Shadow of the Soul
 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Washington Territory –1870

 

A piercing howl echoed off snow-laden slopes and faded into silence among the mountains’ rugged peaks. In the distance, a rogue wolf slinked beneath a stand of Douglas firs and disappeared over a ridge, leaving behind his carnage.

 

Four mangled pups lay in the shadow of a she-wolf’s spindly legs.  An icy glaze crusted over their crumpled forms. Blood dripped from the mother’s ragged lip, and her chest heaved, forcing spurts of hot mist from flared nostrils. Nuzzling one, then another, she licked with gentle touches, searching for any sign of life. Flanks sunk deep into her emaciated body that swayed against a frigid wind.  She pawed at the bloody carcasses, dragging them closer, wanting to rake them back into her womb. But the snow piled deeper atop the little ones, burying them in a white sepulcher. Rearing her head, she unleashed a mournful cry--a requiem.

~*~

On a crest above the valley, Aaron Moore listened to the wolf’s eerie howl while he tied off the last piece of rope anchoring the tarp over the buckboard. As soon as he finished, a strong gust of wind whipped across the clearing and rattled the cover. The canvas billowed and bucked like some creature wanting to be free, but the knots held.

Gray clouds hung low and heavy over the valley, threatening to strike with a fury. The thought of fighting a winter storm on the narrow ledges and sharp curves of the mountain, especially with an overloaded wagon and a pregnant wife, set his nerves on edge. The sooner they reached the community of Lizard Creek the better.

“You ‘bout ready?” he shouted. “Storm’s moving in fast.” He called again when wife didn’t answer.  “Leah?” Anxious to get underway, he hurried through the log cabin’s opened doorway in three long strides. “Woman, what are you--”

His small, frail wife of three years leaned against the stone fireplace, clutching her stomach. Auburn hair fell across an ashen face, and her mouth twisted into a silent scream. “Help me,” she cried. Her body slid down the wall to the rough, cedar-planked floor.

Bolting across the dimly lit room, he lifted her into his arms. Her wool coat, worn thin throughout the years, would offer little warmth against the elements. What pelts they didn’t sell, she insisted on making a coat for him. “It’s okay,” he said, looking into green, frightened eyes. He lied. This wasn’t good. He planned to be off the mountain and with the doctor when her time came. The thought of delivering the baby terrified him. “We can do this. Why having babies is a natural thing. Remember what Doc said?  It’ll get here in spite of us.” He forced a smile, hoping to mask his fear and reassure her.

“Easy...for you...to say.” She eked out the words through tight lips.

         Brushing back soft curls from her face, he kissed her damp forehead.  The sight of his leathery hand against her soft skin made him wince. Could his callused fingers do the work of a midwife? He wanted so to be gentle.

         In the corner of the room, he spotted the horsehair mattress they had decided to leave behind for any passersby. She deserved better. Having no other choice, he laid her on the unmade ticking and prayed her labor would be swift.

            Her eyes widened, and her nails dug into his wrists as the next contraction hit her. “Oh, Lord, help me.” When the pain subsided, she drew a deep breath and sighed. “I’m sorry. I thought I had more time.”

He placed his hand on her stomach, a touch meant to comfort. Instead, her muscles knotted, and she screamed as if he had plunged fingers of fire into her swollen belly.

“I don’t know if I can stand this,” she sobbed.

“Yes you can. Just hold on.” He removed his hand, not wanting to cause any more pain. If he hadn’t persisted in living on this God-forsaken mountain, they wouldn’t be in this predicament. His way--it always had to be what he wanted. Look where it got him.  

With the fire banked, a penetrating cold invaded the room. He shed his beaver-skinned coat and covered her. “I’ll be right back. We’ll need a few things from the wagon.”

Leah lay on her side, her arms across her belly as if to hold back the pain.  Huddled beneath the make-do blanket of black pelts, she shivered.  “Hurry,” she begged.

A biting, north wind made a mockery of his doeskin shirt. Exposed fingers numbed to the cold, and he fumbled to undo the ropes securing the tarp. “Damn square knots,” he cursed. “Half hitches would have held just as good.”

Little-by-little, he worked the frozen ropes free and rummaged through the packages.  He found the sack containing bedding and another crammed with jerky and bread. He dropped the bundles at his feet and retied the tarp. As an afterthought, he cut off an extra length of rope and stuck it in his pocket. He would use the unraveled strands to tie off the baby’s cord.

“You okay?” he asked, kicking the door closed behind him.

She nodded, but her closed eyes and opened mouth told another story.

