Moonlight shone eerily across the surface of untouched snow, broken every now and then by the deep pool of shadow gathered beneath a towering fir. The night air was heavy, silent, and still with not a breath of air to disturb it. All the world seemed as a predatory beast preparing to spring upon unsuspecting prey.
The soft noise broke the perfect stillness of the wood. A movement among the trees revealed a man, hunched over, wrapped in heavy winter attire, and carrying a rifle slung over one shoulder. On his back he wore a large pack loaded with supplies and yet made no sound as he had strapped everything so that it would make none. The only noise was the soft shush shush of his snowshoes across the surface of the new-fallen frost, as if their every movement was a self-admonishment to be silent.
Up ahead of him, upon a small rise, and nestled among a copse of snow-laden pines, was a small cabin. A hunter’s lodge. Such places were built to help those traveling through the wilderness find shelter and warmth against the cold, and were ever kept stocked by each passing occupant so that the next traveler would not go hungry.
Normally this time of year the place was empty but a light shone in one window, mostly obscured by heavy shutters yet still, inexplicitly, stating that the dwelling was occupied.
The man paused upon seeing this. He had smelled the woodsmoke some ways back and so had guessed that there may be someone staying the night but the confirmation still gave him pause. Hunting season wouldn’t begin for some time yet and this wasn’t a popular destination for hikers. So either someone was desperately lost or there was a poacher within.
Shifting his rifle so that it hung in the crook of his arm the man peeled back the scarf that had obscured his face, and lifted his goggles so that they rested on his brow. This revealed weathered, though in no way time-weary, features of a man nearing forty. Most of his cold-reddened face was hidden beneath a rough-grown beard belying some time since he had had a decent shave, but what stood out about him most were his shockingly blue eyes possessing a gaze that could cut through any argument.
He scanned the area but saw no snowmobile, the means of transportation so often favored by poachers. Perhaps it was an indian from the local reservation. That wasn’t unheard of but they didn’t normally come this far east. The young men from the reservation often enjoyed thumbing their nose at federal laws placed upon their old tribal lands but coming all the way out here to poach was an unlikely way of doing that.
Well, there was nothing for it. He would find out one way or another who was within momentarily, and so he slung his rifle back into place on his shoulder and continued his hike to the lodge front door.
As he neared the smells of cooking wafted to him and his stomach gurgled excitedly. He hoped the confrontation within wouldn’t go south too quickly. He was loathe to fight on an empty stomach.
Upon reaching the door he tentatively tried the latch and found that it held fast. Whomever was within had bolted the lock. With a sigh he swung his rifle to a relaxed, but ready position, and, lifting one gloved hand, knocked heavily upon the door.
“Fish and Game, open up!” he called.
Immediately he felt a stillness within and apprehension seemed to ooze through the wood. He cautiously stepped to the side, just in case whomever was within was feeling trigger happy and decided to try and shoot him through the door. After a pause that seemed to stretch an eternity, a shuffling movement sounded from within and the bolt begrudgingly slid open.
As the heavy door swung outward, light spilled across the untouched snow and a small head with long, sleek dark hair peeked forth. The man breathed a sigh of relief and lowered the muzzle of his rifle to the ground.
“Evening officer,” the young, or at least much younger than him, woman piped, the apprehension still clinging to the back of her throat. “What seems to be the problem?”
It was a question born of watching too much T.V., or else indicative of someone who had been pulled over more than once by a city cop, and the man smiled despite himself.
“There’s no issue ma’am,” he replied, knowing that this was a desired response. “The temperature is set to be well below zero tonight, and seeing as this is the only shelter for miles, I am afraid I will have to intrude on you for the evening.”
“Oh! Of course,” she pulled herself back inside, leaving the door open for him to follow. “Rules of the wild and such, come on in!”
The man shook his head but slung his rifle back on his shoulder and did as she bid, unlatching his snowshoes and taking them in hand before he crossed the threshold.
