The boy shouldered the ax and carried the bucket down to the stream. These days the ice was harder to break up. Winter was coming.
But today the air was mild and the stream still running briskly. His thick black hair, grown to collar length, kept his neck warm. The sky was so blue it hurt. A pair of eagles circled in the valley, so gracefully they looked like the air was holding them up.
Some people would have said the boy was too young to be on his own, but as far as he knew, he had always been on his own. Even at the Home, he had been on his own because nobody watched after him. Oh, he had been fed and had a bed, but nobody talked to him, tucked him in, read to him, even when he was little. Now, at twelve, he was too old for bedtime stories. Not that anyone cared.
He figured it was probably days before anyone even noticed he was gone.
Except—maybe for the money. He felt bad about that, but he hadn’t been able to think of any other way.
He gazed at the ice blue sky. In front of him, the mountain stream plunged into the valley below. Beyond, the hills rolled away, waves of rust and brown, punctuated by patches of moss green spruces pointing to the sky. Not a house as far as the eye could see.
Not another person. The eagles waltzed effortlessly in wide circles, rising higher and higher.
The air that had stung the inside of his nose in the pre-dawn cold was warming as the shadows of the distant hills slid down the mountains to the west. A glorious sun was cresting the mountains. Today would be a good day to hike into town. Soon there would be big snows and after that, who knows when he would be able to go again.
The dog raced around him in sheer delight. The frosty leaves crunched under her feet.
“Here, girl.” He took time to throw a branch for her.
She grinned, scooped up the branch, and ran back to the cabin.
“Good dog,” he called. “We need more firewood.” Finding the dog had been pure luck, just like finding the cabin. She had just joined up with him one day as he skirted the railroad yard in the capital. A thin and grungy brown mutt she was, and she had stayed with him. More than he could say for anyone else, including his mother. He barely remembered her, but he still remembered the day she had left him. He had waited, alone, a long time for her to come back. Then there were different people fussing over him. Always different people, he thought as he trudged along.
The walk into town was long, and he took the gun with him. Maybe he could get a deer. “I only hunt what I need to live,” he told the trees. “The elk, the deer, the squirrels are my brothers.”
He knew they wanted to find him in the woods. He knew they would be searching for him, especially to get back the money. But he was meant to be alone. No one had ever cared about him. Why should he care about them?
Anyway, if they found him, they would send him back to the Home, back to the nightmares.
Into the Town
The noonday sun was quite warm. Long before he reached the cluster of haphazard buildings—general store and post office, the town—he shed his hat, letting his hair absorb the sun.
The land was level here, a sort of plateau shaped by the face of the mountain on one side and by the river valley on the other. Some of the houses in the center of town were old, Victorian style, with ornate gables and wraparound porches. The rest were an assortment of ranch style, log cabins, and odd, indescribable buildings that had no character at all.
The church and the few ramshackle hotels sat quietly in the midday sun.
The general store looked ready to fall down. Perched close to the steep riverbank, it was more a collage than a solid structure, where previous owners had added and subtracted according to needs and whims.
“Hey, boy.” Surrounded by an assortment of tires and shovels on the porch, the man they called Old Rat had tilted his chair against the wall, squinting at the sun. His pointy nose, the tip dark from the years of exposure to scorching summer sun and the frigid winter winds, wiggled cheerfully. The pipe stem disappeared into the crevice between his nose and chin, where his mouth ought to be.
“Hi,” the boy said. He couldn’t bring himself to call the man Old Rat. It sounded derogatory somehow. Old Rat took the gun. He broke it open, inspected the barrel, sniffed it.
“Been keepin’ ’er good, I see. Jest like I showed ya.” He grinned, deep wrinkles crinkling his face.
“Just like you showed me,” said the boy.
He left the gun and the dog with Old Rat and entered. The heat of the big wood stove hit him like an open oven.
He paused to let his eyes stop down and adjust to the dark. The smells of freshly baked bread and tractor tires mingled with the powdery odor of animal feed.
The inside was the same confusion. The shelves and counters were crammed with food, clothing, seeds and fertilizer, cedar souvenir boxes. Nearly every imaginable item hung, sat, waited somewhere in neat disorder to be needed.
“Hi,” said Mr. Flynn, the mayor and proprietor. “Got some new magazines in, boy.” His voice was big, like his chest. His snow white mustache matched his broad butcher apron rather than his thick cardboard-brown hair.
While Mr. Flynn was busy with customers, the boy wandered to the book rack. Books were his friends. Those long evenings at the Home, he had filled the time reading. Books on hunting and fishing and surviving in the wilderness. What berries to eat, how to skin a squirrel.
Maybe he could write a book. Someday.
He picked up a couple of magazines and a book on preserving game meat. He would have liked to buy more to read, but it was a long hike back. Every ounce would be heavy.
Matches. Ammo. He had wasted a lot of ammo picking off pine cones. Crackers and cocoa. Granola. Should he get vitamins? The Nurse Lady at the Home was always telling the kids to take their vitamins.
The Nurse Lady. From top to bottom, she was the color of skim milk. White dress. White legs. White hair. The skim-milk blue under her eyes. Even her voice was thin and watery.
In her pale voice, she had said, “Take your vitamins, dear. Then you won’t bruise so easily.”
He never took his, and he never got sick. He never took his and nobody ever noticed.
Wolves Been Sighted
“How’s everything with your family, the uh … ?” Mr. Flynn asked, stacking the compact bullet boxes on the counter.
