We pulled into Jack Hill’s place just before sunset. Situated along one edge of a high mountain valley some miles outside of the tiny hamlet of Ovando, Montana, the property extended well into the foothills.
Tania didn’t spot the eagle pair spiraling upward above us. She was too stunned. Had been stunned from the moment we took the gravel road up through Helmville Canyon. Her eyes had gone wide as we eased up through the steep cut at 45 mph–faster than I’d have run my first time through, but we were right on Jack’s tail, and he knew the way.
“It’s so…” she breathed, at a loss for words.
“I know,” I replied softly. “Hits me that way, too, and I grew up like this. The Idaho ranch sits in similar country.”
“I…had no idea.”
There was nothing to say to that. How could she have any realisitic idea about the Big Sky Country, having been born and raised in the inner city depths of Hartford, Connecticut?
I squeezed her hand. “Let’s go meet Jack’s people, honey.”
We stepped out of the Pontiac. Our benefactor had been out of his Subaru almost before the wheels stopped turning, mobbed by the three-person rush who launched themselves from the ranch house deck. They latched onto the old man like limpets, all three of ’em, one great tangle of limbs and exclamations.
“…missed you so much!” “We’re so glad you’re back!” “Tawny had her kittens!”
Maybe he really was doing ’em all. At any rate, the male of the three was definitely a flamer. Reminded me of Jack from Will and Grace. The octopus knot broke up after a bit, and Hill made introductions.
“This is Treemin–”
“Call me Tree.”
“Tree and Tee!” The flamer giggled like a schoolgirl. Man, where’s Heath Ledger when you need him?
Oh. Right. Dead.
The girl who’d first tackled Hill turned out to be Carolyn West. I found it easy to remember her full name, maybe because she was a looker. Gray hair, but that was clearly premature; she couldn’t be more than forty. Of a height with Tania, not quite as stacked, but solid, with a rectangular face, ice blue eyes. and plenty horny for her man. In fact, the chemistry oozed from her.
As we all trooped into the house, things began to sort themselves out. Carolyn appeared to be Jack’s main squeeze for sure…and very much in charge of the other two.
The Jack McFarland flamer clone? He went by the name of Wayne Bruce. Flip-flop thievery of Bruce Wayne, Batman’s billionaire alter ego. No doubt.
And Sissy Harms. Lord, I wouldn’t want to be stuck in public school with a name like that. Sissy stood nearly six feet tall, clearly below Carolyn but above Wayne in the pecking order. Definitely not Caucasian.
Jack caught me looking. “Tell ’em, Sis,” he grinned.
“You’re wondering what I am? I mean, other than the best looking female on planet Earth?” The big woman–had to be 180, mostly muscle–waggled her eyebrows up and down to show she wasn’t serious. There was strength in this one, humor in the eyes, but she wouldn’t be winning any beauty pageants in the foreseeable future.
I nodded dumbly.
“Blackfoot, Crow, Arikara, and some transplanted Nigerian back there in the woodpile.”
“Ah.” I had it. Back on my game now, replied straightfaced. “Those dang Arikara throw me off every time.”
She roared with laughter. “You brung us a good ‘un this time, Jack!”
Tania, of course, had no idea what was so funny.
They put us up in the guest room for the night. “We’ll get you squared away in the mobile tomorrow,” Jack explained. “You’re going to want the day to settle in before sleeping there.”
Figured he said that for my woman’s benefit. I can sleep anywhere, with or without “settling in”.
Supper was beef stew that had been simmering all day in a crockpot, followed by a top quality cherry cobbler. It was a pleasant time, easy conversation, with only one clinker. Wayne the flamer was seated right across from me, and his cowboy boot kept “accidentally” bumping into mine under the table. Maybe he had a thing for big black men.
That stopped when Sissy happened to catch him at it, though. Don’t know what she whispered in his ear, but he straightened right up.
Tania volunteered to help with the dishes. I liked that.
Then, after the coffee pot had run dry, we went to see the kittens. Tawny turned out to be a gray tabby, but her litter–birthed in a sizeable cardboard box lined with towels and situated in the master bedroom closet–had obviously been sired by a remarkable variety of fathers. The babies still had their eyes closed, of course, but you could see there was a black and white Sylvester type, a calico, two orange guys, two grays, and one jet black in the bunch.
Where did Mama find that many baby daddies out here in the boondocks?
“Eight?” Tania asked, on her knees beside the box. Mother Tawny didn’t seem worried about us.
