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The Young Man and the Woods (Part I of II)
He was a young man who hunted alone in the Deep Woods (of Northern Minnesota), and he had gone forty-five days now without taking a wolf, in the first fifteen-days, a young girl had been waiting, for him. But thirty-days, without a wolf the young woman’s mother told her, that her young man was by far having the worse bad luck any man can have, and consequently, that she should look for a different boyfriend, and not waste her time with him. It saddened the girl, to see the young man of her’s come back out of the woods and to his cabin each night empty handed, his face always down, his rifle near torching the ground, instead of over his shoulder. He had his rucksack and water canteen, sagging, it looked as if he was in a deep despair, a trance.
The young man was thin but strong, with deep blue eyes, a long neck. His bronze skin was turning white from the long Minnesota winter, the lack of sun and the frozen north, reproduce rosy cheeks. The blotches of rustic red ran well down to his chin of his face, producing a crust like coarseness to it, and his hands had a white deepness in them, as if it was near to being of frostbite, and seemingly, none of this was new. They were as old as, or near as old as three winters old (and perhaps older than that, he had been a hunter longer than he could remember, for it was at such an early age his father started him out, as his father’s father-his grandfather that is, took his father out at an early age, it seemingly, and perhaps un-expectantly, had turned into a tradition). They were the marks of an enduring hunter, even though he had not yet reached his twenty-third birthday.
Everything noticeable about him was youthful, except his walk, and that was the same kind of walk as old and worn-out hunters used, those who saw victory, and now old and tired, didn’t mind defeat, matter-of-fact, took it cheerfully.
Yvonne Doble (a good daughter of a good mother)-the young girl said to the young man, as they left the edge of the woods from where the young man, Jay Ramsey had come out of, “I could keep you company next time you go in. Four eyes are better than one, and we could make some money with the pelts.”
“I know,” he said. Then he realized that she was not looking at him, not seeing him at least.
“It’s terrible.” She said.
“So is murder terrible,” commented Jay Ramsey “but it is better this way.”
Now she was looking at him.
“I wasn’t thinking of other people, but of you. I was thinking of you. You must know that.”
“Yes,” Jay said. “I have already thought about this, and it is too late to go back to thinking any other way, but to kill the beast. If there was a way to persuade the wolf to go on back home into his woods and stay in there…. Out there, where the only living thing is another wolf he ever sees, but I can’t see him doing that, no warning is good enough. And then maybe in about two or three months, he’ll kill again, until he is dead and buried somewhere in the Northwood’s.
This time she had been watching him with such a look, turn of phrase, that he stopped talking: she stood there, erect in the hard white snow, watching him until he stopped looking at her.
The young man had taught the girl to hunt and shoot, she was but seventeen, and the girl loved him.
“No,” said the young man. “You stay with your father and help him, you know how to hunt and shoot now, he’s luckier than I’ve been, these days, remain with him, he needs you.”
“Just remember a few years back how lucky you were, when you came back with four wolves in one weekend, and maybe you’ll get the great gray wolf, the killer.”
“Yes, I keep that in mind,” the young man said. “I realize you’ve not avoided me because you do not have faith in me.”
“It was my ma; she always wants me to stay with pa. I’m a girl and she worries about me, and my safety.”
“I understand,” said the young man. “It’s not unusual for parents to want to keep their daughters safe.”
“Ma doesn’t have much faith in you.”
“I know,” the young man said, “but you do, right?”
“Oh, yes,” the girl said. “Can I get some hot chocolate or coffee for you at the North Woods Café, and then I’ll bring it on over to your cabin.”
“Sure, it sounds great,” the young man said, “Among hunters.”
They sat on the porch and with the young girl, it was not very cold, and a few other hunters saw them as they walked by, a few laughed at the young lad, but he paid them little attention if any at all, and he was not angry or even annoyed with them, he’d show them sooner or later. On the other hand, when they spoke to him, they talked respectfully and even brought to his attention of the troubles and bad weather, and difficulties they had gone through in years past.
