A piercing howl echoed
off snow-laden slopes and faded into silence among the mountains’
rugged peaks. In the distance, a rogue wolf slinked beneath a stand of
Douglas firs and disappeared over a ridge, leaving behind his carnage.
Four mangled pups lay in
the shadow of a she-wolf’s spindly legs.
An icy glaze crusted over their crumpled forms. Blood dripped
from the mother’s ragged lip, and her chest heaved, forcing spurts of
hot mist from flared nostrils. Nuzzling one, then another, she licked
with gentle touches, searching for any sign of life. Flanks sunk deep
into her emaciated body that swayed against a frigid wind.
She pawed at the bloody carcasses, dragging them closer, wanting
to rake them back into her womb. But the snow piled deeper atop the
little ones, burying them in a white sepulcher. Rearing her head, she
unleashed a mournful cry--a requiem.
a crest above the valley, Aaron Moore listened to the wolf’s eerie
howl while he tied off the last piece of rope anchoring the tarp over
the buckboard. As soon as he finished, a strong gust of wind whipped
across the clearing and rattled the cover. The canvas billowed and
bucked like some creature wanting to be free, but the knots held.
clouds hung low and heavy over the valley, threatening to strike with a
fury. The thought of fighting a winter storm on the narrow ledges and
sharp curves of the mountain, especially with an overloaded wagon and a
pregnant wife, set his nerves on edge. The sooner they reached the
community of Lizard Creek the better.
‘bout ready?” he shouted. “Storm’s moving in fast.” He called
again when wife didn’t answer. “Leah?”
Anxious to get underway, he hurried through the log cabin’s opened
doorway in three long strides. “Woman, what are you--”
small, frail wife of three years leaned against the stone fireplace,
clutching her stomach. Auburn hair fell across an ashen face, and her
mouth twisted into a silent scream. “Help me,” she cried. Her body
slid down the wall to the rough, cedar-planked floor.
across the dimly lit room, he lifted her into his arms. Her wool coat,
worn thin throughout the years, would offer little warmth against the
elements. What pelts they didn’t sell, she insisted on making a coat
for him. “It’s okay,” he said, looking into green, frightened
eyes. He lied. This wasn’t good. He planned to be off the mountain and
with the doctor when her time came. The thought of delivering the baby
terrified him. “We can do this. Why having babies is a natural thing.
Remember what Doc said? It’ll
get here in spite of us.” He forced a smile, hoping to mask his fear
and reassure her.
you...to say.” She eked out the words through tight lips.
Brushing back soft curls from her face, he kissed her damp forehead.
The sight of his leathery hand against her soft skin made him
wince. Could his callused fingers do the work of a midwife? He wanted so
to be gentle.
In the corner of the room, he spotted the horsehair mattress they had
decided to leave behind for any passersby. She deserved better. Having
no other choice, he laid her on the unmade ticking and prayed her labor
would be swift.
Her eyes widened, and her nails dug into his wrists as the next
contraction hit her. “Oh, Lord, help me.” When the pain subsided,
she drew a deep breath and sighed. “I’m sorry. I thought I had more
placed his hand on her stomach, a touch meant to comfort. Instead, her
muscles knotted, and she screamed as if he had plunged fingers of fire
into her swollen belly.
don’t know if I can stand this,” she sobbed.
you can. Just hold on.” He removed his hand, not wanting to cause any
more pain. If he hadn’t persisted in living on this God-forsaken
mountain, they wouldn’t be in this predicament. His way--it always had
to be what he wanted. Look where it got him.
the fire banked, a penetrating cold invaded the room. He shed his
beaver-skinned coat and covered her. “I’ll be right back. We’ll
need a few things from the wagon.”
lay on her side, her arms across her belly as if to hold back the pain.
Huddled beneath the make-do blanket of black pelts, she shivered.
“Hurry,” she begged.
biting, north wind made a mockery of his doeskin shirt. Exposed fingers
numbed to the cold, and he fumbled to undo the ropes securing the tarp.
“Damn square knots,” he cursed. “Half hitches would have held just
he worked the frozen ropes free and rummaged through the packages.
He found the sack containing bedding and another crammed with
jerky and bread. He dropped the bundles at his feet and retied the tarp.
