry whine of the
snowmobile grew louder. The alpha female’s head came up first, then the
others; not one by one but in concert.
Ridley on the snowmobile broke free of the trees and the pack was on its feet.
Then they were gone.
Anna
found herself laughing. They didn’t turn tail and run the way Taco, her
old dog, did when squirrels chirred at him. They dissipated like mist
burning off a pond in autumn.
“Children of the night,” she said.
“Let’s go,” Katherine begged.
“Let’s
do it.” With Bob’s permission, Katherine was off, trotting down the
slippery dock and onto the lake, shuffle-sliding her way toward what
remained of the moose.
“Mmm-mm.”
Jonah smacked his lips. “Fresh steaming wolf scat and lots of it. For a
wildlife biologist, it just doesn’t get any better.”
Apparently
carnivore excreta being of little interest to him, Jonah stopped at the
ice well to help Ridley refill the plastic water barrels. Anna and Bob
joined the gnawed carcass and Katherine. “Will the wolves hang around?”
Bob asked.
“They may come back tonight, but I doubt it,” Anna replied. “They got most of the meat.”
“I’m going to take a look at their trail,” Bob announced. “Want to come?”
Anna
shook her head. Bob seemed nice enough, but he was too big. With his
height, bulldog jowls and thickening middle, he made the bunkhouse feel
cramped. Add six inches of cold-weather gear and he was huge, a yeti.
It made her claustrophobic.
“Don’t
get eaten,” she said to be personable. After a hard, lean winter, if a
wolf ate Menechinn it would probably flounder and die like a horse in a
granary.
“The axman never gets eaten by the wolf.” Bob grinned and turned away. The trees took him bite by bite.
For a while, Anna watched Katherine, absorbed in her work.
While
convinced that wolf poop was a fine and desirable thing, without the
actual furry beasts around it, Anna found her interest flagging. The
front that had chased the supercub home had settled in. Wind gusted
with malicious intent, and the weather site on Ridley’s computer
predicted snow. On the hill behind the bunkhouse was a vintage wooden
weather station, the kind that had served parks and mom-and-pop
airports for eighty or more years. The slat-sided wooden box housed a
barometer, minimum and maximum thermometers and a thermometer designed
— with some dipping into water and spinning — to give windchill. The
NPS had given Robin the task of checking it daily.
The
scientists thought this the height of absurdity, one more example of
Park Service ineptitude. The machinery for weather recording had moved
on while the NPS clung to the old ways. Still, when the stations were
gone, it would be one more link broken from when the world was a more
mysterious — and less endangered — place.
“Think it’ll snow?” Anna asked to keep her mind off the hoarfrost forming on her eyelashes.
“I hope so,” Katherine replied. “It makes it easier to map the packs’ movements. You can follow their tracks from the air.”
Watching
Katherine scooping frozen urine-soaked snow into ziplock baggies and
packing up wolf scat, Anna was surprised to note she no longer looked
mousey or hangdog at all. For the first time, Anna saw the fine bones
in the nose and the delicately squared chin, the eyebrows, soft brown
and perfectly shaped where they showed above her glasses. A flush
touched her cheeks. Not the raw pink the wind scoured up or the dull
brick of her blushes but a fresh rose hue.
“You’re
in love with the wolves,” Anna blurted half accusingly. She suffered a
totally illogical stab of jealousy, as if she alone had the privilege
of intimate connection with wild things.
Katherine
looked up shyly. A strand of hair escaped from her hood and curved
around the swell of her cheek. “I saw one when I was little — three or
four,” she said. “We had a cabin on a lake just north of the Boundary
Waters.” She laughed. It was the first time Anna had heard it. “You
know Minnesotans, they can live on Lake Superior, but they still have
to have a ‘cabin on the lake’ somewhere.
“We
were there one winter, and Momma bundled me out to play.” Katherine
rocked back till she sat on her heels like an Arab, arms clasped around
her knees, and looked through Anna. “The snow was a couple feet deep,
but I was so light I could walk on top of it. I felt like I was flying,
swooping along above the ground. Then there was this wolf.” She laughed
again. It wasn’t musical but a series of puffs blown out through her
nose with the barest of sound, as if she’d learned to laugh in a
library with a bat-eared librarian.

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