Staggerlee came to Brother North Wind’s for the blood. Cards he could play anywhere, but nobody for a hundred miles of ruts through frozen marsh could match the backcountry laments Old Tom coaxed from that pot of a banjo for putting a rounder in mind of his regrets. A cup of Evangeline’s rotgut or three, and regret became rage. That was as far as Stag had figured he could hope, until the day Delia walked in with the Wolf.
His pile had grown enough to hide his grief when one of the lumbermen, the biggest—it was always the biggest—kicked away a stool. “You’re a cheat,” he said, and spat on the floor.
Sometimes Stag cheated, to give them an excuse. No need that day.
“Nobody could’ve pulled that straight,” confirmed the chickenshit to Stag’s left, a wagon-driver, a riverman—maybe a company man, though this indiscretion suggested otherwise. “Turn up his sleeves.”
Stag knocked down the last of the bottle. The .45 stayed in the back of his belt, fitted comfortable as skin. “You all don’t know me,” he said, out of something whimsical like pity.
Chairs flew, men crumpled. Evangeline shook once-blonde hair over her cold eyes and went on wiping cups, clinking them away, sipping delicately from her own. Tom Banjo slapped his boot heel hard against the hearth and plucked out “In the Pines”, investing those moans about cold winds and What have I done? with hurt enough that Stag wondered Tom’s heart didn’t fail from the strain. Finally, Stag got the big one by the belt and laid him out.
Catching a breath amid wreckage, Stag regretted. No—not what he’d done. That the fight was over, that the whole of Fennario could field no more dangerous men. But to regret, the way other men did? Delia had asked it of him once, not understanding it was asking he regret his nature. He had made sure she learned better.
Which was why, when Delia walked in, Stag came near failing to believe it. Delia, all the way from the city, not in slinky red but scarred boots, mittens, a wool coat high enough at the collar it hid every part of her fine flesh but her face, which stayed frozen even when her eyes met his. She disappeared outside quick as she’d come; but for the Wolf, he’d have written it off as a whiskey vision.
The Wolf swaggered up to the table and sat, though there wasn’t a chair left standing. “You want to deal me in.” Was she a thing to look at: six feet at the shoulder, fur like frosted iron, lips curling from canines big as railroad spikes. Stag thought about the .45. Close quarters, and no telling it would be enough. A bullet might as well be a bee sting to a bear; the Wolf was bigger. Those were the reasons he gave himself, at least, as he righted his stool and fronted the Wolf a silver dollar.
The rounders pulled themselves together, black eyes, bloody mouths and all, collecting scattered chairs and cards, leaving eyeteeth where they lay. Stag had to laugh.
Melt dripped from the Wolf’s muzzle. Somebody dealt. Evangeline brought a bottle nobody touched. The Wolf won the first hand, king high.
The Wolf won every hand. Nobody could bluff her. She could have played open, it wouldn’t have mattered. Stag let it happen. Even when the company man abandoned his cards and his money and fled, Stag couldn’t bring himself to intervene.
The Wolf had all the money. The rounders, speechless, pushed back chairs, ready to follow the company man into the evening. The Wolf saved them the trouble. She left her winnings where they lay, licked her lips, and took their throats instead.
Tom Banjo played. The rounders screamed until they couldn’t. Evangeline got out the mop.
“This makes us even,” said the Wolf to Staggerlee, nodding to the bloody heap of coin and paper. And she sashayed out the door.
On the porch, the rocker creaked. Delia shifted the scattergun from across her lap before Stag could take a step. “Don’t you dare come near me, Staggerlee.”
The surface of the millrace blurred, stilled. Jagged firs licked at the clouds like fire. Aspens bent then straightened, their outer leaves seared paper-gray, the inner leaves still bright with life. No sign of the Wolf.
“I brought her here for you. Stupid creature. I don’t know what could be more obvious.”
Stag nodded careful sympathy but matched her cold expression. “Who you going to put your trust in, can’t trust a thing like that?”
Delia’s presence, her voice, that ragged whisper, got to him deep, an itch in his blood. He wanted her or he wanted her gone, he couldn’t sort which.
She wouldn’t kill him. She’d have done it.
“West,” she said, pointing with the muzzle, answering the other question in his heart.