“Eight,” Carolyn confirmed.
“Can I have one? I mean, when they’re older? Maybe two?” She asked the question of all of us, not knowing who was the Kitten Decider and/or whether I had a problem with cats. Plenty of people did.
Turned out Jack and Carolyn made the giveaway decisions jointly. Yep. She was definitely his main squeeze. Though the others…okay. I was curious, but only mildly so. Mostly, I was bemused. About the kittens, not Hill’s housekeeping arrangements. Two? They’d always have a buddy that way, when we were gone. We were both going to have to find work, and soon, so they’d be without us a lot.
Well. It would be some weeks before they were ready. What the hey.
An unearthly howl sounded, outside somewhere. In the dark. The pitch dark. Dark of the moon.
Instinctively, Tania darted to me. I put my arm around her, looked at Jack. “Wolves?”
“Yep.” He nodded. We all headed back to the kitchen, where flamer Wayne busied himself fixing two pots of coffee. I could tell no one in the room was thrilled to hear those wolf howls…and I knew now why our host did not want us alone in the mobile home tonight.
We needed both acclimation…and Tania, at least, needed education.
“Wolves don’t attack people, do they?” It was a logical question, given the liberal P.R. presentations on Canis lupus she’d swallowed whole, back in Connecticut. But out here, having literally no other human habitations within sight even in daylight, no city lights, it was different. The howl of the hunting pack bypasses such things, goes directly to our innermost depths where our ancestral memory knows better.
She shivered nervously when she said it.
I knew the answer, but I let Jack Hill handle it. The centuries-old man had a soothing way about him when he needed to–especially, I’d noticed, with women.
“Wolves were effectively wiped out in the lower 48 states until a few years back,” Jack explained, mostly for Tania’s benefit. “But then conservation groups managed to politic their way through the opposition enough to reintroduce them in Yellowstone Park. Which went well…from the wolves’ viewpoint, anyway.”
“The wolves’ viewpoint?”
He looked tired as he replied. Of course, it had been a long day. “The elk, deer, moose, and coyotes are not all that thrilled about it.”
“From there, they–the greenie weenies–went on to the next step. They’ve always got a next step, be it gun control, or jamming livestock killers back down the throats of the people. Now they’ve got more than a hundred wolf packs going in western Montana and northern Idaho. Happy Days.”
“But…” My sweetheart thought about that. She’d studied all sorts of wildlife history, I suddenly remembered. It was a passion of hers. Not that books and reality generally match up all that well. “That’s a good thing, right?”
“Depends on your point of view. Again, if you’re a wolf, it’s a mighty good thing. If you’re a rancher who has to deal with his cows and calves getting torn up and his horse herd run hard, not so much. If you’re an elk herd, you’re in for it.”
“In for it?”
“In for it. There’s an old friend of mine–actually, we’re related, but he don’t know it. We stay in touch, mostly by email. He’s no spring chicken, in his late seventies now, but for most of his life he was a serious hunter. Elk season every fall, that was his Christmas. His favorite hunting grounds were up around Lolo Pass, that’s some rough country on a back road between Montana and Idaho.
“Back in the day, he tells me, that area flat-out teemed with elk. One time, he hunted there for seventeen straight Novembers, never got skunked once. Said you didn’t even have to be Daniel Boone to get it done; if you just sat still under a tree long enough, somethng shootable would wander by.”
The coffee was ready. Big Sissy got up to pour–oh, man, school must have been rough for her.
“It’s not that way now?” I asked. Many of my old schoolmates in Idaho had been elk hunters by the time I started acting out…but that was six years ago. The wolf reintroduction had been up and running by then, but it sounded like….
Jack shook his head. “Nope. My contact tells me his old hunting partners, younger men who still go out every year, couldn’t find hide nor hair of a single elk this year. Not a pile of droppings, not a rubbing where a bull had gotten rid of his velvet, no tracks, no bugling, nothing.”
“Damn,” I swore softly.
“Double damn,” he agreed.
I struggled to pull up the memory of a news clip I’d seen. An eidetic memory is a good thing to have, but tired as I was from our seemingly endless journey…there are limits.
Got it. “Both states have wolf hunting seasons now, right?”
“And the conservation types scream bloody murder–literally–while the ranchers keep on losing livestock?”
We were all silent for a time–a long time–sipping our coffee, listening for the howls. They came again, finally, but clearly more distant. The pack was moving off.
