By Gary Henry
The midnight blizzard shrieked out of the Canadian Rockies.
It punished the high plains of Northern Alberta as if furious to find no more granite walls and frozen peaks to batter with its icy gales.
Across the dark and frozen plain, through the bitter lashing winds, Charlie Payne drove a motorized sled. Poor visibility and the ski-trailer of supplies and fuel he hauled slowed his progress. The machine’s headlights lanced through the storm, but lit only the vicious, stinging sheets of snow and sleet.
The terrible, unrelenting cold knifed through Payne’s cold-weather gear, from high-tech nylon shells to down coat to thermal under-layers.
Boots, gloves, hood, mask. They were nothing to the storm, the killing storm.
A snow shelter might have saved him.
But despite Payne’s many years in the wild, he was a city-man at heart, and didn’t know. His outdoor experience was of the heated hunters’ blind, and of long rambles through gently sun-dappled woods in search of things to kill.
In this dark land of frosty death, newcomer Charlie Payne began to slowly die.
Shadows joined him. Vague gray shapes in the screaming darkness bounded through the snow alongside him, easily matching his machine’s poor speed.
One crossed in front of the headlights, which briefly lit its white and gray furred face and silvery coat in the flying snow.
And yet, they did not attack. They swept in close alongside and Payne changed course. They were guiding him! To what fate?
He slowed and fumbled with the rifle, frozen fingers impeded by heavy gloves. He managed a shot. A sharp cracking report, then a cry of almost human pain and surprise punctuated the howling wind.
The shadows vanished. Had he killed?
A light shone through the storm, to the right, in the direction the wolves had maneuvered him. Hope soared.
Then the light was gone, a trick of his eyes. No, there it was again! He replaced the rifle in the scabbard and swerved the machine toward the light.
It was a cabin!
Desperate pounding on the cabin door interrupted her sewing.
The woman, in her chair by the window, put aside her work. She was not exactly old, and not exactly young. Her lavish yellow hair framed a clean, heart-shaped face with gentle, regular features and large, soft brown eyes.
She wore a brown woolen robe that billowed in the fierce, snowy draft as she threw open the cabin door and Payne stumbled in.
“God damn!” he wheezed, straightening up and looking around. “It’s fucking cold out there!”
She pushed the door shut against the insistent pressure of the storm and turned to view her unexpected guest in the warm light from lamp and candle. Though bundled in blue and black nylon and down foul-weather gear, he shook with cold.
She glanced at the thirty-aught-six rifle he carried. He’d pounded on the door with its stock.
“You’re cold,” she said. “Come sit by the stove and warm yourself.”
Payne leaned the rifle against a wall. He stripped off his heavy black gloves, then hood and mask, revealing a heavy, pasty face that might have been handsome once, given a different kind of life. The grease of several days without washing glistened on his dark, unkempt hair. A three-day beard darkened chin, cheek and throat.
The woman led him to a wooden rocking chair by a big black, hot wood stove. He sat, and she opened the stove’s front hatch. The woman took a small log from the nearby pile and added it to the blaze within. She closed the door.
“Let me take your coat,” she said. “You’ll warm up faster.”
He gave her the coat and other gear, stripping down to a red and white checkered flannel shirt and black denim dungarees.
While she hung them on wooden pegs by the door, Payne pulled off his heavy boots, grunting with the effort. He raised his feet, clad in white socks stained brown from the boots’ leather inners, to the hot stove.
“Shee-yit,” Payne said.
The woman returned noiselessly and handed him a brown pottery mug filled with a steaming liquid.
“What is it?” Payne asked, sniffing it.
“Tea. It’s hot. It will help you.”
“Yeah?” Payne took a dubious sip. “Hey, that’s pretty good,” he said in surprise. He slurped it down.
“Got any booze?” he asked.
“I’m afraid not,” she answered from the pantry. “I think you need food more than. . . booze.”
“Fuck that,” he said, under his breath.
The woman returned with a plate of bread and cheese, which Payne devoured. She stood by, watching, and took his empty plate.
She returned from the pantry, and resumed her seat by the window, and her sewing. Up and down her needle went. In and out.
“You’d better stay here until the storm is over,” she said.
“No shit,” said Payne.
“May I ask what brings you to this remote corner of the Northland?”
“Scouting, really,” he said. “Group of hunting outfits sent me up here to scout the place for wolf-hunting. You know, bring the rich boys up from Calgary and the States for some real-life thrills on the snowmobiles and helicopters.
