"Looks to me like a
wolf." Eddie grounded his rifle and glanced up to get his grandfather's
opinion. Gregory pursed his lips, studied the footprints, then nodded wisely.
"I think you're right. Lead
Eddie walked ahead with a
rhythmic swish-swish of padded red nylon leggings, keeping to one side of the
line of tracks. Gregory followed quietly, rifle in one hand and ammunition
pouch slung over the other arm. It didn't matter to either of them that Eddie's
rifle was a stick he had picked up from under a bush, or that the pouch was
only a plastic bag labelled Nick's
Grocery and containing a two-litre carton of two-percent milk.
It didn't matter, either,
that Gregory's long flintlock rifle was really a rubber-shod alpenstock, which
he used to help him limp along on a slightly arthritic knee. He preferred the
alpenstock to the usual cane because it looked less like a prop for age.
Right now the staff was
Killdeer, and Gregory was the legendary scout Hawkeye.
It was the blue half hour
between sunset and full night. The snow gave off an eerie glow that made you
think of undersea grottoes, or phosphorescent caves far beneath the earth. The
park was no longer the cheerful, diamond-bright place it was by day. It was a
different world, a world of mystery and strange possibilities.
Gregory walked very softly,
not letting his boots squeak in the dry snow. He was walking on magic and
anxious not to crack the fragile crust. This was a world he'd thought closed to
him forever. The door had been locked, the key lost.
Eddie/Chingachgook whispered. The old scout and the young chief stood gazing
down at the snow, reading the signs there. The footmarks had suddenly changed
their spacing, becoming much farther apart, and deeper. Over there you could
see where they closed on a line of smaller tracks. These too lengthened stride
and headed in long leaps towards a big oak. At the base of the tree was a
"He lost it," said
Hawkeye/Gregory. The chief smiled.
But they both knew what it
meant. Having missed his prey, the predator would still be hungry, and
dangerous. The tracks led away from the tree and vanished in the deepening
twilight. Chingachgook followed cautiously.
Kids hadn't changed much over
the years, thank heaven. Even, thought Gregory, if they no longer knew the old
favourites and had to learnThe Last of the Mohicans at second hand, from
When Gregory was ten, as
Eddie was now, a fresh fall of snow meant adventure. The park became a vast
forest where neighbours' dogs took the forms of skulking wolves. The houses
beyond the iron fence became a stockade to be protected, or an enemy camp. And
a child was a tall buckskin-clad Pathfinder, wilderness-wise, eagle-eyed. Ever
on the alert for ambush, whether by human cunning or crouched, lurking beasts.
But that was sixty years ago.
Decades of paper-pushing and dollar-chasing tended to deaden the imagination.
And there'd been a couple of wars in there too, that had left indelible marks.
Gregory had come to accept
reality early. He'd had to admit wonder was the province of childhood. Magic --
that mingling of fear and anticipation, that sense of astonishing things about
to happen -- lay behind a door that had wedged shut when he reached his teens.
All part of growing up, he guessed.
Once in a while, over the
years, the door had opened. Never wide enough to let him back inside, just
enough to tantalize him with an echo or a reflected gleam. Gulls circling over
a deserted beach, with something too human, too mournful in their cries. Or at
sunset, a pile-up of cumulus clouds that rose over the flat horizon like golden
hills and valleys, and faroff seas, and made him want to drop everything and
set off on a journey into the west.
This evening Gregory had
slipped back through the door. Maybe it was the spell cast by the blue
snow-light. Maybe it was Eddie who had led him in by the hand. Or maybe it was
because he, Hawkeye, was just old enough.
As they followed the line of
tracks he stopped wondering. He even stopped pretending that the dog prints
were the prints of a wolf. He knew they were wolf tracks.
The young chief was getting
too far ahead. That could be fatal: the beast they hunted was itself a hunter.
"Chingachgook! Slowly!" He pitched his call low. The boy stopped and
looked back. Silently, he pointed downward.
The wolf no longer hunted
alone. A second line of tracks, nearly as large, angled in to travel beside the
first. Its mate, no doubt. And they were heading towards the stockade, probably
hoping to catch some unwary settler outside the wall.