Within the cabin looked much as it did the last time he had passed this way, though with a considerable amount more possessions strewn about. From what the man could tell the woman had been staying here for a couple days at least. A cheery, warm fire crackled in the steel stove at the cabin’s single room’s center. On a rough-hewn table a topographical map of the area had been spread with small colored pins marking a couple locations. With a quick glance he saw that she had marked the cabin’s location as well as that of the nearest water source, the ranger station some ways to the south, and the closest town some miles further south than that. A makeshift clothesline had been hung across the room and from it hung a number of cute, yet functional, pairs of undergarments, as well as some socks and a t-shirt that read: “Wolf Rights or Riot!”
The woman herself stood awkwardly near the cabin’s lone bed. She was indeed much younger than him, he perceived, perhaps in her late twenties, but certainly not thirty. She had a cute, impish face with small features, except her eyes which were large, dark and slightly slanted, hinting to perhaps an asian parentage on one side. She was dressed in a mismatched sweatsuit, the hoodie, which was far too big for her, declaring for the Seattle Seahawks while the pants seemed to root for a more local high school team. He noticed her eyeing his rifle warily and so he quickly leaned it near the door beside his snowshoes and stepped away.
“I don’t normally run into anyone this far afield, at least not this time of year,” he said, loosening the straps on his pack and dropping it heavily on the floor before seating himself in a chair by the door and shedding his woolen cap, releasing a head of uneven hair, slightly reddish in hue.
“Are you really a cop?” She asked, taking in his rough appearance with a distrusting eye.
Unzipping his winter coat, the man opened it, tapping the gold star pinned to his breast pocket.
“Officer Wade Brooks at your service ma’am. I’d tip my hat to you but that wouldn’t be appropriate winter attire. The better question would be what you are doing up here? You don’t strike me as a poacher nor a wilderness survivalist of some sort. So who are you?”
“My names Isabelle, but my friends call my Izzy…at least they did before…” She trailed off, he gaze drifting and her eyes beginning to water. Before a tear fell however she took a deep breath and steadied herself, sinking onto the bed before allowing the exhale to escape.
“You know there are less remote and dangerous places to get away, Izzy,” Wade said and she smiled, dapping the corner of her eye with the sleeve of her hoodie and stifling a sob.
“Yeah, I know,” she admitted. “But my family came up here once when I was a kid, and I’m not helpless. My brother taught me some basic land nav and I wasn’t planning on staying up here more than a couple nights but…” She sighed anew. “It was just nice to be alone.”
“I understand,” he said with a half smile. “One of the best things about this job admittedly.”
“So here we are,” she stretched out her arms. “Two people who just want to be alone, stuck together for the night in the middle of nowhere.”
“I guess so,” he replied and their eyes met. Their gazes held for the briefest of moments, a moment in which it seemed to both of them that the other truly saw them, then Isabelle broke the spell, tearing her eyes away and gesticulating towards a pot that simmered on the stove.
“I made soup if you’re hungry,” she stammered. “I wasn’t planning on company but there should be plenty.”
“Won’t say no to that,” Wade replied, clearing his throat before standing and shedding his heavy jacket.
A few moments later saw the pair of them seated near the stove, quietly eating their stew from bowls Izzy had brought. Wade had stripped down to his shirt and snow pants. His boots and socks placed before the stove to dry. Neither spoke but it wasn’t an uncomfortable silence. Merely two wayward people respecting one another’s private reflections.
It was Wade who finally broke the silence by poking his spoon up at the shirt that hung above them on her clothesline.
“Ever been to that wolf sanctuary they have near the ranger station?” He asked.
Izzy glanced up at the shirt, then reddened slightly when she saw what else hung from the line.
“No,” she admitted quickly, “I always wanted to…but they are only open at certain times and I always seem to miss out.”
