The sound of his own ragged breathing filled his head. The darkness hung heavy, moonlight vanishing, and his vision blurred again as he swung his head to the left and saw trees looming there, though not the same woods where he had hidden before. He had left those behind. How far had he run? Half a mile, at least, yet he could still hear the snuffling and growling of the Wendigo.
The roar swept over him like a gust of wind, far closer than half a mile back…and he knew the Wendigo had abandoned the camp. Jack pictured that black maw, stained with gore, and opened his mouth in a silent scream.
Run, boy, run! he thought. And it did not escape him that in the grip of utter terror he had for a moment lost the sense of himself as a man and fallen back upon the perceptions of the rest of the world, whose eyes looked upon him and saw only his age. Just a kid.
And he rejected it.
He had defied the wild, died in its embrace and yet lived, challenged it to do its worst and yet survived. In the combat of man versus nature, Jack had snatched victory not from the jaws of defeat, but from the grasp of death. He was no mere boy.
On he ran. The night closed in and then retreated, again and again, as he passed through shadows and into moonlight. Branches whipped at his face when he found himself in woods, and on rocky slopes and ridges he stumbled more than once—the stones hammering at his knees and scraping his hands—knowing even as he rose that the smear of his blood would leave a scent trail that the Wendigo would easily follow.
Yet he did not stop, and if he slowed he barely noticed. The frigid night soaked into his bones; his empty stomach tightened to a painful clenched fist; his cracked ribs grated and set his jaw on agonized edge. And when at last he heard the Wendigo roar again—or perhaps only the howl of a whipping wind—it seemed farther away.
Always, the wolf raced ahead or darted back. It nipped at his hands when he faltered and the darkness at the edges of his vision flooded in. Three times he staggered and swayed, head bowed, body shaking, and three times the wolf snatched his right hand in its jaws, fangs pinching skin, waking him, tugging him onward until he stumbled into a jostling, bone-jarring run again.
How far had he come? Miles, at least, and in no discernible direction.
And then, eyes half lidded, he lost track of the wolf for a moment and aimed for the low, golden eye of the moon. One foot in front of the other—left, right, left—until the ground vanished beneath him. His right foot came down, but the ground had fallen away. His heel found purchase a foot lower than anticipated, but too late. Momentum carried him over the edge of a gully and he tumbled, limbs flailing, down the rocky slope until he came to rest at its base.
Jack tried to rise, but this time his body would not obey. Chill wind whipped along the gully and he shivered, but then he lost even the capacity for such involuntary functions.
He heard the wolf’s howl nearby but could not respond to the call of the wild. Not this time. He listened for a roar that might signify the Wendigo’s reply, and so listening, he drifted. Darkness coalesced at the edges of his vision, and he could do nothing but surrender to its embrace.
He woke to pain. Unlike a hundred other times when he had come slowly from an injured or drunken sleep to find a sense of dislocation, he recollected everything the instant his eyes opened. Pain had kept his memory fresh. So clear were his thoughts now, so devoid of the disorientation he had felt all during his flight from the Wendigo, that for a moment he thought he had never fallen unconscious at all.
And then he saw the girl, and the world tilted yet again.
He felt soft fur against his cheek, but it was not the sleek coat of the wolf upon which he lay. Rather, he had been swaddled like a child in the warmth of animal hides, the fur plush around him, gentle on his bruised and battered form. A quartet of trees created a silent audience, and through their branches he saw the promise of dawn lightening the sky.
Beside one of the trees there stood the girl, watching him as shyly as a child hiding behind its mother’s apron. Her black hair hung past her shoulders, fine as spun silk, and in that first hint of morning, her almond-shaped eyes gleamed like copper pennies amid the elegant lines of that exotic face. She wore boots akin to those favored by the local tribes and an ivory-hued cotton dress, but nothing else. Despite the cold she had no jacket, and though she breathed, he could not see the plume of her breath upon the chill spring air.
In all his life, he had never seen a more beautiful girl. She might have been sixteen or twenty—he had no way to gauge—and the sight of her made him question the clarity of mind he had felt grateful for only moments earlier.