Now it was up to the scouts
to ward off the predators. Hawkeye stopped to adjust his flint and reload his
rifle. Then he took the lead, with Chingachgook padding watchfully in the rear.
Not so far, now, to the
stockade. The blue light was seeping away into the darkening night, the tracks
were harder to see and follow. And the scouts were approaching a dangerous neck
of the forest.
Their path lay between two
long stretches of thick brush and trees, a perfect spot for an ambush. Hawkeye
could just make out the wolf tracks as they detoured behind this cover. They
might have run on and be far ahead by now. Or -- there was no way yet of
telling -- they might be only a few feet away, watching through the bracken
with their shining night eyes, waiting for the right moment to circle around
noiselessly and attack from the rear.
The trackers stood very still
and listened. The distant buzz of traffic was part of another dimension, and
Hawkeye easily cut it out of his awareness. He heard Chingachgook's even
breathing and his own, heard the hiss of wind through dry stems, the whish-sh
of powdery snow across a hard crust.
Then something moved in the
shadows. A branch stirred, snow crunched softly. They were stealthy sounds and
they were made by something large. Something human.
Instantly Hawkeye was Gregory
again. He took Eddie by the shoulder and swung him around to his other side,
the side farthest from the noises in the shrubbery. His heart was making a
nuisance of a thudding in his ears but he disciplined his legs, made them move
at a brisk pace. He even managed to hold himself with jaunty confidence, as if
he were up to dealing with any kind of predator, instead of being an unathletic
senior citizen who walked with an eccentric cane.
The park gate was in sight,
its posts and arch a black tracery against the bright snowy street beyond. The
path towards it looked a mile long. The bushes pressed close on either side. Gregory
heard sounds on his left that told him the other was keeping pace. He must be
heading for the thin place in the bushes, the easiest place to break through.
Now the thin place lay just
ahead, three yards this side of the gate. With every step the light grew
stronger. Gregory stopped and bent down to Eddie's unalarmed face.
"You go ahead." He
placed the grocery bag in the boy's hand. "Your mother will be wanting
that milk. Go on," he said, in a
tone Eddie recognized as final.
"I'll come at my own
speed. Go on, run!"
Eddie ran. Through the park
gates, up the street, his red nylon jacket flashing in and out of the pools of
light cast by the streetlamps. Gregory watched until he was sure he'd reached
the house. Then he walked on.
He came abreast of the place
where the shrubbery thinned. To his left came a crackle of breaking stems. It
should have sent him running, but instead it paralyzed him. He was no runner,
not on that knee. Arthritis was about to make a hero of him.
He looked into the bushes and
saw, where the streetlight struck in, a bright, cold gleam like a knife blade.
Or a long claw. Or maybe -- keep your cool, Greg! -- maybe only the reflection
off an ice-coated branch. He took a deep breath to steady his disloyal heartbeat,
squared his shoulders and got a firm grip on the alpenstock.
"It's not worth it,
friend." He aimed his voice at the bushes and hoped he sounded a lot more
confident than he felt. "All I've got is a couple of loonies. And don't
think I'll make it easy for you."
The silence was dense with
listening. I'm the loony, thought Gregory, as he turned crisply on his heel and
strode towards the gate with a fair imitation of Hawkeye's firm step. But
nothing followed him. The trembling held off till he was on the sidewalk, with
cars passing along the road in front of him.
Quick, now: back to the
house, phone the police. And tell them what? he wondered, as he hurried up the
street. They'd never catch the prowler now. They might even put it all down to
an old man's frightened imagination.
Still, it had to be done.
He limped up the walk and
opened the front door of his daughter's house. On the threshold, with warm air
pouring out past him, he looked back. At the end of the street the park fence
was clearly lit. Behind the iron tracery was a lake of darkness. One big
shadow, more solid than the rest, moved for a moment and then faded back into
No, it wasn't imagination.
The world really was a vast, wild forest, a place of wonders and terrors. There
never had been a locked door between.
But here was a door, and with
a sense of relief Gregory closed it against the cold and turned the latch. He
hung up his coat and went into the living room, where his family were gathered.
Here he found warmth and
bright light, the smell of coffee and the sound of laughter. And a fire on the
hearth, a big, vigorous fire, to keep away the cold and the things that prowled
in the night.