As an afterthought, he cut off an extra length of rope and stuck it in
his pocket. He would use the unraveled strands to tie off the baby’s
okay?” he asked, kicking the door closed behind him.
nodded, but her closed eyes and opened mouth told another story.
got you some more cover.” He pulled his coat from her and piled on
several blankets. “You’ll need more than that thin coat of yours for the
trip into town. I’ll see
you stay bundled.” He piled on several quilts. After tucking them
around her, he shrugged on his coat. The warmth of her body still clung
to the lining. Feeling guilty for taking even that little bit of heat
from her, he snuggled close. “I’ll get you warm,” he said, draping
an arm across her. After a while, she quit shaking. “I’d better get
a fire started,” he whispered, planting a kiss on the back of her
left beside the hearth would see them through the night. With a few
quick moves, he piled pieces of tinder over the still-glowing coals and
blew the embers into a flame. After adding pieces of kindling, he
crisscrossed small branches and topped the pile with a few split logs.
The wood ignited into a blazing fire, spreading warmth into the small
the flickering glow of the fire, he knelt and took her cold hand in his.
“Whatever made me think I could make it as a trapper? It wasn’t
right to drag you up this mountain, put you through such hardships, all
because of what I wanted. I should have set up shop in Lizard Creek,
done what I do best--carpentry.”
wrong with following your dreams,” she said, “even if they don’t
work out like planned.” She patted his forearm as if to comfort him.
don’t seem to be in as much pain as you were earlier.”
trying to be brave.”
okay to be scared. The doctor warned us the first birth could be a long
one. We’ll get through this together. Okay?”
nodded and squeezed his hand.
think, honey. Tomorrow, we’ll ride into town with you holding our
newborn. Won’t that be wonderful?”
sure we’ll see a lot of surprised faces, especially Doc
Leah seeming to rest a little easier, Aaron left to unhitch the horse.
This time, his heavy coat fought off the sharp wind, and he tended to
the mare without a problem.
take care of you,” he said, patting the animal on the neck, or we’ll
never get down the mountain. Besides, you’re gonna be toting an extra
passenger.” The thought of holding his son or daughter curled
Aaron’s mouth into a smile, and he mused at the prospect of being a
Leah discovered she was with child, she suggested they move to the small
community at the foot of the mountain. At first, he balked at the idea,
but a less than profitable trapping season and memories of harsh winters
convinced him she was right. The child would have a better chance at
survival, opportunities for schooling, and a social life.
A shout from the cabin snapped Aaron out of his thoughts. He
pitched some hay for the animal, fastened the door to the lean-to, and
ran toward the cabin. On the way, he snatched a bucket hanging from the
wagon and scooped it full of snow.
“God, give me strength,” Leah pleaded. Her face glistened
with perspiration, and the once soft curls hung in wet, limp strands.
set the bucket inside the door and rushed to his wife. A man of few
words, he fumbled to say something, anything to comfort her. She needed
encouragement, to know everything was going to be fine. Didn’t matter
whether he believed a damn thing he said.
rest of the day and into the wee hours of the morning, she fought the
pains of labor--clawing at the blankets, crying out for help, begging
for the baby to come
hated to see her suffer and blamed himself for getting her with child,
although they both wanted children. After this, maybe they shouldn’t
have any more. It didn’t seem fair she had to bear all the pain. Just
before daybreak, she delivered.
burly hands cupped the emerging newborn as it wiggled its way into the
world. One glance and Aaron gasped. Shielding the baby from Leah, he
slapped the infant on the buttocks. Doc said it would cry. It didn’t.
his eyes played tricks on him? He
wiped the mucous and blood from the tiny face. No, he cringed at what he
saw. Clearing the mouth with his finger, he slapped the child again. The
baby squirmed and emitted a faint gurgling sound.
isn’t the baby crying?” Leah raised her head. “What’s wrong?
Let me see.”
kept his back to her, hiding the child. “He’s having trouble
breathing. I’m trying--”
boy? We have a son? Give
him to me.”
not right, honey. He’s--”
me!” She arched her back. Her eyes widened. Her mouth opened.
“Another baby’s coming!”
never said nothing about two.” Aaron wrapped the boy in a piece of a
quilt and laid him on the hearth near the fire. Leah screamed and
grabbed hold of the blood-soaked mattress. With one big push, she
delivered a second baby--a girl. A chorus of quivering cries announced
the child’s arrival.
your daughter,” he said, placing the baby across Leah’s stomach,
“I need to see to the boy.”
shifted the baby to her breasts and wiped the birth fluids from the
infant’s soft, pink skin, while he worked with his son. “Please, I
want to hold him,” she said, reaching out her arm.
the boy gasped for air, Aaron cradled the baby against his chest and
covered him with a piece of the quilt.