“My cousins, the Smiths,” the boy said. “They’re fine.”
He turned quickly to the display stand of batteries by the door. Too many questions always. He should have remembered that about Mr. Flynn. All those questions forced him to make up the story in the first place. What was he supposed to say? That he was all by himself in a cabin up on the mountain? That he had run away from the Home? Then they would want to send him back.
Mr. Flynn peered sideways at him. “Been wolves sighted there up on the north face,” he said, weighing up the granola. “You ain’t seen um, have ya?”
The boy shook his head.
“Well, you take care. Them wolf packs been known to tear a man to pieces just fer fun. In me dad’s day, we could shoot ’em on sight.” He shook his head. “No more. Not allowed to. You just wait. Somebody’s agonna git killed. How come your cousins don’t drive you down? Where was it now they live?”
“I like to walk,” he said trying to change the subject. “I’ll have some of those dog biscuits too.”
It was time to go. Too much talking could mess everything up.
The pack was heavy, but he refused to let Mr. Flynn see he had trouble getting it to his shoulders.
“Well, boy, nice seein’ ya.” The big man paused on his way to help another customer. “You …” He stopped. “You watch out fer them wolves,” he said finally.
Old Rat was asleep in the sun, the dark tip of his nose protruding from the shade of his oily hunting cap. The dog rested her chin on Old Rat’s lap. His mottled brown hand rested on her head.
“Have to go,” said the boy.
Old Rat barely moved. The pipe bounced up and down as he smiled and he lifted his hand.
“Take care, boy,” was all he said.
The shadows were already long and purple when he came to the trail. The going was much tougher than on the road. And steeper.
By the time he reached the cabin, the moon was rising and the temperature way below freezing. His breath made steamy clouds; his legs felt permanently bent. The dog ran in circles, barking happily to be home.
“The least you could do is open the door,” he shouted at her, his voice echoing in the mountain stillness as his burden thudded to the ground. He dragged it the rest of the way inside and flopped on the bunk. His arms and legs were rubber, and he was thirsty, wishing he had splurged on a can of Coke. Well, you couldn’t complain about fresh mountain water. If you were going to live in the woods, you had to forget about things like cola.
The inside was just as cold. He started the old stove and lugged up another bucket of water. Heated some soup.
The dog licked his chin.
He was just curling under his blanket when he heard the wolves, far, very far away, from one of the distant valleys. The long empty call tickled the hairs on the back of his neck. The dog was alert, her ears and hackles up, as she stood at the window. For the first time since he found the cabin, he thought about how far it was to the town.
“Come here, girl.” He patted the hard bunk, and with one last inspection out the window, she came and curled up with him. He reminded himself that it might be a good idea to fasten the wooden shutters at night from now on.
But he was a light sleeper. They wouldn’t be able to come near without his hearing them. Just like at the home. He always heard them when they came at night.
He lay there remembering the nightmares.
He remembered being in bed, listening to the sounds of the Home. The TV murmured in the lounge. The pipes gurgled as someone flushed the toilet or took a shower. He would lie there, waiting, waiting. Gradually, the night sounds would be fewer and fewer. The closing of a distant door. Cars starting as the attendants changed shifts.
He would wait.
The real nightmare when his doorknob would faintly creak and turn.
He tried to shut it out of his mind, but the voice whispered hoarsely, “If you tell, I’ll kill you.”
The boy tightened his arm around the dog.
That was all over now.
He was safe. Away from the people who said they would help him but didn’t.
If the wolves howled again, he didn’t hear it. He was too exhausted after his long day and had gone into a deep sleep.
The winter deepened, and snow came.
He learned how to use the snowshoes that were hung in the eaves. When he pulled them down, he was pelted by a shower of nuts and twigs from an abandoned animal nest.
“Blah,” he said, shaking his head to get rid of the pieces that had gotten into his eyes and mouth.
He got himself a deer.
One day there it was, a startled shadow down by the pond. The minute he squeezed the trigger, he was sorry. The needle-sharp crack of the shot echoed and echoed in the pristine stillness long after the little body had dropped, legs crumbling, never changing its wide-eyed expression.
He stood there, stunned. In his mind, he could still see it standing, delicate and motionless, a creature of the wild.
The dog stood at his side.
“Why did I go and do that?” he said.
She looked at him and whined.
In slow motion, he walked to the brown heap. It really was dead and a good shot at that. Nothing else to do but to finish the job, but his hands were shaking.
Cutting it up was tough work.
He managed to do it, though, and carried the meat parts to the cabin. The remains he left by the stream.
“For the eagles,” he told the dog.
They had fresh meat for supper. It was disgusting. The taste was strong and filled his nose. “I think I’d prefer Burger Whoopee,” he told the dog who was gnawing a big bone contentedly.
He ate it anyway because he was hungry, and he knew he’d have to like it sooner or later if he was going to live in the woods. Maybe next time in town he’d buy a bottle of Tabasco.
In the morning snow, huge, dog-like prints surrounded the bones, what was left of them. The footprints were three times the size of the dog’s; they were as big as the boy’s hand.
He hunkered down, the rifle across his knees, and surveyed the valley. Snow as far as he could see. Snow and blue sky and snow-white clouds and gray spruces making snow points. The air smelled of snow.
The pair of eagles circled easily, and there was a faraway plane trailing a white vapor cloud.
The footprints disturbed him. He was not afraid but uneasy.
