The willows lashed at his face as Charlie struggled through the waist deep snow, weighted down by the overflow that was quickly encasing his tattered snow boots in a layer of ice. Despite the thirty below temperature, a steady stream of sweat stung the blood encrusted lacerations creasing across his weathered face.
Out on the delta’s snow 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 been 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 continued to propel Charlie toward the small creek that wound its way into the forest of white spruce and the possibility of escape. The small cabin sheltered by a thick canopy of evergreens and known only to him, offered the sole advantage over his pursuers. The rusted 12-guage stored under the mattress might be his only defence.
Their advantage was that he was breaking trail, making their pursuit that much easier.
But first they would have to find the opening.
Charlie hoped that 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 that 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, he 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 minds might prevail, hopefully reducing the likelihood that 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 that 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 there in the snow catching his breath, Charlie’s attention was distracted by the yipping of wolves closing in for the kill, seemingly much closer than he had previously thought.
Desperate to find 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 an open 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 bison came crashing through the willow thickets and plowed its way down the creek bank, streaming a trail of blood from a series of gashes shredding her hind quarters.
Standing less than a dozen metres away, Charlie’s presence barely registered with the animal as she stood motionless on the ice, staring over her shoulder at the large whitish 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 the snowbank on either side of their leader, awaiting his next move.
Wary of the wolves but determined that they were more interested in the bison than himself, Charlie rose slowly to his feet just as his pursuers waded through the willows and stopped on the creek bank above him.
Realizing that they had landed in the middle of a stand-off, 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 reluctantly 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 simultaneously searching the far bank for a route into the forest.
His movement seemed to trigger the alpha male into action as the largest wolf rose slowly and led his charges down the steep bank and onto the ice, encircling the young bison and the old trapper.
Quentin’s smile broadened as he pulled the flaps of his fur hat down around his ears. Saluting to Charlie, he took one final look at the scene unfolding on the creek then disappeared into the willows behind his partner.