She watched his eyes as she spoke, and they remained transfixed on the shirt. Almost as if he was unwilling to allow them to stray because he knew she was watching.
“Do you see many wolves in these parts?” She asked after a brief pause.
“Not as many as I should,” he said, returning his gaze to his soup. “They used to be all over in this area but have been hunted almost to extinction by the ranchers. You see them more up in the north, near Canada.”
“That’s sad,” she poked at her soup halfheartedly. “Aren’t there laws in place to protect them?”
The question held an expectation connected, as if she actually had said: “shouldn’t you be stopping it.”
“There are now,” he replied, reading into her implication. “But for many years the full impact of the ranchers protecting their herds went overlooked. It was only within the last ten or so years that the loss of the wolves has really been felt, and conservation efforts have been put into place…like the wolf sanctuary.”
“Are they effective?”
“So far no…if you are planning to stay here for another few days I can show you some of the effects it has had.”
The invitation was innocent enough but she hadn’t missed his gaze straying to a pair of turquoise, lace trimmed cheekies she had hung upon her clothesline.
“I’d like that,” was her reply.
When they had both finished their soup Wade declared that, since she had made dinner, he would wash the dishes, and proceeded to don his coat and boots to take them outside.
Once outdoors, he breathed in deep the icy air, clearing his wits, before taking their bowls to the spicket at the side of the cabin.
Within the lodge, Izzy busied herself with removing the more unseemly items of underclothes from her clothesline. Though she left the turquoise cheekies in plain sight. She told herself that they needed more time to fully dry, but did slide them to a more prominent position above the stove.
Outside, Wade busied himself with clearing the spicket of ice- a task best accomplished by banging on the pipe repeatedly with the ice pick he’d brought with him- before attempting to work the pump. He knew that it would work despite the freezing conditions. He had dug the line himself with the help of the park rangers several seasons back. Whilst he worked the lever, drawing surprisingly warm water up from the bowels of the earth, to spill upon the dishes he had volunteered to wash, he shook his head. Why was he flirting with this girl, no woman, he corrected himself. But even despite her apparent maturity she was still someone out of her element, here in the wilds. An escapist plunging into the wilderness only when something had gone terribly wrong in her life. Granted, he knew not what it was that she ran from. He could easily assume that it was a harsh breakup, or else some other potentially frivolous occurrence, but he couldn’t help but feel that it was something more dire than that.
Looking up from the bowls he washed, he peered through the slats of the window above the spicket. Within the cabin she busied herself with tidying up the space that they would both stay in that night. He saw her pause upon the compass she had laid upon the map spread on the table. He saw tears once more threaten to escape her eyes, and be choked back anew with another wave of resolved determination, and he felt his heart unexpectedly go out to her. He knew, in that moment, that she had lost someone. He knew not who, he could guess, but he knew not for certain, and knew that he would never ask, but he recognized the pain in her. What he also recognized was how she was dealing with that pain, and knew that that was how he had dealt with that pain within himself. He respected her immeasurably for it.
Finishing with his washing, he returned to the cabin. Upon entering, he found her sheepish.
“What is it?” He asked, placing her bowls upon the table.
“I don’t think they built this place with more than one person in mind,” she said, and he followed her gaze to the bed.
It was a bed upon which he had spent many a lonesome night, and he knew that it would fit two…but very snugly.
He laughed away her concerns, however, and, digging in his pack, he produced a sleeping bag saying, “I spend most nights without a roof over my head. I come well prepared.”
She joined him in his mirth, quickly covering her earlier concern, or was it hope? She didn’t dare dwell on it too much. She barely knew this man, why was she so disappointed he wouldn’t sleep beside her? She quickly dismissed her unruly thoughts, though she did see his gaze linger once more on her cheekies above the hearth.
They bedded down for the night with polite, if not somewhat reluctant, “good nights.” She curled upon the bed and he before the fire, which he was sure to stoke before he fully committed himself to slumber.