In the end, it was me that broke the silence. “Something’s troubling you deep, Jack.”
“Getting to know me pretty well, Tree.”
“Here’s the thing.” He looked at Tania. “When it comes to saying whether or not a wolf pack will attack a human, the rules go out the window. Even in the old days, back in the 1800’s, there were those who claimed wolves never jumped people…and those who knew better. For the most part, they don’t, for whatever reason.
“But there are, and always have been, exceptions. A wolf who understands rifles will generally stay clear. But they’re predators. Not only that, they’re alpha predators. Meaning they’ve got millions of years of history behind them, all telling them they’re at the top of the food chain. If they ever get hungry enough, look out.”
I could feel my sweetheart tensing up beside me. “Relax, honey,” I told her. “Right now, even if they’ve cut down the elk herds, they’ve still got easy pickings with the livestock around here. You’re safe enough.”
She relaxed…a little.
“What Jack’s getting at,” Carolyn put in, her blue eyes brimming with sympathy for the fear she could see in Tania, “is that we all need to understand the situation. No B.S., no fear, no worry, just get it right and deal with it. Like you must have done all your life in the city. There are plenty of wolves there, too, only they’re human wolves.”
“And coyotes, and plenty of rats,” Tania agreed. We all chuckled, and things were better. We got off into a discussion of the dangers to be found in Hartford then, chit-chatted for nearly an hour. My fatigue was there, but not as pressing as it had been, and the others seemed to feel the same.
It was a bit after 9:00 p.m. when Jack steered us back to the topic of wolves.
“Don’t know about the rest of you, but I could use some sack time,” he admitted, giving Carolyn a look that clearly indicated sleep was not exactly what he had on his mind. “However, let me wrap up the wolf thing first.
“Tania, wolves are never to be underestimated. I love ’em, like I do all of God’s creatures, but tell you true, I’d feel more at ease if they were flat-out extinct. Any predator that runs my weight or better can be deadly. The libs say mountain lions won’t attack humans, either, but sometimes they do.
“Specifically, you’re in no danger at all as long as you pay attention to the rules out here. Number one, you don’t go outside after dark without a good reason. If you must, then you want to have a good flashlight with you, a firearm with some stopping power, and preferably a companion. Pay attention to your intuition, don’t freak, but just let the rest of us know if you hear or see or smell something that doesn’t seem quite right.”
Tania looked thoughtful. “In other words, this is just like the city. Sort of.”
“Yep. Sort of.”
“Jack, Tree is not the only one who can read you a bit. All evening, I’ve been picking up on something you’re not saying. There’s…it’s like you talk about wolves in general, and then when you talk about these wolves, the ones out and about in this year of 2012…there’s something different about these reintroduced animals, isn’t there?”
He heaved a sigh. “There is. With some of ’em, at least. My friend, the one who emails me? The ex-hunter? He sent me some pictures of wolves taken in the Idaho hunt last year. And I didn’t like what I saw.”
“Oh. They were huge, the ones hunters had their pictures taken with. Bigger than the wolves of a couple centuries back. But beyond that, there’s something off about some of ’em. The form, something in the muzzles for sure. I’ve got an instinct for these things, and what I’m seeing–well, it looks to me like somebody bred ’em up, added a bit from one of the giant dog breeds in there.
“In other words, I don’t know exactly what’s out there these days, and yes, it scares the crap out of me.”
On that cheery note, we’d gone to bed. Sweet dreams, children.
Tania was willing, but I told her I had a headache. Which was almost true; there was a thought spinning around in there, trying to get out, and it hurt. I held her wrapped in my arms, wide awake while she drifted off to sleep.
Not until her body had fully relaxed and her breathing evened out did it hit me–but when it did, it was a thunderbolt.
Jack Hill had spoken about the wolves of the 1800’s being smaller, not as huge as those prowling the darkness outside this home’s stout log walls. With narrower muzzles, he’d said. That had struck me at the time, something about the way he’d said it…and now I knew why.
Jack–going by another name back then, of course–had fought in the Civil War. He’d been alive in the 1800’s, had seen wolves when their numbers were still so high they roamed the prairies freely, stalking the great bison herds. In other words, he was not guessing about this, not going by mere library or Internet research; he actually remembered the earlier wolf packs.
Whoa and double whoa. If he remembered them as different from those of today–and I accepted that he did–then they were indeed different. At that moment, I understood the long-lived Protector’s concern.
What sort of beasts, truly, now stalked the Montana night?