Many of the hunters had butchered their deers, and made pelts out of the hides of the wolves, and even a few brown bears, and a few foxes and even beaver. But the young man didn’t want anything other than wolves, and he was really looking for the Great Gray Wolf, the Killer.
You could see many pelts hung-up on cloths lines outside of cabins, like frozen fish, bending, and stiff in the wind; some even waiting for the ice to melt on them, to take them to the trading post, and sell the hides, and in come cases to get the twenty-five dollars reward for a dead wolf.
In some cases, the wolves were skinned out and their insides stuffed to be put on walls for display to show the works of the great hunters.
“Jay,” the girl said.
“Yes,” the young man answered. He was holding his cup of coffee and thinking of the past few years.
“Can I make you some hot soup?” asked the girl.
“No. Go home and help your mother cook supper for your father. I can still make soup, I’m not that tired.”
“I would like to do something for you. If I cannot go hunting with you, I’d like to help in some small way.”
“You brought me my coffee,” the young man said. “You are already a near grown woman.”
“How old was I when you first took me hunting?”
“Oh well, I think about five-years ago, when we were in the thick of the woods, and the wildcat near ripped our tent to pieces to get the leftover fish you cooked, and left it by your sleeping bag. Do you recall?”
“I can remember his claws scratching at the tent, making a hole in it and the noise and purring, I can remember you throwing your shoe at him, a blow on its head I think, and it corkscrewed backwards.”
“I can’t believe you remember it so well.”
“I recall everything when you first started taking me on trips into the woods, ma said you were like my big brother back then, but now she says I’m no longer a girl, but a developing woman.”
The young man looked at her with his deep and tired blue eyes, still confident, and with loving eyes, some for the little girl of five years ago, some for the woman she was becoming.
“If you were my girl, I’d take you along with me hunting,” he said. “But you are your father’s daughter, and mother’s daughter, and they need you as much as I do, but they come first.”
“Pa’s gone fishing today. He says he’s done hunting for the season.”
“Can I get some ham and cheese sandwiches for you at the café? I know they got ham and cheese, even tuna fish, I saw them making some for the hunters, and soup, I can get some soup also, it’ll warm your insides up.”
“I have one left from today; I didn’t eat it in the woods. It should still be good, it’s in my rucksack.”
“Nonsense let me go get some fresh ones.”
“Okay, but just one, no more,” the young man said (firmly). He was tired and didn’t want to argue, his poise was smashed. But slowly he was gaining his momentum back.
“One sandwich and a bowl of soup,” the girl said.
“All right,” the young man approved. “But don’t steal them?” he inquired.
“I would, but pa game me a dollar for catching some big walleyes yesterday. So I can afford to buy them,” the girl said hastily, as she rushed out to get the soup and sandwich; and brought them back shortly after.
“Gosh, that was quick,” the young man remarked, when Yvonne came back with the soup and sandwich cuddled in her hands, the cafe was just up the road a bit. “Thank you,” added the boy with short and precise dialogue. Then he started to eat the sandwich and spoon feed himself the soup, without hesitation, nearly too hungry to show anymore modesty. But she knew he had it to give, and being hungry and worn-out, and saddened, and feeling shamed, if not a loss of a hunter’s pride, she took no offence.
“I think tomorrow is going to be my day, I’ll get that gray wolf yet, especially with the snow easing up, and the weather breaking, he’ll be hungry and looking for food,” he commented.
“Where are you going?” the girl asked.
“Not that deep into the woods, more around the rim, and the cabins out here, the wind seems to be shifting, and the smell of food will get to the wolves, and bears and all, and the wolves and wildcats will come in, and will want to be closer to the food available, especially if they can’t get it in the woods. So I’ll try to mosey around the edges of the woods, even my cabin, maybe I’ll set a trap, I’ve been thinking of one. I’ll leave tomorrow before the sun comes up.”
“I’ll make you a big lunch to carry with you,” the girl said. Then if you kill the gray wolf, you’ll have enough energy to carry him back.”
“Well, I don’t think the big gray wolf will be too deep in the woods tomorrow,” said the young man.