Maybe he should stay inside. Mr. Flynn had said the wolves would tear a man apart, just for fun. And here he was, not a man but a boy and all alone at that. That he hadn’t heard them, even though they had been so close by, disturbed him. He had so much to learn.
How many were they?
He couldn’t tell. The snow was all trampled, prints running into each other. Did it matter anyway? They were so much bigger and cunning than he, and they belonged here.
He was tempted to track them.
Better to leave them alone.
They were a part of the wild he didn’t understand.
The snow-white clouds were building from the west and darkening the far mountains.
He stood up and stretched. “Well, girl,” he said. “I guess we’d better lay in some extra firewood.”
Good thing. A blizzard swallowed the mountain. For three days, there was nothing outside but white white white. And wind, the howling wind.
Snow crept under the door and into a corner under the eaves where a joist had loosened. He plugged the leaks with some old rags.
He inspected the cabin. There was no clue to the previous occupant even though the cabin had been simply but well equipped, and well cared for. It had obviously been empty for quite some time when he had arrived.
There had been nearly everything he needed. A couple of rusty cooking pans that came clean when he rubbed them with sand in the stream. An ax and a shovel. Most of the blankets had been shredded by mice but the wooden bunk was sound, and he soon got used to sleeping on it.
It was heaven compared to sleeping at the Home. He still had bad dreams at night, but at least when he woke up, they went away. He was here now, and safe. This hard bunk was more home to him than anything had ever been.
He had found the gun behind the bunk. It hadn’t looked like much, but all the books said you needed a gun in the woods. Not like the Home in the city where you got in big trouble for having a gun. Even jail.
The first time he had hiked into town he had brought the gun so he could buy bullets.
“Kill yersef with that there gun,” Old Rat had said from under the hunting cap, his nose twitching.
He had thought they were going to take it away. But instead, Mr. Flynn had sold him the right bullets and Old Rat had cleaned and oiled it and showed him how to shoot.
He lay on the bunk, hands behind his head, staring at the roof. Tied to a beam on the side were bunches of dried leafy things. He hadn’t much bothered with them. They smelled earthy and crumbled when he touched them, making a black powder on his fingers. Whoever lived here before must have had a use for them, but the boy didn’t even know what they were. He must remember to get a book on herbs and plants next trip.
He read some more. He talked to the dog.
He wrote some stories about his wolf family. Write about what you know, his teacher had said. Write about what you know.
But the things he knew, he couldn’t write about.
Once he tried.
He carefully wrote, “If you tell, I’ll kill you.” He closed his eyes, and he was in a hot, close, dark place. He could see the whites of the fierce eyes close to his. He could smell the foul breath, the sweat, the odor of onions and rancid grape juice. He felt the strong hands twisting his tee shirt tight around his neck.
“If you tell, I’ll kill you.” And then silent laughter shaking in the dark. And the door to his room closing.
When the wind stopped, he was unable to open the door. The cabin was buried.
No big deal. He climbed out the window and dug his way out. The dog helped and ran around like a maniac, tossing snow in the air with her nose, arching her back, waving all of her feet in the air.
During the three days, the boy had calculated how much store-bought food he had left and realized it was getting low. He decided he’d better get out hunting and lay in a supply. There seemed to be plenty of rabbits.
He couldn’t believe his good luck when he saw a small herd of deer by the river, scraping the snow and ice with their hooves.
He watched for a bit, admiring their rich brown silhouettes, before he dropped one of them, a skinny doe. The others skittered away. The doe crumbled to the ground.
Tears were on his cheeks. Something, a living creature, had just been alive, and now it was dead, by his own hand. He waited a while before walking down to the river.
“Sorry,” he said, running his hand down the soft furry neck. The fur was still warm.
He turned to the dog. “I wonder if it ever gets easier.”
The dog wagged, but she was engrossed in a sniffing expedition.
He tied the legs and hoisted it over a tree branch to let the blood drain. It was a lot heavier than it looked with its little skinny legs but the book had shown how to raise it up by making a pulley system from branches. He just wished it would close its eyes.
He went to work with his knife. His hands were stiff and cold. He hated the way it felt. Soon he gave up. He had only a small amount of bloody looking meat, but the smell made him gag.
He cooked some for supper, and it tasted as bad as it smelled.
The Wolf Family
This time he saw the wolves.
“Leftovers for the birds,” he had told the dog when he had quit cutting the carcass. He looked at the distant mountains, brilliant pink in the sunlight. “Or maybe the wolves. They gotta eat too.”
He had heard them occasionally these last few nights, and the wild calling still frightened him. But he was also intrigued.
Wolves, he had read, had strong family units. They take care of one another. The whole pack cared for the pups, giving them attention and loving affection.
Sometimes he tried to imagine what it would be like to be part of a pack, or a family, where the members cared for each other. There would be brothers and sisters to play with. Others to trust. A mother and father who brought home food. And played. And cared.
He would dream of running silently through the trees on padded feet, the wind brushing his ears, the cold tickling his nose.
This time, their chill howling startled him at twilight as he was scraping down the antlers near the stove. More than a few feet away from the stove, the cabin was as cold as outdoors. He had already battened down for the night, but he went and opened the door.
There was a slash of brilliant red sun across the mountaintop, and huge stars hung on a luminescent purple sky. Although the trees were lost in black shadow, the snow still reflected the crimson and blue of the sky.
The long note hung silvery in the air like another star.