His breath came slowly and easily, and though he was aware of the pain in his cracked ribs, it felt distant to him. A strange taste filled his mouth, and he ran out his tongue only to find some kind of earthy grit upon it. Jack spat, and a rich odor filled his nostrils as he tasted herbs.
The girl cocked her head with birdlike curiosity, and he understood that this was something she had done—put these herbs in his mouth—perhaps as some sort of remedy. Or had someone else done it? Surely she couldn’t be alone out here in the wilderness, a beautiful young girl…astonishingly beautiful, stealing his breath…without even a coat?
He tried to raise himself up enough to look around but did not have the strength. His arms would not hold him, and his racked, beaten body sang an anguished song of protest at the merest effort. For a moment his eyelids fluttered, but he forced them open, refused to relinquish consciousness again now that it had been returned to him.
On his side, he let his head loll back, scanning the trees and the landscape beyond for some sign of other members of the girl’s tribe or family, but he saw no one.
“Who are you?” he croaked, his voice ragged. “Did you”—he ran a trembling hand along one of the furs that covered him—“did you do this, bring me here?”
Twenty feet away, the girl moved fully out from behind the tree, though she kept one hand upon its bark as though it comforted her. When she smiled, he saw such natural innocence in her that his heart broke just from looking at her, and he cursed his weakness and injuries for preventing him from rising that very moment so that he could be closer to her.
Jack had no touchstone by which to recognize love. He had been infatuated before, and fascinated, and even mesmerized by girls once or twice, but he had never been in love. Still, he did not think what he felt in that moment was love. It felt more like sheer wonder.
He had to blink to clear his mind of her smile, and in that instant when his eyes were closed, he thought of the wolf, the spirit animal he considered his guide. The wolf had led him to safety, but now, as the eastern sky chased away the indigo night with the first light of morning, the beast was nowhere to be seen.
Only the girl. And it struck him again how odd it was that she had no coat, only that dress and her boots, and for a moment he stared at her and wondered if somehow his mind might not be as clear as he had thought. Were his perceptions skewed? Could the girl and the wolf be one and the same?
She laughed softly, raising a hand to cover her mouth, as though she had read his mind or at least seen the question in his eyes.
Jack felt himself fading, his awareness slipping. Whatever she had given him could not compensate for the exhaustion that drained him, for the need his body felt to rest and recuperate from the beating he had taken. He had heard of horses ridden too hard for too long that had simply collapsed and died, and he knew sometimes people went the same way. He did not feel death hovering nearby, but his body seemed weighted with surrender. Without help, without food, exposed to the elements, he would die out here.
Or not, as the girl and her tribe saw fit.
Yet there seemed to be no tribe.
“Who are you?” he asked again.
The wind shifted, a gust rustling the branches overhead, and Jack froze. The breeze carried a familiar scent: the gut-churning stink of fresh blood and rotting meat that he had inhaled last night, face-to-face with the cursed devil of the Yukon.
The girl halted, nostrils flaring, eyes wide, legs slightly akimbo, and staring at her he could only think of a deer ready to bolt.
“Run,” he said. He swallowed hard, and whatever she had put in his mouth tasted like cinnamon. Terror had exhausted him, and he knew he could flee no farther. Someone had moved him in the night, brought him here, but the Wendigo had tracked him, and it was close.
Close enough to smell.
Jack felt curiously detached from himself. If the wild claimed him on this chilly spring Yukon morning, then so be it. He would force himself to stand, and if he could manage to raise his arms, he would fight, and he would die here, one more meal for the Wendigo.
In the distance, it roared.
“Run, damn it!” Jack rasped at the girl.
She did, but not away. In the space of three heartbeats she crossed the ground between them and fell to her knees, pressing the fingers of her left hand over his mouth as she shushed him. Jack tried to argue. He could hear the Wendigo coming nearer now, branches snapping not far off. It must be close, for he thought he heard its low growl and the clacking of its teeth as it gnashed its jaws.
Foolish girl. What did she think she was doing? He would plead with her, shout at her, make her run.
He forced himself to his knees, swaying, and got one foot under him. Pain swept over him with such sudden force that it felt as though he received each bruise afresh, pummeled by invisible blows. Teeth grinding, taking quick sips of air because breathing freely might make him vomit, he began to rise.