“I think you’re right,” the girl said, “Perhaps you could see him from a tree, like you do with the deer, sit waiting for him. And set some trap below for him.”
“He’s an old wolf I think, and his eyes are not as good as they used to be, perhaps ten-years old, but mean as the devil, and he has all his teeth, and hair, and talons. Fangs near like those sabertooth lions of old I’ve read about.”
“I wish he was blind,” said the girl, a little scared for Jay.
“It is odd,” the young man commented, in passing, “that no one has ever captured or killed the Great Gray Wolf, of these woods, but then, I’ve never heard of anyone specifically going out to kill him, they avoid him, more than try to capture him, and if they see him once, they usually don’t ever again, unless he attacks you from behind. He has a good memory for faces I think. I know, I am like the grey wolf, an odd young man.”
“But I don’t know if you’re strong enough now to go out tomorrow so early in the morning and peruse the wolf, beyond a doubt you need your strength back.”
“I don’t think so. I mean I’ll be fine, I have many ideas and a few tricks to get this wolf, I’ve been thinking on this for a while now.”
“I’ll carry your rifle to the rim of the woods tomorrow morning, so you can save your strength,” the girl exclaimed, nervously. “I got a can of pork n bean at our cabin; I’ll bring it along for you tomorrow.”
The girl took his rifle and placed it on the back table, as if to clean it. Then the young man, put his three inch wool jacket on a chair near the table the rifle was on, and an ammunition belt, along with his handgun, a 38-special and a box of shells, and his rucksack, opened by the side of the chair, and his canteen, filled with water on the table in back of the rifle (a 30/30). His high boots, were dried and polished, and his wool socks, lay over his boots.
No one robbed the community cabins, whatever was in those cabins was their livelihood, their means of survival, what little they had, taking and taking a rifle could mean, taking a man’s means of protecting himself from the wild animals. It was-to the hunter-the unpardonable sin. Although a few pointless attempts occurred in the past; and they were dealt with severely, and those folks no longer lived within the group of people.
In the morning they walked up the road, and then turned off it, to the rim of the woods, and the young man looked a ways back at his small cabin, thinking. Then the young man took hold of his rifle, swung his shoulder bag, under his armpit, and over his shoulder and onto his back, leaned forward a bit.
The mist was nearly as thick as the smoke had been coming out of his chimney. The cabin was made out of hard timber inside, and logs outside, and a wooden planked floor. He didn’t have much in the cabin, a cot for a bed, two wooden tables: one to clean his weapons on, and the other to eat on, the logs seemingly overlapping the other, and cut into the groves at each end, sturdy hard wood, and a statue a small statue of Saint Teresa, on a board attached to the wall for a shelf, as for his several books that rested on the ledge, that he reread a dozen times, “The Big Woods,” by William Faulkner, “Men Without Women,” by Ernest Hemingway, “Tap at Reveille,” by Fitzgerald, and “The Sherwood Anderson Reader.” Above that was a framed picture of Jesus. These were remnants of his mother’s, except for the books. By his bed there was a picture of his deceased mother, a brownish snapshot, from an old standup camera. And the shelf was to the side of the window, the only window in the cabin, and there was a loft, with a bed in it for company.
“What did you have to eat?” the girl asked.
“Some rabbit that Mrs. Stanley brought over, leftover from her evening meal: I had it hot this morning before you come.”
(Mrs. Stanley, she was usually a quiet old woman now-slender to boney, upright-straight, an old-time nest of white hair, under a hat of fifty- years old, a rustic brown, faded cane. She lived had lived with her husband, and birdbath that was also decaying in her front yard, where she watched the birds swim during the summers, and where her husband would ring chicken necks just beyond the birdbath.)
“Do you want me to keep your hearth going in your cabin while you’re gone?” asked the girl.
“No,” I will make it when I get back.”
“Of course,” the girl replied.