And an answering call.
“They’re singing,” the boy whispered to the dog, who, after a half-hearted low growl, had retreated under the bunk.
He stepped out in front of the cabin cautiously, prepared to dash back in if necessary. The wolves were dark silhouettes cavorting around the remains of the deer, like dancing. He was awed by their size. Even from up here they looked as big as the buck, and as graceful, though thick and dog-like. Growling and snarling ripped the night air.
They made short work of the carcass, carrying off on silent padded paws what they didn’t eat. He had read that wolves bring back food to others in the pack who are injured or too young to hunt for themselves.
As the black shadows slipped away, the wolf at the rear of the pack paused and looked back at the boy. For an instant, a glimmer of light reflected on its eyes, two brilliant diamonds in the dark. Their eyes held and then the wolf was gone, leaving a lone long cry hovering over the blue snow.
In the bright of the day, he knew there was no danger, but the memory stayed with him, haunting him at night. They were magnificent animals, these wolves, and at night he heard growls and snarls in his dreams and woke up.
Startled, he listened.
The only sound was the wind whispering in the evergreens.
He closed his eyes. He felt good.
Nobody was going to come for him in his sleep. No one was going to silently open the door. No one was going to sneak over to his bed.
He tried to put the nightmares out of his head.
“If you tell, I’ll kill you.”
It was all past now.
Here in the wilderness where most people would be afraid, he was safe.
The Long Winter
The winter stretched endlessly. It was going on longer than he thought it would, longer than he had expected. The falling snow covered the sun for days at a time.
Although he was satisfied with the solitude, he was getting worried about food. Hunting was hard. The small animals had gone underground, and deer had disappeared. He couldn’t even find tracks, rabbit or squirrel, but sometimes he would find evidence of the wolf pack having passed by. Were they, too, finding game scarce? Even brilliant sunny days were too cold to be outside very long.
He carved wolf shapes and deer shapes from the firewood. He reread all his books and magazines and started a journal and tried writing more stories, stories about his pretend wolf family. He would have been completely happy if he hadn’t been worried about the food supply. Come spring, he would have to get himself a radio too, if only for the weather reports.
Then when the situation seemed to be getting urgent, and he was considering trying to get into town, a thaw hit. The snow cover shrank, and the river rose under the relentless sun. Pointed spruce punctured their white blanket, and the south slope turned a gray-green.
Dog and boy were delighted.
“Tomorrow,” said the boy. “Tomorrow we’ll hike into town. Once we reach the road, we should be all right, and we can stay there overnight if we have to. Just think. Doggie treats and a Snickers bar and some new magazines.” He hauled inside a supply of firewood and an extra bucket of water. “So we can sleep late when we get back,” he grinned.
But winter wasn’t ready to leave yet. By morning the temperature dove again, and ice coated the snow. Everywhere the ice was like glass, gleaming in the sunlight.
The boy thought he might be okay if he bundled up and kept moving but he didn’t know about the dog. Her scruffy brown fur had thickened but it was mighty cold out, and it could be dangerous to make her take the long journey to town.
However, if he left her behind, she might think he had deserted her, especially if he had to stay over. She was all excited, dancing in circles around the cabin, sensing the journey.
He ruffled her ears. “I guess we’re in this together, old girl,” he said.
The going was tough. He hadn’t hiked ten feet when the snowshoes went out from under him, landing him on his backside.
The dog laughed and licked his face, scrabbling around him, her paws slipping and sliding.
Undaunted, he edged along for half a mile. It was going to take much longer than he thought if he wanted to make the journey on his feet. The glare of the sun was making his head ache.
A rabbit bounded across an open field. The boy pulled out his rifle and shot, the sharp crack echoing in the stillness.
“Nuts, I missed,” he snarled at the dog, stamping his feet. A mistake.
He lost his balance, and the rifle flew into the air. Half on his back, he slid down the slope and dropped into a stream bed. The snowshoes skittered away like wild mice, and his foot broke through the ice, the jagged edges slicing like glass into his knee.
He looked calmly at the brilliant red fanning out on the white ice. What a color, he thought. Brighter even than Christmas paper, than a Coke can, than even a cardinal against the green grass in summer.
It didn’t hurt, but his heart began to thud, so violently his ears throbbed. The ice held the leg.
He had to let himself sink into the water to unloose the leg.
Hauling himself up the embankment was slow work, and a slash of blood painted the snow. When he reached level ground, he finally dared to look.
The dog was anxiously sniffing him.
“I think I can see bone, girl,” he said, fighting the urge to shake.
Lying down, he took off his coat, his shirt, and wrapped the shirt around the leg, tying it tightly with the sleeves. The shirt was stained red before he could get the coat back on. He couldn’t seem to feel the cold air.
“This is not good,” he said. His voice startled him, as if somebody else, somebody outside him, was talking. “Let’s go back.”
Before he went very far, the blood was seeping over the knot. He had read you should elevate wounds.
“Maybe if I sit,” he said. He slid himself along for a bit, sitting and using his good leg to push, and the flow seemed to slow.
But he was getting giddy. With a morbid fascination, he kept turning to measure the red trail he was leaving on the side of the mountain.
At first he wasn’t cold, the shock had numbed him. By the time he thought about it, he couldn’t feel his fingers or the foot on his injured leg. And he was overcome by an urge to sleep.
He tried crawling, but that aggravated the bleeding and sent waves of pain up his leg.