In all his life, he had never imagined a task so difficult.
The girl dragged him down. She put a finger to her lips, and he wanted to scream at her, to tell her that she might have killed them both. A dreadful exhalation burst from his lungs as he hit the ground, but the girl kept moving, pulling at the furs she had wrapped him in during the night. Now she tugged them over the two of them, climbing on top of Jack as though protecting him with her own body. So close, so intimate, her breath deliciously warm at his throat, her whole body smelling of cinnamon.
“No,” he whispered.
She fixed him with a gaze that quieted him, full of knowledge and purpose. “Hush,” she said, surprising him with a word in his own language.
They lay still together under those furs, hearts beating so close together. Despite all his pain and all his terror, the awareness of her proximity, the feel of her body cleaving to his, made him tremble with something other than fear.
The Wendigo roared, so close it must have been there in the square formed by those four trees, towering above them. The morning light might have illuminated it fully, cast aside some of the dark mystery it had cloaked itself in. But Jack feared that the monster might be more spirit than solid, a curse given flesh, and he did not wish to see.
The stink of it choked him. He bit his lip to keep from retching, and to stop himself making a sound. At any moment it would tear away the furs, snatch up him and the girl, and begin to slash at them with those curved talons, to strip their flesh and gnaw their bones. Hide here, trembling beneath a fur? The girl must be mad.
He closed his eyes and steadied himself, taking long, slow breaths. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Moistening his dry, cracked lips with a swipe of his tongue, trembling with the girl atop him, he listened to the grunting and gnashing of the Wendigo and heard amid those sounds a quiet chuckle, like the secret enjoyment of a madman. Once upon a time, the monster had been human, and its ravenous hungers sprang from the font of soulless human need.
It searched for them. It scraped at roots and thumped at the trunks of trees. Yet somehow, though the dawn blossomed into morning with each passing moment, and they lay there exposed, covered only by furs, the Wendigo could not find them.
Astonished, feeling every moment as though his luck would end, Jack opened his eyes and stared up at the girl, her beauty so immaculate and otherworldly. She cocked her head slightly, her eyes sparkling with something akin to amusement. Once again she pressed a finger to his lips to assure his silence, but then that finger traced through the tangle of beard that his journey had earned him.
It felt like magic, the two of them impossibly hidden.
He could feel the presence of the Wendigo as though its existence alone was enough to pin him there. But then he heard the piping of birds, and their song merged with the hungry prowl of the monster, and its own sounds changed. The Wendigo growled in confusion, perhaps troubled at having lost the scent it had followed. Or perhaps the true arrival of morning unsettled it, for such a creature surely belonged to the night.
Branches cracked and birds took flight with a loud flutter of wings, but Jack listened to its steps receding and knew that the monster had given up the hunt.
Soon all he could hear were the birds and the wind and the soft breathing of the girl, and all he could feel was the beating of their hearts and the pain that returned to him in wave after wave.
“I have you, now,” she said. “You are safe with me.”
She kissed the tips of her fingers and touched them to his forehead like a blessing. A benediction. Then she threw back the furs and the bright sunshine forced him to close his eyes, and he found comfort with them closed.
His body demanded that he rest, and with the girl kneeling beside him, gently touching his hair and whispering to him in a language unlike any he had heard spoken by the northern tribes, he succumbed at last. As unconsciousness claimed him, an errant thought skittered through his mind; he wondered how this girl, really no more than a slip of a thing, had carried him to this clearing of four trees from the gully where he had collapsed the night before.
And then his thoughts were silent, the curtains of his mind were drawn, and the lights went out in his head. Only sweet birdsong accompanied him into the darkness, and the touch of her slender hands.
“I have you, now,” she said. “You are safe with me.”
He woke to a fairy tale.
At first he felt only the fur against his cheek, but as consciousness slowly returned, he became aware that—for the first time in days—he was warm. Warmer, by far, than he had been inside the Dawson Bar. In truth, Jack felt warmer than he had since departing San Francisco the previous summer, and he lay there on the fur and luxuriated in that heat.