Snow’s ethereal silvery beauty was best appreciated by someone who wasn’t having to slog through it, Ron McBride decided as he pushed past clinging white drifts. Halloween might be a few weeks away, but this far north, winter already had a solid grip. Dizzy and nauseous, he shook his head against the illusion of the dark trees merging with the sky to form a cage around him. He’d hated cages even before being held captive.
Without the strength of his enhanced muscles, the cross-country detour would have made him drop hours ago. As it was, he began to wonder if he’d made a fatal mistake. Hell of a thing if his paranoia ended up killing him. I only wanted to do what was right.
Four months of running. Four months of carrying the burden that weighed down his jacket pocket as he tried to fulfill a promise with little more than a name. The rules were simple. Never stay in one place for more than a few days. Keep moving north and west. Avoid getting drunk. Don’t be memorable. He’d failed them all repeatedly. He’d get caught up in someone else’s trouble or find himself lifting more or moving faster than human reflexes allowed. People would notice, and then he’d need to run before his hunters showed up on his trail. Sometimes a bottle offered the only hope of quieting his jangled and exhausted nerves enough to let him sleep.
Yesterday, he’d hitched a ride with a trucker who’d offered to take him as far as one of the remote supply towns in northern Canada, near the Alaska border. Ron couldn’t even remember the town’s name through the swirling fatigue fog clogging his brain. He did remember the man at the rest stop along the way, though. Dressed in plaid and jeans with a baseball cap pulled low over his features, the man poked at the collection of sunglasses, candy, and toiletries under the harsh fluorescent lights, like all the other truckers. But a jarring addition marred his traditional trucker uniform: expensive leather boots.
He didn’t know who the man was or what he was doing there, but he wasn’t about to take the chance that it had nothing to do with him. Ducking out the door, he began to walk.
Nearly twenty hours later, his choice didn’t seem very strategic anymore. There was a lot of wilderness up here. He could wander for weeks and never come across another human being. The picturesque puffs of snow floating down from the sky might make a lovely postcard, but they clung to his hat, hair, and clothes, melting and refreezing into dense chunks of ice, weighing him down. His fingers shook with cold despite being pressed into his armpits as he walked.
The light faded rapidly into grey-blue twilight. He needed to stop and build a shelter, but his body seemed to have acquired a terrible inertia. It kept plodding forward, his mind and legs equally numb. He forced his arm up to grab at a nearby tree, but his frozen fingers missed, and he smashed into the trunk, rattling his chattering teeth. Dragging himself up, he forced himself to stop and actually look at his surroundings.
Black silhouettes of pine trees jutted into the sky all around him. The steadily falling snow piled into waist-high drifts. He needed some bare ground and a fire. Numbly, he remembered a lesson from his army survival training: birch bark burned, even when wet. Staggering through the snow, he peered into the forest, searching for telltale white trunks.
His frozen fingers bled as he pried strips of bark from a birch and broke branches from a nearby pine. A small gap in the snow offered salvation. Scraping out its sparse accumulation of snow with a branch nearly did him in, but he managed the task and laid out his fire supplies with shaking hands. It took him three tries to get a match to light and another three before he got a piece of birch bark to spark and flame. Luckily, the branches were relatively dry and pitchy, catching easily and flaming brightly.
The warmth hit him like a truck, sparking an irrational temptation to crawl directly into the tiny fire to thaw his body. He clenched his jaw against the pain of blood returning to numb extremities. He’d give himself a little time to warm up, and then he’d go collect more wood and see about a shelter. Just a little time.
His weariness seduced him into dangerous unconsciousness. Ron thought he’d only closed his eyes for a moment when a snuffling sound popped them back open. Charred black twigs blended into the ground without a hint of flame, and the cold ground had leached the remaining warmth from his legs. It was dark, far too dark.
His body wanted to collapse back into sleep. A tiny piece of his mind shrieked a warning that if he did, he would never wake again. He needed to stand up and get moving again.