He closed his eyes, and the ice felt like a soft feather bed. Only for just a minute …
The dog was nuzzling his face.
“Okay, girl. We won’t stop again till we get to the cabin.”
On he went. And on.
She crawled on her belly next to him, licking his cheek or nudging his ear if he put his head down too long.
“We can do it,” he told her when she whimpered. He tried to smile, but his lips were stiff. “We can do it … do it …?”
Just a few feet at a time.
“We can do it.” He kept that in his head. If he didn’t get back to the cabin, who would take care of the dog?
The sun didn’t even pause. It crossed westward, treetop to treetop, completely ignoring the boy, pulling the long shadows of twilight behind.
“It’s not that much farther,” he said to the dog.
When he woke up, he was lying on the cabin floor, in a pool of dried blood, the dog curled next to him. The fire had gone out, and the cold was so intense he thought lead weights were pressing his body to the floor.
And when he moved, the pain in his leg seemed to spread into his stomach, and he threw up. The wracking of his body started the wound bleeding again.
He tied a piece of towel around the shirt to slow the bleeding. The twilight had faded fast, and the cabin was a black hole.
He started a fire, every motion excruciating, thankful he had brought wood in earlier. The warmth of the flames did little to relieve the ice inside him, so he lay down on the bunk, making himself a nest of the blankets and his extra shirts.
“Don’t you ever talk?”
The harsh voice startled him awake.
When he opened his eyes, there was nothing but blackness and the fire was dead. He struggled around, this time making a bigger fire and lay down again.
The voice came back. He was at the Home.
“Don’t you ever talk?” Crockett Haskell poked the boy. His yellow teeth appeared in a grin. Crock’s eyes were quick and greedy like a ferret, darting around, looking for what he could play with next.
“You speak English, Kid?”
The others around him snickered.
Crock leaned closer. “You don’t talk. You look funny. You even smell funny.” He wiggled his nose.
Somebody behind him said, “Ugh!” and there were more snickers.
The stale bread and gravy smell of supper drifted in as Randolph opened the door. Crock gave the boy a last vicious poke and hissed, “Dummy.”
What was the big deal about talking? He should talk like Crock? Mean and dirty. Talk about television. About each other. About how much they hated their parents.
Instead, the boy was quiet. Listening. Watching. He learned a lot from listening and watching.
Like who to avoid.
Crock was one of them.
Crock and his friends sometimes waited for him after school. That first time, they threw him behind the bushes and began to kick him. Then something scared them away. They disappeared. The boy painfully got himself back to the home and never said a word.
He learned to watch out after that. Often he stayed in the library. There he had discovered the mountains, the outdoors, the wilderness, where there was challenge but also order. Harsh but understandable. He would be lost for hours reading about hiking, mountaineering, survival.
As he sat in the library, at a table where he was out of sight of the door, but where he could watch who came in, he could smell the crisp, cold air. He could feel the wind in his face, pinching at his cheeks, whipping the dark tangled hair away from his eyes.
He could imagine the solitude.
“Time to leave,” Mr. Mello the librarian would say, and the mountain and the forest would evaporate.
Mr. Mello usually walked him out.
None of the kids was interested in waiting too long, so by the time he left the library, it was safe. And none of them would enter the library.
Back to the Home.
He walked slowly. Around the side to the back porch, avoiding the office.
He opened the back door. Cabbage and bacon greeted him, and Barbara.
A stringy, tough witch, Barbara put in her time and got paid. Randolph was nicer, but he had his hands full with the druggies. Nobody paid much attention to the boy because he was so quiet.
Nobody except Mr. Brody.
Mr. Brody with his hardboiled egg eyes, his greasy hotdog fingers, smelling of rancid grape juice and onions.
The next time the boy saw daylight, the sun was reflecting light on the cabin ceiling.
He was too sick to eat, but he gave the dog some crackers and the last dog biscuit, and added to the fire.
When he woke up again, his leg was as big around as a telephone pole, about as clumsy, and throbbing with the intensity of a bass drum. The wound began to bleed when he tried to move.
He burrowed back into the nest and watched the window change color.
Sometimes there was sunshine, then a star or two, then pale gray. Was that dawn or dusk?
Finally, the rattle of rain on the roof brought him back. The leg still felt big, but he realized he must be better because his stomach was growling.
The dog eagerly shared crackers with him.
He put one of the buckets outside to catch the rainwater and repeatedly blessed himself for having brought in extra firewood.
“We have a problem here,” he told the dog. “There’s not much food.” He checked the granola tin, which was nearly empty, and tossed the cracker box into the pile of kindling. The dog stuck her nose in the box and licked the final crumbs.
He had to move real slow. A couple of times the bleeding started again.
“We have to decide,” he said, scratching the dog’s ears. “Do we stay here and starve to death, or do we try to get back down the mountain and bleed to death? If I wait longer, the wound will be more healed, but I’ll … we’ll be too weak from hunger.”
She licked his face and smiled. Whatever he decided was okay with her.
Later on, he was ripped awake in the dark by the long ring of a wolf howl, so close it could be right in the cabin. He felt the dog tremble beside him.
He was afraid to move.
Another howl, just as close, split the dark.
They’re coming after me, he thought. They know I’m sick.
Wolves were supposed to move silently, but he could hear rustling, scratching, a snarl. Shadows crossed the patch of reflected moonlight on the ceiling, smooth, sharklike shapes that flowed into one another.