“We’ve hunted ‘em out down south. Thought they were all done here, too, but it looks like they’ve come back. Don’t know how. Boys’ll be glad to hear it, though. Bet you get an offer on this place.
“Saved my fuckin’ life, that’s for sure. The storm knocked my tent down. Had to make a run for it.” Payne smiled at her. “Name’s Charlie Payne. And you are?”
She smiled. “I’m the woman who sews wolves,” she said.
“Yeah, I can see that,” Payne said, rolling his eyes. New-age bitch. He eyed with interest the wolf pelt taking shape on the yellow-haired woman’s lap and small table. “You sewed that? What’re you making, a coat or something?”
“Oh, it’ll be a real wolf when I’m done,” she replied.
“Yeah? I seen one done up in the store down at Red Deer one time. Looked fuckin’ real. Yours looks pretty real. Looks like its about to bite someone’s fuckin’ hand off.”
“You might be surprised what you can do with a needle and thread and a little magic,” she said keeping her brown eyes on the work.
“So you got a name?” he asked again. “What do they call you? Sarah or Jane or what?”
“Sarah’s a pretty name,” she said, looking up. “You can call me Sarah if you like.”
“Well, I don’t really give a rat’s ass. I’m just making conversation.”
She nodded as if she expected his rudeness. “Maybe you once knew a Sarah?”
“Yeah, I knew a Sarah. So what? She was a bitch. Wouldn’t put out when I told her to. Had a hot daughter, too. Also wouldn’t put out. Got ugly. Fuckin’ shit.
“You sure you don’t have any booze around here? Sarah?”
He rose and strode into the pantry. He opened and closed cabinet doors.
“You don’t mind if I look for myself, do you?” he said. “You wouldn’t be the first gal to hold out on me.”
She continued sewing, without answering. Up and down the needle went. In and out, and through and through and through.
“So where’s all this come from?” Payne called from the pantry. He’d finished his unsuccessful search and leaned against a counter. “You’re about 10 days truckin’ from nowhere. And this place sure as shit wasn’t here when we flew over last month. At least we didn’t see it from the air.
“Maybe it just blended in with the snow,” he said to himself. “Hard to see from the air. It’s sure here now.”
“My sewing provides,” she replied.
“So you make a living with your sewing, eh?”
She looked up from her work, as if she’d heard something unexpected.
“Yes,” she said after a moment. “That’s exactly right. Very well put.”
“Well, I’m a smart guy,” he said expansively. “And they’re going to pay me big for this report. I don’t know how the wolves got here, or how long they’ll last, but it’ll be big money while they do.
“You know I popped one off on my way here? They don’t seem scared of people. I didn’t even half aim, either. Be great hunting while it lasts.”
Payne looked out the pantry window at the night sky and the limitless snowy expanse. The storm, blowing itself out, dropped its snow gently, and silver moonlight made brief appearances on the wind-swept plain.
“Will you listen to that?” he said softly.
Mournful peals of wolf-song drifted out of the night, haunting, throaty, rising to a silvery crescendo.
“Might shoot me a few more before I go,” Payne said to himself. “I think it’s going to be a good day tomorrow.”
He looked at his reflection in the frosty window. “Hey Sarah, how about a little sugar for Poppa tonight?” he said, watching his breath cloud and condense on the cold window glass.
“I don’t think so,” she called from the other room.
“Yeah, well I don’t think it’s going to be up to you,” he muttered. Payne turned to look at Sarah, and froze.
Sarah sat in her chair, no longer sewing. A large gray wolf stood in the center of the room, head down, silver and black fur bristling, lips curled back from pink gums and savage fangs. The wolf’s yellow eyes with black pupils fixed on Payne.
Those eyes, he thought suddenly, they’re the same color as her hair! For some reason, this unnerved Payne even more than thoughts of teeth in his throat.
The wolf growled, its voice chesty and deep with menace.
“Maybe I better be going,” Payne said, trying to smile, and inching along the wall to where the rifle was propped.
“I don’t think so, said the woman who sewed wolves, and the wolf sprang.
* * *
She sat in her chair by the window, sewing. Outside, a low full moon silvered the drifting snow. The pack waited in the bright night, pacing, eager, whining.
Up and down the needle went. In and out, and through and through and through.
She surveyed her repair-work with a practiced eye.
“There,” she said. “Good as new. Next time, don’t get so close.”
She opened the cabin door to the sharp cold air of the icy winter night and let the wolf out.
It bounded off to rejoin the pack. They slipped away over the snow as silently as the moonlit shadows they cast.
She tossed Charlie Payne’s bullet into the deep snow.
# # #
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