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He found the wolf cub howling as if the world had ended. Which, for the cub, he supposed it had.
Tam Neville tried not to brood. It was a waste and a shame, his grandfather had told him, to spend the precious hours of a life complaining or grousing or doing anything less than celebrating the world the gods had made. In theory, Tam agreed.
But sometimes even he had a bad night. So when morning came he took himself into the mountains. His passion was for running, an ardor he could not overcome even with a bum leg and a dozen reasons he should give it up. He could not imagine a life without running in it.
Unfortunately, during the cold, snowy winters in Mariposa, running was impossible, so he slapped on snowshoes and headed into the high-mountain forests and meadows. It kept him in shape, kept his demolished knee from solidifying entirely, kept his lungs at full power.
On this pale pink and gray morning, the air was so sharp and cold and still that his breath hung in commas. Until he'd stumbled into the clearing, Tam had been focused on the feeling of crisp mountain air opening his lungs, sending power through his limbs. Even now, when his speed had been cut in half and he sometimes hobbled more than ransometimes paying the price later with aching knees and backhe loved the invigoration of hard exercise. It was a through-line in his liferunning around the shores of the turquoise Tasman Sea, through the forests near his grandfather's home and across parks and rugby fields.
Snowshoeing worked his legs, his chest, his arms, and the unbroken stillness of thickly blanketed mountains eased the restless heat in his soul. The snow was so deep that it was a glacial blue in the holes alongside tree trunks. He could imagine he was one of the explorer heroes of his childhood, like Magellan or Cook or Vespucci, breaking through frontiers never before explored.
he'd had a bad night, triggered by a long hand-holding session with the young widow of his late best friend Roger, a fellow smoke jumper who had died in the same incident that had mangled Tam's left leg. Zara's sobs had kept him up late, and then this morning Tam had heard the news that Elsa, his ex-girlfriend, had married the businessman she'd been angling to catch. A smaller loss, that, but still a bit of a pain.
Stinging with losses large and small, Tam came out into the opalescent brilliance of a February mountain morning to run his sorrows to ground.
It didn't take long for his natural optimism to re-assert itself. As the owner of the Black Crown, a pub in the ski town of Mariposa, he had a reputation as a genial man with a big, hearty laugh. Men liked his Kiwi accent and the vigorous, international air he lent the main street of the ski town. Women liked his thick dark curls, which he kept just long enough to amuse them, his green eyes, his easy smile.
Elsa, Elsa, Elsa. He shook his head. He didn't necessarily know what he'd seen in her except her extraordinary beauty. Which could, after all, only take you so far. He supposed it was his pride that had been bruised as much as anything.
The snowshoes swished across the top of the snow. His thighs pumped to carry him up the mountain. Sweat poured down his spine.
Last spring Elsa had wandered into the Black Crown, nearly six feet of long-haired, blond astonishment. Quite to his surprise, Tam had fallen. Hard. He told himself it was because she represented all those out-of-reach girls from his youth who'd disdained what now was sexyhis dark half-Maori exoticness.
he'd told himself it would never last, that she was on the prowl for a rich man, a very, very rich man, and that she had the cunning and beauty required to snare one.
he'd told himself she'd make his life a merry chase and he didn't need the headache.
he'd told himself many things. And not really believed any of them.
Now she had married her rich man. Her very, very rich developer husband, twice her age. Tam paused to take a long swallow of cold water from the pack on his back. Was it his heart that was wounded, he wondered, or his pride? He didn't know anymore. Elsa was so different from the usual sort of woman he picked that it seemed something had to be at work.
After a few miles the heat in his lungs began to ease away, and he circled a favorite meadow, a wide-open bowl of pristine snow above a sacred shrine called Our Lady of the Butterflies. Some anomaly of temperatureperhaps the hot springs that ran through the areamade the glade and waterfall a haven for butterflies, and even in the coldest months of January and February, one sometimes saw mourning cloak butterflies flitting about. He kept his eyes open. It was a wonder, that was sureseeing one of the delicate black butterflies landing on the snow.
Crossing the meadow above the falls, he heard the howl.
Unmistakably the howl of a wolf. He halted and looked around carefully but saw nothing. The bawling cry sounded againa little raggedwas it a pup? Tam scowled. If there was a cub in danger, there might be adults who wouldn't care for his presence. He didn't fancy a torn throat.