A loud scratching and sniffling at the door made his hair rise. A low growl.
The dog trembled, and her hair stood up. She burrowed deep into the blanket nest. The scratching claws raked the door, and a curdling howl seared the air in the cabin. As he watched, the door trembled and the wrought iron latch rattled.
Then they were on the roof. A basket tucked under the eaves dropped with a thud as the vibration loosed it. A raining of pebbles hit the stove.
The boy was afraid to move. He had never known such icy fear. Not as he climbed the mountain leaving a trail of blood. Not when he snuck into Mr. Brody’s office, where he knew the money was hidden. Not even the night he had been chased out of the railroad yard by a man with a nightstick. He couldn’t even feel his arms and legs.
The shuffling and sniffing on the roof was louder than thunder, endless.
A gust of wind rattled the window. Then the wolves set up a circle of howling, long haunting notes overlapping and harmonizing with one another, rising and falling in an untamed song.
The dog nuzzled the boy’s hand.
Maybe if we don’t breathe, they’ll think we’re dead and go away, he thought, holding his breath. But that made his heart pound wildly, and he was afraid they would hear it. Just as suddenly as they had come, it was silent. He lay there, his eyes wide, afraid to stir.
Before he knew it, the sun was in his eyes.
“I think they’re gone,” he whispered, hardly daring to believe it.
The dog crawled up and jumped out of bed. She shook herself starting with her nose and working down to her tail. Then she helped herself to a long sloppy drink from the water bucket.
Thirst satisfied, she set up a thorough sniffing investigation of the air around the door, tail wagging slightly. She was intrigued and began to scratch the wood. When the boy didn’t respond, she barked cheerfully.
Remembering how terrified she had been during the night, the boy figured it must be safe now, or she wouldn’t be so carefree.
The trip to the door was cold and slow. The fire had died down and his leg, his whole body, was stiff and sore. He felt like his head was floating.
As soon as he unlatched the door, the dog pried it open with her nose and dashed into the bright snow.
He wasn’t prepared for what he found outside.
She went straight as an arrow to a hunk of meat, the haunch of something, a deer or elk, lying directly in front of the door.
The boy didn’t know what it was at first. It looked like the thick branch of a tree except for some pale blood stains on the snow. Then he saw the hoof on one end and the bone sticking out, crudely hacked on the other. He stared, seeing yet not seeing it.
The dog looked at him, whimpered, barked, and, since the boy didn’t move, decided to have some for breakfast.
Her hungry gnawing brought him back.
Someone had left them some fresh meat, some food.
The dog stopped reluctantly, licking her chops. He reached for his knife at his belt, only to find air. The knife was somewhere inside.
He just couldn’t believe it. Real meat. Who could have left it? He poked the fire, added wood, found his knife. Skinning the haunch was slow work because his hands were so shaky and the dizziness made him afraid he would cut himself.
“I’ve lost enough blood,” he said, trying to joke. The dog wagged.
He set the meat to cooking and flopped on the bunk, exhausted, puzzling over the unexpected gift.
“Who could it be, girl? There’s no tracks out there ’cept the wolf prints.” He scratched her ears, thinking.
“No,” he said. The dog flattened her ears, thinking she had done something bad.
Then a few minutes later: “It couldn’t, could it?”
He thought back to the day he had brought down the deer, to the night he had watched the wolves go at the remains of the carcass he had left. He had seen them take food back for others in the pack.
Did they, knowing he was hurt, bring food to him? He dragged himself back to the door and even in the bright sunlight he could find no traces of any other footprints, only the padded patterns of the wolf paws.
He smiled into the sunlight, feeling a part of the sunlight, a part of the mountain, a sense of belonging he had never experienced before.
He was meant to be here on this mountain in this very cabin. He should never have been in that close, stifling Home, which had been more like a prison than a shelter.
A sharp pain in his leg reminded him he was still in crisis and he hobbled back inside.
He couldn’t believe he had disliked the taste of venison. It was most delicious, and he licked his fingers, feeling better than he had since the accident. The dog gobbled her share and settled in front of the stove to gnaw the big bone.
There was enough left for a couple of days, and some broth. The weather seemed to be warming. Maybe in a few days, he would be strong enough, and if the snow melted enough, for him to try to walk down. The leg didn’t seem to be healing right, and he knew it hadn’t been properly cleaned, but he was afraid to take off the shirt bandage. It bled easily, and the bandage seemed to be stuck to his leg.
He piled up the fire—the wood was getting low—and slept round the clock. He woke up still dizzy. The sky was dark and heavy with the smell of snow.
He and the dog had breakfast, washed down with the broth, but he was worried. He let the dog out to romp around, trying to decide if he should risk trying to get down to the stream for water. He would need it soon, but he didn’t want to start the leg bleeding again.
If he wrapped a shirt around the handle of the shovel, maybe he could use it for a crutch.
It was uncomfortable, but he managed to get a ways without breaking open the wound. He finally got down to the stream and filled the bucket.
Carrying it back was a different story. He couldn’t seem to make a step without spilling it, and a few flakes were beginning to float in the air.
He wasn’t a third of the way back to the cabin when he heard a buzz. He shook his head, afraid he was imagining things.
It wasn’t a buzz, it was a roar, like the sound of a chainsaw, echoing first from the low clouds, then from the invisible distant mountain.
Suddenly it was on top of him, two black snowmobiles cresting the rise and coming to a stop between him and the cabin.