He went back for rations, stepping light over the dead. A bottle of redeye in his bag, a twanged note from Tom, a last cold look from Delia, another from Evangeline. He lit out.
The Wolf left hot, bloody tracks in the sharp-bladed frost, until the blood faded. In an hour, Stag found the company man, and the tracks were bloody again.
Through dusk he walked, and past it. The trees turned to stumps, then to trees, then stumps again, rising and receding the way he’d heard tides did, though he’d never seen ocean, just the lake, vast, jagged, liquid or frozen depending on season but subject to no tide. The Wolf followed no trail, and the boughs slapped and scratched at Stag’s face and tried to steal his bag. In his head, old Tom picked at that banjo and city lights flickered in freezing lake wind, trying to tell him something.
This place was Stag’s penance, with its rounders, its timber, its swamps and interminable darknesses. Easy money, went the promises. Hard money. Frostbite. Redeye over flapjacks. Legends, if you lasted. No one did. Match flares in wind, they burned out on the work, drowned drunk in the river, fell dead from exertion while the great tree they toiled at still stood. They disappeared without warning, forever, into the timber. There would always be more timber, no matter how long and ruthlessly they cut.
He missed the city. He wanted the city’s hard edges, its long lines, its lights to swallow the crystals of his breath, its stone to echo his loping step, its smoky dens, its torches and rusted guitars. The city had turned against him for nothing he’d done; rather, for what he was. Staggerlee was the baddest mother around. Fennario was what was left to him.
At dusk, the Wolf’s track joined a logging road, deep-rutted, running with mud, a man on it in furs and skins. He carried a pack, a skinning knife, a bow unstrung, a carbine and a string of traps. He pointed the carbine at a pawprint, huge. “You after her too?”
“Seen her?” Stag said.
“Just the track,” said the hunter. “Nothing moves like that. With a purpose, like. Nothing.”
You haven’t seen everything, Stag didn’t say. “Six feet at the shoulder,” he said. “Teeth like railroad spikes.”
Stag wanted the Wolf for his own but allowed he could stand a tracker’s help. Anyway, it was too dark to follow the trail. They made camp, or something like it. Fire. The cold was the kind that began seeping in as soon as you stopped and reached bone when you tried to sleep. The wind was the wind of change, wet then frigid, curving west to south and back, loud enough that when the howls came distant, Stag waited, counting until he heard them again, then once more before he was sure.
The hunter shook his head. “Packs of them around, wondering where their timber went. When you hear her, reckon you’ll know.”
Flurries fell slant, deep blue and tiny. Stag went for another downed branch from the lumbermen’s leavings; it dragged at the earth with tips of twigs like fingernails, like it knew it was going to die. Green wood flared, crackling.
Delia regarded him from the edge of the firelight, tight black curls whipping around the coat’s hood, mittened hands wrapped around that scattergun tight like she would plunge from a trestle into an icy river before she let go. “Cold,” she said.
“Join us,” said the hunter, like he headed a table in some old-world keep, haunches of mutton steaming on trenchers and servants in wired-on antlers pouring.
Stag got another branch, broke it up and fed the fire to blazing. They sat a triangle, all three of them armed, all three shivering. Stag opened the bottle. Neither of the others wanted to share, so he didn’t.
“You even seen the thing you’re tracking?” Delia said to the hunter.
Stag tried to picture Delia and the Wolf, together on all those timber miles between here and the city. His whiskey-breath clouded.
“Just spoor.” The hunter stirred the fire, unnecessarily. “But I know how to be patient.”
Delia studied the hunter, so Stag did. For all his traps, his furs, he was just another rounder. “There a bounty?”
“Five dollars a pelt. But that’s for the regular kind.”
Stag understood. Wolves in Fennario could not be countenanced, just as that timber had to fall. What the wolves were to this forest, Stag had been to the city. What he was to this forest he didn’t know. Delia might be here to show him.
Other men regret, some newspaper man had said of Staggerlee—in print, but first outside the burning speakeasy where Delia used to sing, before Staggerlee fed him his teeth.
Songs had been written about what he was. Given the chance, he might have shot every singer down, burned every stage. Not that he disagreed; he just resented the presumption.