As he rocked back, preparing to rise, the darkness in front of him moved.
Adrenaline cleared away the twin clinging cobwebs of exhaustion and cold. The image in front of him suddenly resolved into perfect terrifying clarity. A bear stood less than five feet away from him.
Ron’s hands trembled as he watched the monstrous animal, whose shaggy head was easily the size of a man’s torso. Even on all fours, the animal’s shoulders would reach Ron’s waist, and the massive hump over them would be halfway up his chest. Standing on its hind legs, he guessed the bear would measure ten feet. Dark-brown, shaggy fur blended into the darkness except for a short slash of golden brown over its shoulder, shaped like a crescent moon.
The bear huffed at him, clacking its jaws together. Controlling his fear, Ron carefully moved up, using the tree trunks for balance. If he could go slowly enough, maybe he could get out of range before it took an interest in him. His legs were numb and sore, ensuring he would have no chance of outrunning the creature.
Except it didn’t seem aggressive.
It kept looking at him as if trying to figure out what he was. Perhaps it hadn’t seen a human before. If ignorance kept it from trying to eat him, Ron wasn’t going to push for enlightenment. He thought bears were supposed to hibernate in winter, though. He vaguely remembered reading that if a bear was awake in winter, it was considered especially dangerous.
“Good bear. Nice bear,” he croaked.
The bear’s ears went flat against its skull, exactly like an annoyed cat. It snorted and shook its head.
“You don’t want to eat me, Mr. Bear. Go on and find a pik-i-nik basket somewhere.” Ron stopped as the creature let out a low growl.
Okay, so much for the human-voice-calms-wild-animals theory. The bear reached out with an enormous paw and raked through the remains of his fire. A few glowing coals shone amid the ashy flakes. Then it poked at the remaining crisped fragments of birch bark, growling again.
When it turned and began to amble away across the clearing, Ron saw his chance. He eased himself around the trees and started walking slowly in the opposite direction. It was a good plan and might have worked if his legs had cooperated.
His stiff limbs collapsed under him, dropping him to the ground with a massive thud. The bear’s attention immediately swung back to him, and Ron’s primitive instincts took over. It didn’t matter how many times he’d been told to never run from a wild animal—his feet were pumping before his brain could consciously give instruction.
Running wildly through the woods, he heard the bear crashing behind him. This is it. I’m going to die now. He tried to summon his enhanced strength for a leap into a tree, but his abused muscles refused. He slammed into the trunk and then rolled down the hill on the far side of it, his backpack flying off and scattering his belongings across the snow.
A tree graciously halted his downward tumble, abruptly catching his head and shoulders with a tooth-rattling stop. Stunned, he could only stare at the top of the ridge as the bear looked down on him.
The life of Ron McBride ended by Canadian wildlife. Embarrassing, but at least no one would ever know. He braced himself for the inevitable crunch of jaws.
The bear, outlined against the inky sky, stared at him. Then it turned and walked away.
It left me. I’m not even good enough to eat. Instead of being a bear’s before-bedtime snack, he was going to get to die of a combination of exposure and a concussion. He patted his jacket, feeling for the hard lump. Still intact. He tried to force himself to his feet, but he was too weak. Wearily, he stared at the green and blue lights floating in the sky above. Maybe this was for the best. All the things he’d done and seen… maybe they should go to his grave with him.
Resignation pulled him down into the darkness.
Death felt surprisingly warm and soft. Ron decided it wasn’t so bad. He didn’t remember his body freezing, which was probably a good thing. He remembered a man’s voice telling him it was going to be okay. Maybe his grandfather? Pops had died when Ron was little. His father was still alive, so it couldn’t be him. It wasn’t how he’d pictured death, but he might finally be safe and home.
He took a deep breath and coughed in surprise. Why did Heaven smell like bacon? His eyes opened, but it took time for his brain to process the images. Blinking helped resolve the warm brown blur into carved wooden panels. Only a few feet from his nose, he could see the individual chisel marks. He looked down, and bright colors flared across his vision. A quilt. Several quilts in eye-popping primary colors. He patted the topmost layer with his hand, surprised at the soft, close-woven fabric.