The man in the lead slid his goggles atop his head and called out, “Hey, boy.” It was Mr. Flynn, his white mustache icy, his cheeks carnation red.
He swung his leg over and settled the helmet on the seat.
“Hey,” he called, grinning. “Thought we’d pay you a visit. Got any coffee?”
The boy dropped the bucket. Then he sagged against his makeshift crutch, nearly falling on his bad leg. The dizziness all came back.
Mr. Flynn scooped him up like a bag of chips and carried him into the cabin. “Hey, nasty leg there,” he said heartily. “How ’bout comin’ into town. Big blizzard comin’.”
The boy nodded. “I can’t go without my dog,” he said.
He heard the two men talking.
“We’re afraid to take you on the skidoo but the storm’s starting and who knows when we can get back. Supposed to be the storm of the century. Might be okay if I splint it up, but might hurt.”
“It’s okay,” said the boy, “just as long as I can bring the dog.”
Mr. Flynn laughed, his deep hearty laugh. “Of course.”
Mr. Flynn and the other man lashed the boy’s leg to the ax handle and secured it to the seat of the second snowmobile. They wrapped the dog in a blanket and let the boy hold her.
He didn’t remember much of the trip except that the snow got real thick real fast.
Mr. Flynn had to take the dog and, because the boy couldn’t seem to stay upright, they tied his hands around the other man’s waist. It seemed that the roar of the engines, the white, the cold would never end.
The leg began to throb, to bleed.
And then they reached the road.
Mr. Flynn had radioed ahead. A Jeep and a truck were waiting, and they unlashed the boy, carried him through the driving snow, and set him on a soft bed in the back of the Jeep. He closed his eyes.
“Where’s the dog?” he murmured.
He fell asleep with someone gently cutting away the old bandages and the dog’s nose nuzzled up to his cheek.
They wouldn’t let the dog in the hospital.
They wouldn’t let Old Rat in either, Mr. Flynn said, unless he left his grungy, dirty hat and his pipe outside.
The boy’s leg, propped up on the bed, was wrapped in a white and blue plastic splint fastened with Velcro. He was glad the leg had been cared for, and that he was warm and the food was plentiful, but still, he supposed this would mean the end. They would be bound to send him back, to the Home or wherever runaway boys were sent. He would have done just fine if he hadn’t hurt his leg.
Mr. Flynn dwarfed the metal folding chair he pulled up to the side of the bed. He handed the boy a Snickers bar and unrolled a half dozen shiny new magazines. The boy grinned.
“You’ll be out in a couple of days,” Mr. Flynn boomed. “Quite a gash you had there. We hadn’t seen you in a while and were a mite worried.”
“How did you find me?”
“Old Rat. He knew where you were.”
“How did he know? I never told anyone.”
Mr. Flynn leaned back, smiling. “That’s his cabin. Near sixty years he lived up there.”
“But how did he know? How did he know I was there?”
“The gun. It was his gun you brought in that first day. Guess he thought it was pretty funny, him teaching you to clean and handle his own gun.”
The boy puzzled over this. So Old Rat had known all along where he was.
“Where’s my dog?” asked the boy.
“She’s just fine. Told me to say hi.” Mr. Flynn chuckled at his own joke. He patted the Velcro splint. “She’s stayin’ with me and the missus. Where you’ll be staying till we can send you back. We’re still digging out from that whopper of a blizzard. See ya later, boy.”
Till we can send you back. So he was going back.
Of course. Nowadays you have to be somewhere. The law says you have to go to school, to belong somewhere. Grownups couldn’t ignore that.
Well, he could. Wherever they sent him, he’d run away again.
Old Rat came to visit. He’d snuck in the pipe in his pocket and sat there with a devilish grin, whisking it out of sight whenever a nurse came by. He didn’t say too much but listened while the boy talked about the buck, the cold winter … the wolves.
“There’s them ascared a wolves,” he said, munching the pipe and nodding. “But they ain’t never hurt me.” His nose twitched, and he scratched it with his sleeve.
Then the boy went to stay at the Flynns’ house.
Mrs. Flynn was like her husband, big and hearty and matter-of-fact. The boy would have enjoyed being there if he hadn’t been so despondent about going back. He was angry with the dog. She was so obviously happy, well fed, and companionable with the other household dogs.
Almost angry. She had been so glad to see him she had wagged at both ends. And she wouldn’t sleep any place but by his bed—on it, once Mrs. Flynn had gone to sleep.
One morning, Mr. Flynn said, “The roads are all clear so we’ll be sending you back today.”
So fast? His heart pitched.
“You come on up the store this mornin’ and we’ll set you up with what you need.”
The melting snow made rivers on the edge of the road as he trudged along, unaware of the brilliant blue sky, the towering clouds, even the warmth of the new sun on his bare head. The dog circled, danced, chased a flock of doves whistling into the air.
None of it mattered. They were sending him back to the Home.
Old Rat was on the porch, resting his feet on a carton of assorted objects, a tin cup, some folded clothing, a can of tobacco.
His face was crinkled by a grin so wide, his cheeks swelled up like golf balls. “Mornin’, boy.”
“Good morning,” said the boy. He felt like he should say something. He had never properly thanked Old Rat for sending help when he needed it. He paused. “I wanted to thank you, Mr. R … Rat.”
Old Rat laughed. “You can call me Old Rat. Everyone does. After all, it’s my name, my real name.”