I told you he’s not right, and he’s not breathing. Maybe
it’s best you don’t see him.”
don’t care what he looks like. He’s my son. Give him to me. I can
warm him. I can make him breathe.”
can’t deny me my child,” she shouted. “Even if he doesn’t live,
I have a right to see him.”
tears crawled down Aaron’s cheeks as he knelt beside his wife and
slowly pulled back the cover. Thick fur-like hair grew across one side
of the baby’s forehead. Beneath
it a purple flap of skin covered an eye that would never open. The other
eye drifted back and forth in its socket with the unfocused stare of a
recoiled in disbelief. “Why? Is
this punishment for something I did?” She rocked the baby girl against
her breasts and wailed, “Help him, Aaron. Please, help him.”
trying. It’s not your fault, not anyone’s fault. Things like this
just happen.” He paced to the far end of the room, thumped his hand
against the baby’s back, and juggled him. “Breathe, dammit,” he
growled. The child gave a slight whimper then his lips closed and turned
a darker blue.
forbid this child should survive. He’ll face a life of ridicule. And
us? We’ll bear his shame,
be forced to suffer his humiliation, live as outcasts in the community.
For a long time, Aaron stood motionless at the window, looking down at
the listless infant in his arms. He felt cheated. The burden of raising
such a child tormented him. He didn’t want that...not for Leah, not
his new daughter, and definitely not for himself.
At daybreak, Leah lay exhausted and weeping, her hand gently stroking
their daughter. Aaron looked at the infant in his arms and stepped away
from the window. Dismissing the boy’s slight movement, he steeled
himself against his decision. “He’s gone. I’m going to bury our
son,” he said, his voice all but a whisper. He hoped to God she could
not read his thoughts.
She sobbed and hugged her daughter to her.
Aaron trudged through newly fallen snow, set the bundled child beside
him, and prepared a shallow grave behind the cabin. Swallowing the lump
in his throat, he reached back for the baby. His cold, numb hand
misjudged and nudged the infant, sending him over the edge of a steep
cliff toward the valley below. Going after the child could prove
disastrous. If something happened to him, Leah and his daughter would
never survive. He watched the boy disappear into a wintry grave.
Scavengers would leave little or no trace of the newborn’s existence.
tears from his eyes, he filled in the hole and topped it with stones
used to contain a burn site. He would not tell Leah about the accident.
The truth would only cause more pain. Let her have a place to leave
flowers in the spring, to say her goodbyes. “Forgive me,” Aaron
said, already fighting the demons in his mind.
harnessing the horse and hitching the wagon, he hauled the mattress and
bloody blankets behind the cabin and set them on fire. Thin clouds and
patches of blue sky promised better weather.
Anxious to get underway, he covered the burnt remains with snow
and trudged around the cabin.
padded a place in the back of the wagon for you,” he said, lifting his
wife and newborn daughter in his arms. “The extra blankets should keep
looked at him with questioning eyes. “Did you--”
gone to his grave,” Aaron said. “I don’t think we should tell
anyone about his face. Let him rest in peace.”
traveled in silence down the mountain.
Exhausted and injured,
the wolf refused to leave her babies. She stood, a lone sentinel,
keeping vigil throughout the night. Tired eyes blinked at the sun’s
first rays, lighting the pristine snow with a dazzling brilliance.
Ever on guard, the
wolf’s ears twitched in response to a whooshing sound. The memory of
the rogue’s surprise attack and fierce fight ripped through her mind.
Self-preservation spurred her reaction. Hackles rose. Muscles tensed.
She spun around with fangs bared, ready to face her adversary.
A small object sped down
the slope. From beneath it, a shadow emerged, raced across the snow, and
swirled around the wolf’s paws. Startled, the animal yelped and jumped
aside. The dark mass slithered up her legs, onto her back, and curled
around her head. Enslaved by its magic, instincts vanished--hackles lay
down, breathing slowed. Spiraling down her legs, the shadow returned
from whence it came.
Downwind of the new
arrival, the battle-weary animal sniffed the air. The scent of a human
filled her nostrils. She felt no fear. A slight movement and muffled
sound beneath the covering enticed the wolf to draw closer. She pressed
her nose against the intruder. Something warm and alive stirred within.
The desire to nurture consumed her.
The wolf glanced back at
her babies, cold and buried in the snow. She could do no more for them.
Taking a piece of the quilt between her teeth, she dragged the squirming
bundle inside her den.
The infant cuddled in the warmth of the wolf’s under-belly and suckled
at teats swollen with milk.