Delia’s eyes drooped, snapped open. Her mittened hands kept the gun trained at his feet. Fire noisily devoured green wood. Finally, her eyes closed and stayed that way.
“You knew she was behind us?” Stag said.
“Knew somebody was,” said the hunter, looking into the crackling dark, a hand to shield him from the glare. “Knew you was coming, too. What you doing here? Either of you. You’re not from here. You’re not after any bounty.”
“Nobody’s from here,” said Stag. Of course, it wasn’t strictly true. There was the Wolf.
The clouds parted, the clouds returned. The hunter too slept where he sat. As even Staggerlee began to drift, he was thinking that if he wanted he could have them both. Wasn’t sure why he didn’t. Tired, cold. Delia, the Wolf: something there he didn’t understand. He meant to. The hunter was a convenience: necessary skills, and a warm body to interpose between Delia and the Wolf—or even Delia and Stag, if it came to that, to keep them from each other’s throats. He’d wait and see. Stag could be patient too.
They woke coated in frost that split and sloughed away when they moved as if they were old giants waking to find the world changed. There was no breakfast but rotgut.
“What you got in that pack?” said Stag.
“Get up moving,” said the hunter. “Best to hunt hungry. You’ll forget about food soon enough. Catch her when we reach the lake—no place to run then. Maybe want to talk about that bounty. Monster like that, who knows what they’ll pay.”
The hunter went first with the carbine, then Stag and the .45, then Delia and the scattergun. White sun and gray shadows painted jailbird stripes between dead pines. Moss grew between the ruts. Their boots raised mud that reeked of rust.
Stag allowed that no part of the Wolf would be traded for dry goods or drink or a bad hand of cards or for flesh or a train ticket out of this wasteland. He remained uncertain the Wolf could be possessed. Nevertheless he was resolved to try—with bare hands, he thought, imagining his fingers closing below those magnificent jaws. Anyhow, a ticket out would be no use. All places were either the city or not. All places that were not the city might as well be Fennario.
The lake drew near, the air dropped cold.
“She froze to death,” said Delia in a voice so faint Stag might have thought he’d dreamed it. “I left her on the tracks, forty miles outside Kalamazoo. Thought maybe the ice of her blood would slick the rails and send your train into the river. But I’m glad it didn’t happen. Wouldn’t have been fair. There were other people on that train.”
“I never meant you any harm,” Stag said. “Either of you.”
She snorted, but it was true. For all he loved her, she had never understood him.
The hunter raised a warning hand.
When they stopped, they could hear the lake, the waves crashing: a roar like one of old Tom’s songs, the one where the little girl drowns her sister over a man and the fiddle they make from her bones sings the tale at the wedding.
A gory wolf stool lay in the rut, steaming fresh in the cold. Off to leeward, out of nowhere, out of rutted track and severed stumps and wind-nodding aspen and dead pine and dirty wash sky, rose an ancient dune. The Wolf’s track turned up it. The hunter let his pack to the ground, the traps clattering.
“Traps won’t hold her,” Stag said.
“No.” The hunter freed one anyway, the biggest, then unslung the bow and its quiver. “But bait might draw her. Anyway, I don’t want the weight.”
Stag stepped past him, bent and pulled open the pack. He reeled back. It stank. It was stuffed full of wolves’ heads.
The hunter grunted as he strung the bow. “Almost enough. Few more, maybe, I’ll retire.”
“How many more?” insisted Stag.
When the howl came, it was almost like speech, like a torch song gone wrong. Like a torch song she’d been murdered in the middle of. Delia’s pretty face took on hard lines under her sheepskin hood. Stag’s heart constricted.
“She knows we’re here,” the hunter said.
“You never killed a wolf like this one.”
The hunter pried open the trap and laid it out next to the pack. “We split up,” he said. “I go crosswind, you go up. Scent will draw her. You,” he told Delia, “keep back.”
She snorted. The mitten twitched around her trigger finger.
The hunter moved away uphill, zigzagging, almost silent, not quite.
“Relax,” Stag told her.
The scattergun’s muzzle shivered as she aimed it at his chest. “Don’t you tell me to relax, Staggerlee. I came all the way out here so bastards like that one—” she spat “—like you, couldn’t hurt me anymore. But it’s all bastards. Monsters everywhere you run. Thought I’d get one of my own, even that wasn’t enough. You did this to me. You burned my life to the ground, you gave me a child, then stole her away. You don’t get to tell me nothing.”