“I got you some more cover.” He pulled his coat from her and piled on several blankets.  “You’ll need more than that thin coat of yours for the trip into town.  I’ll see you stay bundled.” He piled on several quilts. After tucking them around her, he shrugged on his coat. The warmth of her body still clung to the lining. Feeling guilty for taking even that little bit of heat from her, he snuggled close. “I’ll get you warm,” he said, draping an arm across her. After a while, she quit shaking. “I’d better get a fire started,” he whispered, planting a kiss on the back of her neck.

Firewood left beside the hearth would see them through the night. With a few quick moves, he piled pieces of tinder over the still-glowing coals and blew the embers into a flame. After adding pieces of kindling, he crisscrossed small branches and topped the pile with a few split logs. The wood ignited into a blazing fire, spreading warmth into the small room.

In the flickering glow of the fire, he knelt and took her cold hand in his. “Whatever made me think I could make it as a trapper? It wasn’t right to drag you up this mountain, put you through such hardships, all because of what I wanted. I should have set up shop in Lizard Creek, done what I do best--carpentry.”

“Nothing wrong with following your dreams,” she said, “even if they don’t work out like planned.” She patted his forearm as if to comfort him.

“You don’t seem to be in as much pain as you were earlier.”

“I’m trying to be brave.”

“It’s okay to be scared. The doctor warned us the first birth could be a long one. We’ll get through this together. Okay?”

She nodded and squeezed his hand.

“Just think, honey. Tomorrow, we’ll ride into town with you holding our newborn. Won’t that be wonderful?”

“I’m sure we’ll see a lot of surprised faces, especially Doc Clayton’s.”

With Leah seeming to rest a little easier, Aaron left to unhitch the horse. This time, his heavy coat fought off the sharp wind, and he tended to the mare without a problem.

“Gotta take care of you,” he said, patting the animal on the neck, or we’ll never get down the mountain. Besides, you’re gonna be toting an extra passenger.” The thought of holding his son or daughter curled Aaron’s mouth into a smile, and he mused at the prospect of being a father.

When Leah discovered she was with child, she suggested they move to the small community at the foot of the mountain. At first, he balked at the idea, but a less than profitable trapping season and memories of harsh winters convinced him she was right. The child would have a better chance at survival, opportunities for schooling, and a social life.

            A shout from the cabin snapped Aaron out of his thoughts. He pitched some hay for the animal, fastened the door to the lean-to, and ran toward the cabin. On the way, he snatched a bucket hanging from the wagon and scooped it full of snow.

            “God, give me strength,” Leah pleaded. Her face glistened with perspiration, and the once soft curls hung in wet, limp strands.

Aaron set the bucket inside the door and rushed to his wife. A man of few words, he fumbled to say something, anything to comfort her. She needed encouragement, to know everything was going to be fine. Didn’t matter whether he believed a damn thing he said.

The rest of the day and into the wee hours of the morning, she fought the pains of labor--clawing at the blankets, crying out for help, begging for the baby to come

He hated to see her suffer and blamed himself for getting her with child, although they both wanted children. After this, maybe they shouldn’t have any more. It didn’t seem fair she had to bear all the pain. Just before daybreak, she delivered.

Big, burly hands cupped the emerging newborn as it wiggled its way into the world. One glance and Aaron gasped. Shielding the baby from Leah, he slapped the infant on the buttocks. Doc said it would cry. It didn’t.

Had his eyes played tricks on him?  He wiped the mucous and blood from the tiny face. No, he cringed at what he saw. Clearing the mouth with his finger, he slapped the child again. The baby squirmed and emitted a faint gurgling sound.

“Why isn’t the baby crying?” Leah raised her head. “What’s wrong?  Let me see.”

Aaron kept his back to her, hiding the child. “He’s having trouble breathing. I’m trying--”

“A boy?  We have a son? Give him to me.”

“He’s...uh...he’s not right, honey. He’s--”

“Help me!” She arched her back. Her eyes widened. Her mouth opened. “Another baby’s coming!”

“Doc never said nothing about two.” Aaron wrapped the boy in a piece of a quilt and laid him on the hearth near the fire. Leah screamed and grabbed hold of the blood-soaked mattress. With one big push, she delivered a second baby--a girl. A chorus of quivering cries announced the child’s arrival.

“Hold your daughter,” he said, placing the baby across Leah’s stomach, “I need to see to the boy.”

She shifted the baby to her breasts and wiped the birth fluids from the infant’s soft, pink skin, while he worked with his son. “Please, I want to hold him,” she said, reaching out her arm.