“Ole Ratmines. Son of Lucy and Roland Ratmines.”
“Thank you, Old Rat,” said the boy. But his heart felt like wet mud. He probably wouldn’t get to see Old Rat anymore when they brought him back to the Home. “’Tweren’t nothin’,” said Old Rat.
Inside Mr. Flynn had already set aside a couple of boxes of cereal and crackers and a tin of dog biscuits. “Go pick out some shirts, boy,” he called as he counted out shotgun shells to a man in a flannel jacket.
It didn’t matter what he picked out. They’d probably just steal everything at the Home anyway. When he returned empty handed to the counter, Mr. Flynn came out and put his arm around the boy’s shoulder.
“Come on, you need warm clothes. You can pay me later if that’s what you’re worried about.” He scooped up a couple of packages of cotton-lined wool undershirts.
“Well, I’m not sure what I’ll need.” He looked at the plaid flannel on the racks and thought about the printed tee shirts most of the boys at the Home wore.
“You’ll need warm things,” said Mr. Flynn decisively. “Spring is slow comin’ in these here parts.”
In these parts?
“Here?” said the boy.
Mr. Flynn nodded. “Well, up on the mountain. That cabin doesn’t exactly have central heating. Why? Where did you think you were going?”
“I thought … I just thought you … well, never mind.”
Mr. Flynn was still looking at him. “Did you think we were going to send you back where you came from?”
The boy nodded, his eyes stinging with tears.
Mr. Flynn sat down heavily on the stack of roofing shingles. “While you were in the hospital, I did some investigating. I had some friends in the city ask around about any boy your age who might be missing.”
The boy wiped his eyes and looked at Mr. Flynn.
“You see, I wondered if somewhere there was a family that was missing you. I know if I had a boy like you, I’d go crazy if he ran away.” He shifted on the shingles. “Well, I found out about the place where you come from … the Home. It seems that there was a lot of trouble there after you left. The man running the place, a Mr. Brody, done got himself arrested. He was, uh, he was hurting some of the boys that lived there, the boys in his care.”
Mr. Flynn looked at the boy steadily. “He hurt you, boy?” Mr. Flynn’s eyes were narrowed, but kindness and concern shone in the depths.
The boy was silent, but his eyes answered. Finally, he whispered, “He said he’d kill me.”
Mr. Flynn put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “He won’t kill you. He won’t hurt you no more. I been thinking and I made a decision. I’m not going to send you back. Of course not. Any fool can see you belong in the woods and what’s even better is Old Rat can go back up, now you’re here to watch out for him. That is, if you want to.”
The boy nodded, hardly daring to believe what he was hearing. “What about … school?” he asked. “And stuff like that?”
Mr. Flynn sat back. “The woods will be your school,” he said. “You read and write just fine, and you’ll learn the kinds of things ain’t never gonna be in books. Old Rat will teach you. The old ways, the ways of the land, will live on. Nobody knows about those kinds of things anymore. Later, when anyone wants to know, you’ll be the one to teach ’em, boy.”
The boy smiled slightly. “I’ll write a book,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to write a book.”
Mr. Flynn grinned and suddenly crunched the boy to his chest, pounding his back and knocking his breath away. Then he held the boy at arm’s length and studied his face. The boy was laughing and crying at the same time.
“Old Rat don’t need too much watchin’ out for but can’t chop wood like he used to, and he forgets to take his medicine. He’s not happy here in town. He needs the woods. With you, he can fi nish his days in the place where he wants to be, where he spent his whole life.” Mr. Flynn tactfully got up and went to the rack of shirts. He pulled a few off the rack while the boy wiped his tears on his sleeve. “What do you say? Do you want to go back to the cabin with Old Rat?”
“Sure. Sure I do.” The boy hugged the shirts.
“You can learn more about the woods from that old coot than you can ever learn from any school.” Mr. Flynn headed toward a new customer. “Go try on some of those wool pants,” he ordered, “and then run back to the house and tell the missus to pack sandwiches and whatever stuff you have at the house.”
Old Rat was still rocking in the sunshine, scratching the dog behind the ears, when the boy came out. “We’ll be home soon, boy,” Old Rat said, his nose twitching.
“Home,” said the boy. “We’ll be home.”
He breathed in the sharp air and let the sun warm his face. The sky was a brilliant blue and puff y white clouds piled over the peak of a distant mountain. The rivers of melted snow sparkled along the edge of the road.
“See ya in a bit, Old Rat,” said the boy, playfully punching the old man’s arm.
Old Rat laughed as the boy bounded down the steps even though his one leg was still stiff . He awkwardly raced the dog to the nearest puddle.
“Hey, boy,” Old Rat yelled after him as he headed toward the Flynn house.
“Hey what?” the boy shouted turning around. He skipped backward for a few steps.
“Hey, boy, you got a name?
From Hunger Mountain Issue 23: Silence & Power, which you can purchase here.
Art by @anna_croc01, curated by Dana Lyons.
Margo Lemieux has been involved in creative endeavors since the first grade when she got into trouble for “decorating” her workbook. After graduating from Boston University, she worked as a graphic designer, newspaper correspondent, children’s book author and illustrator, and other interesting things. Her book FULL WORM MOON was described in the New York Times as “well-written.” Currently a professor at Lasell College, she has taught workshops in the Attleboro Arts Museum, Lake Mead National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Fuller Craft Museum, Hang Do Studio, Hanoi, Vietnam, and Rhode Island School of Design.