The cry came again, heartrending. Tam ventured into the clearing gingerly, looking around. Nothing. Only a wide expanse of unbroken snow, possibly six or seven feet deepmaybe more. They were saying it was one of the best ski seasons in thirty years.
He moved around the perimeter, listening, his instincts pricked. His training as a smoke jumper had taught him how to manage injured animals. he'd learned to be wary of them and watchful. This hidden one had that sounda small animal in pain. He waded farther into the powdery snow.
The howl bawled out again into the morning air, and Tam caught sight of something in a hollow between rocks. There was something about it that made him think it might be the hidden entrance to a den, and he approached cautiously. Obviously, there were no parents about, or they'd have nudged the babe along somewhere else.
A movement caught Tam's eye, and he whirled to see a very young cub, black-faced with a gray body, hobble out into the open, as if appealing for help. A bloody mark marred its left haunch. Tam cursed. It had been shot, but not badly, he didn't think. By the grace of God, it was only grazed, but sore enough for that.
"Ah, you poor thing," he said, and took off his shirt then put his coat back on.
Creeping close, he captured the pup in his shirt, wrapped him tight and kept the baby's mouth far away. It showed no inclination to bite him, however, but let go of an exhausted sigh that nearly ripped Tam's heart right out of his chest.
Rigging up a sling inside his coat, Tam cradled the babe close to his body and headed down the mountain. There was a wildlife refuge just outside of town. he'd take the pup there.
It wasn't until he was down the mountain, putting the baby in the seat of his four-wheel drive that he realized the fires in his chest had been quenched to nothing.
Desdemona Rousseau had been a vet long enough to know that you couldn't save every animal. Death was natural, and although it brought with it a sting, a world without it would quickly become unlivable. She respected the cycle of life.
But she hated murder, and the female wolf who had just died despite Desi's best efforts had definitely been murdered, cut down by gunshot. An ice fisherman had brought the creature in, unconscious and bleeding, and Desi had known that to save her was likely impossible, but she'd tried anyway.
With acute weariness, Desi stripped off her latex gloves and dropped them in the trash. Later a crew would come in and help her get the body ready to be shipped to a facility for students, and a volunteer would be in to help feed the wolves, but for now she was alone, and glad of it.
The call had come in before dawn. Not that she'd been sleeping. That was a rare and unusual commodity over the past three months, since her almost-ex-husband, Claude, had been murdered on a cold November night. Desi had originally been arrested for the crime, largely because there had not been enough evidence to arrest anyone else. In the end, the circumstantial case hadn't been enough to keep her in jail and she'd been released, but she was still the main suspect. The police watched her. The town, once so warm and supportive, was suspicious of her. If it wasn't for the wolves and this sanctuary, Desi would want a fresh start somewhere else.
Not that she could leave, either. Not until she was cleared completely of Claude's murder.
Maybe it was the lack of sleep making her feel so despairing and upset over the wolf, she thought, wandering through the empty clinic to the wooden porch that wrapped around the entire building. It was lined with motel-style metal rockers in many colors Desi picked up, here and there, from garage sales. Now that people knew she liked them, they brought them to her. This morning, feeling winded, she ignored the chairs and sank down on the steps.
A vet did not cry over every animal, but this time Desi put her head down on her arms and let herself weep for the senselessness of the death. If pressed, she could not have said whether she was crying purely over the wolf or maybe more over the sorry state of her life. But either way, it was a good relief.
Life seemed very hard lately.
As if to reiterate that fact, a drab olive-colored SUV pulled up in front of the clinic. The deputy sheriff who'd been the bane of her life over the past six months hiked up the back of his heavy belt and nodded at Desi. "Mornin'," Gene Nordquist said, tipping his hat. "Have some trouble overnight, did you?"
Desi just looked at him. "What do you want?, "Just checking up on you, Miz Rousseau. Making sure everything is okay." He pushed the hat back on his forehead, surveyed the land around them, like a bad actor in a bad television drama.
"It's fine." Desi clamped down on her fury, rubbed her face. "Lost a patient, that's all."
He nodded, eyes behind mirrored sunglasses scanning the area as if she were hiding bodies or big stashes of drugs. Desi knew he had three kids under five, a wife who refused to work outside the home and too many bills. This was his only outlet or sense of power, but that didn't mean she had to like him.
"Heard you've had some offers on the land," he said, " and I wouldn't want you to be gettin' any ideas or nothin"."
"Selling. Gettin" out of Dodge."