As the boy gasped for air, Aaron cradled the baby against his chest and covered him with a piece of the quilt.  I told you he’s not right, and he’s not breathing. Maybe it’s best you don’t see him.”

“I don’t care what he looks like. He’s my son. Give him to me. I can warm him. I can make him breathe.”

“No, you can’t.”

“You can’t deny me my child,” she shouted. “Even if he doesn’t live, I have a right to see him.”

Hot tears crawled down Aaron’s cheeks as he knelt beside his wife and slowly pulled back the cover. Thick fur-like hair grew across one side of the baby’s forehead.  Beneath it a purple flap of skin covered an eye that would never open. The other eye drifted back and forth in its socket with the unfocused stare of a newborn.

Leah recoiled in disbelief. “Why?  Is this punishment for something I did?” She rocked the baby girl against her breasts and wailed, “Help him, Aaron. Please, help him.”

“I’m trying. It’s not your fault, not anyone’s fault. Things like this just happen.” He paced to the far end of the room, thumped his hand against the baby’s back, and juggled him. “Breathe, dammit,” he growled. The child gave a slight whimper then his lips closed and turned a darker blue.

God forbid this child should survive. He’ll face a life of ridicule. And us?  We’ll bear his shame, be forced to suffer his humiliation, live as outcasts in the community.

         For a long time, Aaron stood motionless at the window, looking down at the listless infant in his arms. He felt cheated. The burden of raising such a child tormented him. He didn’t want that...not for Leah, not his new daughter, and definitely not for himself.

         At daybreak, Leah lay exhausted and weeping, her hand gently stroking their daughter. Aaron looked at the infant in his arms and stepped away from the window. Dismissing the boy’s slight movement, he steeled himself against his decision. “He’s gone. I’m going to bury our son,” he said, his voice all but a whisper. He hoped to God she could not read his thoughts.

         She sobbed and hugged her daughter to her.

         Aaron trudged through newly fallen snow, set the bundled child beside him, and prepared a shallow grave behind the cabin. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he reached back for the baby. His cold, numb hand misjudged and nudged the infant, sending him over the edge of a steep cliff toward the valley below. Going after the child could prove disastrous. If something happened to him, Leah and his daughter would never survive. He watched the boy disappear into a wintry grave. Scavengers would leave little or no trace of the newborn’s existence.

Wiping tears from his eyes, he filled in the hole and topped it with stones used to contain a burn site. He would not tell Leah about the accident. The truth would only cause more pain. Let her have a place to leave flowers in the spring, to say her goodbyes. “Forgive me,” Aaron said, already fighting the demons in his mind.

After harnessing the horse and hitching the wagon, he hauled the mattress and bloody blankets behind the cabin and set them on fire. Thin clouds and patches of blue sky promised better weather.  Anxious to get underway, he covered the burnt remains with snow and trudged around the cabin.

“I’ve padded a place in the back of the wagon for you,” he said, lifting his wife and newborn daughter in his arms. “The extra blankets should keep you warm.”

Leah looked at him with questioning eyes. “Did you--”

“He’s gone to his grave,” Aaron said. “I don’t think we should tell anyone about his face. Let him rest in peace.”

They traveled in silence down the mountain.

~*~

Exhausted and injured, the wolf refused to leave her babies. She stood, a lone sentinel, keeping vigil throughout the night. Tired eyes blinked at the sun’s first rays, lighting the pristine snow with a dazzling brilliance.

 

Ever on guard, the wolf’s ears twitched in response to a whooshing sound. The memory of the rogue’s surprise attack and fierce fight ripped through her mind. Self-preservation spurred her reaction. Hackles rose. Muscles tensed. She spun around with fangs bared, ready to face her adversary.

 

A small object sped down the slope. From beneath it, a shadow emerged, raced across the snow, and swirled around the wolf’s paws. Startled, the animal yelped and jumped aside. The dark mass slithered up her legs, onto her back, and curled around her head. Enslaved by its magic, instincts vanished--hackles lay down, breathing slowed. Spiraling down her legs, the shadow returned from whence it came.

 

Downwind of the new arrival, the battle-weary animal sniffed the air. The scent of a human filled her nostrils. She felt no fear. A slight movement and muffled sound beneath the covering enticed the wolf to draw closer. She pressed her nose against the intruder. Something warm and alive stirred within. The desire to nurture consumed her.

 

The wolf glanced back at her babies, cold and buried in the snow. She could do no more for them. Taking a piece of the quilt between her teeth, she dragged the squirming bundle inside her den.

         The infant cuddled in the warmth of the wolf’s under-belly and suckled at teats swollen with milk.

     

 

 



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