“Good morning!” a woman’s voice cheerfully called out. He caught movement to his right, and a head appeared—one with a bright, merry smile and dancing black eyes framed by long black hair that spilled around her face like a fall of silk fringe.
He jerked back without thinking and cracked his head on the carved wood paneling beside him.
“Oops. Sorry.” She reached out to probe the tender spot on his skull. Belatedly, it occurred to him that he might not be dead.
“Where am I?” he demanded, trying to convince his adrenaline centers to relax. He wasn’t captured and being held. Not like last time.
“Bear Claw Station, part of Kluane National Park in the Yukon. I’m Lily. Let me see your fingers.” She didn’t wait for permission, manipulating his hand with strong, supple fingers. He took advantage of the opportunity to study her beyond basic threat assessment.
She was pretty, with creamy skin the color of fresh-baked bread. A pale, fine-knit sweater clung to her full breasts and slender waist. Her touch was gentle as she flexed and examined his hands. To his chagrin, Ron found himself growing hard under the blankets, and he snatched his fingers back. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had the energy to be attracted to a woman. That was something old Ron did, not the new hunted Ron.
She didn’t take offence. “I don’t think there’s permanent damage from the frostbite, but they’re going to be sensitive for a while. Are you hungry?”
“Where am I?” he asked as she moved out of sight.
“I told you. Bear Claw Station. Are you sure your head is okay?” Lily popped back into view, her smile twisting into a concerned frown.
“My head is fine. And people don’t live in national parks.” He shoved the covers away, irritated and suspecting she was laughing at him, playing him for a fool. Suddenly, he realized he only wore an unfamiliar grey cable-knit sweater and threadbare dark sweatpants. “Where are my things?”
“Doc gathered up what he could, but we had to get you back here quickly to keep you from freezing to death. Everything is over there.” She pointed to a small pile of folded clothes perched precariously on a stack of bright-yellow plastic bins. Relief sagged in his chest as he spotted the sleeve of his worn jacket poking out.
Lily continued. “This is Doc’s cabin. The ranger resupply station is about a half a kilometer away. Are you hungry?”
“I don’t need a doctor.” He’d had enough of the entire medical profession. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, jumped out, and promptly tumbled to his knees since the floor was still a good two feet below his heels.
She knelt beside him to help him up. “I should have warned you about the bed platform. Doc likes sleeping up high. Says its warmer.”
Yes, she should have warned him. He managed to regain his feet without looking like any more of an idiot in front of her. She studied him with her arms crossed and full lips pursed—neither of which helped to subdue his somewhat embarrassing erection since the pose emphasized her generous breasts and the softness of her mouth. Now that he was out of bed, he could also appreciate her long and shapely legs, outlined in black leggings. That’s not helping. Remember the rules.
“I’m not sure you should be out of bed yet.” She hesitated. “Maybe I should get—”
“You mentioned food?” He wasn’t ready to deal with anyone else. He needed to figure out where he was and get moving again.
“Sure. The table is kind of full…”
Full would have been an understatement. Small mountains of paper must have been breeding for generations to create so much accumulation. The cheap card table looked as if its skinny metal legs might collapse at any moment.
“Doc usually eats in his chair. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.” She gestured toward a worn-out armchair perched beside the stove.
Ron ignored the chair, reaching for the pile of clothes instead. The familiar hard lump still bulged inside the inner jacket pocket. He hadn’t lost it. Releasing the imprisoned air in his lungs, he exhaled as quietly as he could. He might not have much of his old self left to cling to, but he still kept his promises.
“We’re isolated. Not thieves,” Lily said quietly behind him.
He winced. “I didn’t think you’d taken it—”
“What do you have in there anyway?” she interrupted, staring at the jacket in his hands.