She was beautiful like this, like she’d been that night. He wanted her. He couldn’t fear her. It wasn’t his nature. She couldn’t kill him. She would have done it.
He wanted the Wolf more.
Stag kicked over the hunter’s pack. The trap sprang closed with a ravenous snap. Delia spooked, and the scattergun went off, boom. It didn’t hit him. She didn’t seem surprised.
Now the Wolf knew they were coming.
He drew the .45 and left Delia reloading, trembling, in the lake wind. He went left like he’d been told, but only barely, steeper than the hunter, slower, letting him get ahead. The wind froze half his face as he climbed.
From the hilltop, the lake came in sight, a filleting blade beyond the trees, the blue of spirit fire.
The Wolf met him, grease-mouthed and smiling, just past the dune’s crown. Between them lay an elk, an old kill half-devoured—maybe the last elk, like the Wolf was the last Wolf, the only Wolf, like Stag was the one and only Staggerlee, and everyone else, everyone and everything, even Delia, came a dime a dozen.
The Wolf was hulking, all shoulders and neck like a brawler. How could she still be hungry after eating all those men? What a thing to behold. What a fight it could be. Stag tested a fist, open, closed; it had killed men. A woman once, though not on purpose. A child, if Delia was to be believed. It had never killed a bear. Not even a dog.
The hunter crouched behind a downed trunk ahead. The carbine lay in the mud; he knew as well as Stag a puny pistol bullet wouldn’t do the job. He nocked a long arrow and drew.
Stag respected that bow; it was ancient and decorous; it made him respect the man who carried it.
Not enough. Not nearly. He shot the hunter in the back. The .45 roared loud, the way he liked it, so when you’d done it you were deaf a minute. The arrow fishtailed away over the dune.
When the lake wind came back, Stag realized the Wolf was laughing. “Told you we were even,” she said.
They were even. They were the same, in no way Staggerlee and anyone he’d ever known had been the same.
He rolled the hunter over with a kick, exposing wax eyes to wind-bent treetops. Too easy. He shoved the .45 in the back of his belt and got the bottle from his bag. He dropped the cork. He spilled some liquor on the corpse. It smoked.
He toasted the sea of swamp and timber that was Fennario. He toasted the rounders, the lumbermen, the little packs of wolves who would drag them off forever into the timber until there were no more of either. He toasted the lake, its ocean vastness, the city far beyond it drinking the lake, drinking the blood of wolves, devouring the timber, driving away what loved it, what it couldn’t countenance or bear to destroy. He toasted the Wolf.
When at length Stag looked up from what he’d have sworn was no kind of prayer, Delia was stepping past him.
She paused to spit, at the dead hunter or at him, then not again until her boots shared the old red mud with the Wolf’s red paws. She placed a mittened hand in the Wolf’s dried-bloody fur and clenched tight.
Stag toasted Delia for good measure, then threw away the bottle.
“Don’t you dare come any closer, Staggerlee,” Delia said, “you fucking monster.”
The Wolf grinned, inscrutable, unfathomable.
Stag wondered how her jaws would feel around his throat, her body with its coarse fur a furnace against his. God, he wanted her. Back at Brother North Wind’s, Old Tom would write songs about this fight, after none of them was left alive to hear—not Delia, not the Wolf, not Staggerlee. Maybe Evangeline would sing, in a voice terrible as her whiskey.
Somewhere among the drink and wind and distance and prayer, Stag found it had all come clear. It wasn’t death he wanted, though death would have been no easy thing to come by. No rounder could have done it, no hunter, no big city sheriff. The Wolf could give him death; and death, better even than whiskey or a cold lament or pain, was the ultimate forgetting. But Stag wanted more. What he wanted from the Wolf was love.
Delia pushed back the hood of her coat, looking from the Wolf to Staggerlee. Then she pulled off her mittens one after the other and dropped them in the bloody mud.
Her face was still frozen, so he couldn’t read what was there, but then she’d never had much trouble reading his. He’d never before been bothered to care. Now, he regretted.
Delia raised the scattergun wobbling to the base of the Wolf’s jaw and pulled the trigger.