He pulled out the sealed grey plastic container. “The ashes of a woman I knew. I promised I’d take them back to her family.” It was the least he could do, given how he’d failed to save her.
“Sounds like she was important.”
The memory of Nada’s final moments flashed in his mind, the pop of the gun firing as blood sprayed across his face. His body wouldn’t obey his instructions, moving too slowly to stop it. Ron’s heart pounded in his chest, and his fingers curled into fists. He’d failed her. As he’d failed so many others.
Lily’s hand on his chest pulled him out of the awful memory. “I won’t push. I know what it’s like to lose someone close to you. Supper’s ready.”
As she began to scrape his meal out of the iron skillet, Ron sat down, struggling to find something to say to bridge the awkward silence. He guessed this was a cabin or cottage from the paneled walls. There was only one room, equally dominated by the heavy iron stove blasting out heat and the paperwork cluttering every horizontal surface. His gaze hit the bed he’d fallen out of: a twin mattress resting in a narrow alcove. The only bed in the tiny cabin. “Do you live here?”
“Me? No. My family has a cabin to the east.”
He shouldn’t have been relieved that Lily wasn’t involved with Doc. You have to keep moving, he reminded himself. As much as exploring this budding attraction tempted him, he needed to stay focused. Lust intoxicated as easily as liquor.
Lily continued to explain. “I help Doc out. Make sure he’s got a hot meal waiting when he gets back at the end of the day. He asked me to do cleaning, too, except then he couldn’t find anything after I moved it.” She shrugged, handing him a tin plate full of crispy bacon and soft white fish. “What’s your name?”
He hesitated. After six months of aliases, the questions should have been easy. But he felt strangely reluctant to lie to this woman.
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want.” A sad, sympathetic smile appeared briefly. “Running away from the past is our favorite community pastime.”
“Who said I was running?” Ron countered, taking a hearty bite of the fish. Fried in bacon grease, it tasted delicious.
Don’t take me for an idiot. Her pointed look couldn’t have been clearer with subtitles. “Either that, or you have a suicidal appreciation of Northern wilderness. No one goes out in a blizzard without the right gear or supplies unless they don’t have a choice. So, if you don’t want to tell us your name, don’t worry about it. We’ll make one up for you.”
“How about Too Stupid To Come Out of Snow?” He hoped it would make her smile.
It worked. Her grin lit up the entire cabin. “Maybe Man Who Hugs Trees. Or we could always go with something less Indian cliché. Like Blue Eyes.”
“How is that less cliché?” He chuckled, scraping his plate to get the last of the fish.
“It’s a mobster cliché instead of an Indian one. You want some more, Blue Eyes? I have some dried berries and mushrooms here.”
He handed his empty plate back. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten fresh-cooked food from someone other than a short-order cook. For that matter, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d talked to someone more than absolutely necessary.
The realization turned the succulent grilled fish into a flaky stone in his mouth. He couldn’t afford to forget what he was running from. And what he’d promised to do. It was the only hope he had.
“Don’t go there, Blue Eyes,” Lily warned him, perching on a stool.
He swallowed with difficulty. “Go where?”
“Whatever alone place made your eyes go all sad.”
“You don’t know what I’ve dealt with,” he said gruffly, putting aside the plate and standing up.
“You’re right. I don’t. And you don’t know us.” She watched him as he picked up his pile of belongings. “Grandfather will have us all tracking you down if you leave before Andrew says you’re healed. If we let you go now, with what you have, it would be murder.”
Just walk away. Ron shook out his jeans, fully intending to listen to logic for once. Except she was right. If he tried to go out with his jeans, a worn black sweater, and leather jacket, he’d freeze before he could reach any place with supplies. He was going to be stuck here. “Who’s Andrew?”
“My brother. Grandfather and Dad taught him traditional healing, and he did an EMT course down in Vancouver. He takes care of most medical stuff around here, stitches and stuff. He said we should be careful not to let your hands get cold again or you’d lose your fingers.” Lily seemed equally comfortable whether he was snarling or smiling. Ron had the uncomfortable impression he’d lost control of the situation.
“What about the doctor?” he asked, feeling like an idiot.
“What about him?” Lily asked, her head tipping slightly to one side.
“Why doesn’t he fix people up?”
“Oh, Doc’s not that kind of doctor. He’s a scientist. He studies bears. Population, behavior, food. All the fun stuff.” Lily waved her hand at the piles of paperwork.
“Bears.” Her explanation didn’t help him to feel any less like an idiot.
“He wants to work out ways for bears and humans to coexist peacefully. A lot of bear habitat is being ripped up with logging, mining, and new subdivisions.” Lily pulled another slab of fish out of a glass container and put it in the frying pan. “He thinks bears have a bad rap for being vicious attackers.”
The animal he’d encountered hadn’t been interested in attacking him. It had seemed curious, not hostile. He thought it might actually have been trying to be nonthreatening, but maybe the concussion was messing with his memories. “What do you think?”
“I think humans and animals aren’t as different as they like to pretend.” Lily’s words were punctuated by a quick jab of the spatula. “They both lash out without thinking, but a bear doesn’t even have to be angry to do big damage, just irritated.”
A repetitive crunching sound outside of the hut sent Ron’s senses into high alert. Footsteps. Coming closer. He glanced over at Lily. She didn’t seem concerned with anything other than the skillet. There was only one exit, the door to the cabin. He’d have to fight through whoever was coming.
“You’re disappearing again,” Lily said quietly, not looking at him. “You can trust us, you know.”
Maybe he could trust them, but they shouldn’t trust him. Lily and the others had saved his life, and he refused to put them in jeopardy. He owed them the truth. “I have some nasty people looking for me. I don’t want you to get hurt, and if they think I’ve been here…” He couldn’t finish. Memories of the dead clutched his voice with cold, stiff fingers.
Lily snorted in amusement. “Who’s going to find you? We’re past the Arctic Circle, surrounded by primordial forest. It’s a three-hour hike along a narrow trail to reach the nearest road. And then another day to drive to the nearest town, home to about two hundred people and a small airport for bringing in freight. Once you leave this settlement, you won’t see another human being for days. There are less than a dozen people who live here, and we know every single one of them on sight.” She paused. “You should give yourself time to rest and heal. There are worse places.”
Ron couldn’t quite process her words. A dozen people? Days of travel before reaching other humans? It didn’t seem possible. Intellectually, he was aware of the North’s isolation, but his mind had trouble grasping the reality. Besides, didn’t people come here to get away from other people? Shouldn’t they be rushing him out instead of helping him? He tensed, suspecting a trap. People didn’t help strangers, particularly the potentially dangerous ones. Not if they were smart.
The footsteps stopped outside the cabin, and Ron tensed at the hollow knocks against the wall before the door opened to reveal a tall, wiry man with a long, snow-dotted grey beard. His glasses steamed up in the heat, hiding his eyes, as he pulled off a snow-laden toque and jacket and shook them outside the door.
“Those tracks to the east are definitely Big Bart’s. He’s headed out to find a more suitable hibernation spot than the ones around here.” The man wiped his glasses and only then seemed to notice Ron standing in the middle of the floor. “Oh good, he’s awake. Close call there, boy. Should feel lucky.”
“You must be Doc.” Ron had been prepared for a fight, but the old man standing in front of him completely failed to register on Ron’s paranoia-enhanced internal threat meter. He looked like a doting grandfather, the kind who carved wooden toys for a horde of grandkids.
“Sure you don’t want to tack an ‘I presume’ onto the end of that? Don’t get too many chances for that line.” Doc grinned as he continued peeling off layers of protective clothing. “Osmund Svensson. Doc is fine. I assume Lily’s told you I’m not actually the useful kind of doctor.”
“She mentioned you study bears.” Ron started to wonder if everyone here suffered from some kind of shared delusion. Maybe their isolation made them eager for new faces. Or maybe they’re genuinely nice people who don’t deserve to get caught up in my mess.
“Then there’s no need to go over it again and bore you to tears. Andrew said you should stay put for a while until your hands and head are fixed up. Plenty of room in here. And Lily is a fantastic cook.” Doc winked at the girl.
“Only compared to you.” She smiled sweetly back at him, her laughter barely concealed.
“True. True. I burn everything.” He chuckled indulgently. Ron half expected him to pull out a pipe and settle in front of the fire like some kind of lean Santa Claus. For a moment, Ron let himself feel the envy roiling in his gut. He wished he could go back to the innocent days when he didn’t know what lurked behind the curtain of normalcy. He wanted to laugh with his parents and repeat jokes they’d told each other a thousand times. He wanted to not worry about strangers and questions and secrets.
“Gerry asked me not to keep you late tonight.” Doc passed on the message to Lily with a good-natured, conspiratorial grin.
Lily’s cheeriness froze, but she quickly put on a polite smile. “Supper’s on the stove.”
Ron wondered what she was hiding. An abusive family? A surge of protective violence tightened his shoulders and knotted his fists.
“We’ll see you in the morning, then.” Doc glanced over at Ron.
Lily gathered up mittens, hat, and a thick parka. As she bundled herself up, she paused to meet Ron’s eyes. “Don’t disappear on me. Give Bear Claw a chance.”
She slipped out into the twilight, leaving the two men alone in the cabin. Ron forced his hands to relax. He couldn’t walk away if she needed help.
“Great Ghost of Ursus, you weren’t thinking of heading back out there?” Doc asked, his bushy eyebrows poking above his glasses in surprise.
“It’s not good for me to stay in one place too long,” Ron answered honestly. “For me or the people who live there. Only I don’t think I’ll be ready to go anytime soon. Not if I want to survive the trip.”
Like Lily, Doc seemed to be completely deficient in survival awareness. He didn’t blink at the news of possible danger, focusing only on the practicalities. “True. I’m sure we can find some gear for you somewhere. I don’t know what you’re running from, but this is a good place to catch your breath. It’s got to be pretty bad for us to find you slumped over a burned-out fire in the middle of the forest. Especially without mitts or a parka.” Doc’s shrewdness peeked past his jovial exterior. “We’re not about to let you head out to freeze, so you might as well relax and indulge an old man with some company. Have you tried the fish?”
Lily hurried through the woods to the steeply sloped log cabin she shared with her brothers and grandfather. She wasn’t looking forward to the conversation she knew was coming. With luck, Lou would still be in the bush. Grandfather and Andrew she could deal with. Lou would be another story. She missed her twin, Mark. He could always be counted on to find the less serious side of life.
That faint hope died when she heard dogs barking. If the team was home, then Lou was back. Sure enough, a dozen dogs were frisking around their elevated squat boxes. She lingered among them, letting them sniff and jump around her in a frenzy of reacquaintance.
“Hey there, Pepper, Ginger, Molasses,” she called out softly, rubbing their wide heads with her mittened hands.
“Lily.” Her grandfather’s gentle voice cut through the dogs.
Without another word, she left the animals and went into the house. She’d been dreading this moment since Doc had first brought the man back to Bear Claw. She hung up her outer clothes with meticulous care, her stomach heavy with trepidation.
Out of the corner of her eye, she watched her brothers in the common area. Lou hunched over the table, his thick fingers twisting wire into traps. He glared at her, a roughly made leather cap jammed over his long black hair. He only wore clothes he made himself out of the animals he trapped out in the forest and tundra. Andrew was his twin’s opposite, reclining in his chair by the fire as if he hadn’t a care in the world, but his sharp eyes missed nothing. He kept his hair neatly trimmed and ordered all his clothes from catalogues.
“Is he awake?” Andrew asked. No need to clarify who.
“He is.” Lily lifted her chin defiantly.
“And?” Lou prompted gruffly.
She took a deep breath before answering. “I don’t think we’ll have to kill him.”
To be continued….