(And the young man thought: I will take the body of the beast-once I kill him-all around the Hamlet, to show, and to assure the people he is dead: “What are you thinking?” asked the girl. He looked her straight in the face. He told her a lie, without blinking an eye, easily, quickly and without remorse: “Not much, just missing your coffee, you make really good coffee.”
“If you will permit me, I’ll make some tonight.” She remarked.
“I am sure he will die soon, if not today!” said the young man. “If you will be so kind, will you please leave, so I can see that you are safe as you walk back?” Then she was gone, her feet lightly and rapidly pushed through the snow: crossed the cold, empty field. He had to wait only a short while for her to disappear beyond the road and cabins.)
She saw in his cabin there was no empty bowl of rabbit stew, and the girl knew he was hunting on an empty stomach.
“Day forty-six is a lucky number,” the girl whispered aloud to herself. And she looked in his mirror to straighten her hair out, as if he might have walked through those doors un-expectantly. And she sat down at his wooden table, to watch the fire go out in the hearth, and read an old magazine. Found the cultural section, and told her-self, ‘I’ll read about Europe.’
Jay Ramsey, started to reflect on the happening that took place a few years back, back around 1959, or perhaps it was 1960, it was now 1962, soon to be 1963 (as he walked through the hard thick snow, lifting up his knees, pushing his legs forward, each step took an once of strength out of his body).
He recalled, Ruth Stanley, who had lived nearby, a few years back, who was visiting her relatives, was getting nightmares, had been getting nightmares, she told folks about this, she saw death, I mean Mr. Death, the man who rides the black horse, and comes to collect what is due him, or soon to be, which is a person’s residue, when they are about to give up their last breath. Evidently he still rode that horse according to Ruth, even in these times of engines and machines, at least in her nightmares he did.
Thus, she drove up to the woods here, stopped at her sister’s place, Mrs. Stanley’s cabin (her sister-in-law), was told she could stay there for a few weeks or days while she sorted out her things, in particular, her nightmares, that had brought her back to the Northern Woods, from St. Paul, Minnesota and perhaps to see her brother’s grave during this winter season, he was buried in the nearby cemetery back by where the road ended, and the woods start. She knew the neighbors, the Yankcavick’s, and Lund’s, and Gunderson’s, and the Brandt’s, and even Jay Ramsey and Miss Yvonne Doble. Her brother, Oscar Stanley, of course knew them better, and as she re-familiarized herself with her surrounds, she noticed many bushels of corn had been brought out of the corncribs from down south, and a great mountain of corn was placed as usual, in the back of the hamlet’s main grocery store for winter feeding of the livestock, built on the ground at the edge of town beyond where Little Minnehaha Creek was, owned by Katie Chandler. But she wasn’t here for that; she was here to investigate her nightmares, and to be around folks who made her feel safe.
On her second day, the morning of the second day at the Stanley House, she walked up towards the Creek, past the graveyard to its left side, saw a few fishermen over her shoulders, as they did in the old days where her father hunted, and her brother hunted and where they worked down the road at the sawmill, or trucking lumber to the Twin Cities ( St. Paul and Minneapolis), to the lumberyards, or grabbing whatever work was available.
+ And it was the afternoon before her death, she had a premonition, she told Jay Ramsey, “Death looked me in the eyes, eye to eye, almost shoulder to shoulder, said with a most serious voice: ‘Do not stay in your brother’s house-the smell of blood is strong on you, you reek with death, go back home, make haste for your name is in my book.”‘
And when Ruth Stanley was about to leave, her car wouldn’t start, she found Gary Lund to look at it, check it out, and it was evening, and all the stores were closed, and Gary couldn’t get the parts he needed until morning, and Ruth resting on the porch, remained waiting.
And as she waited, she fell deep into a sleep, a deadly sleep, and she remembered what Death had told her, and she was ready to go-she told herself, just waiting for the car to be fixed, for Gary to wake her up and say, ‘okay Miss Ruth, the car is fixed’ and then she was going to go, go as soon as Gary was finished with the car, but Gary had gone, and she remained in that deep, deep sleep with a blanket over her, in a rocking chair on the porch, as he could not fix the car until morning, and her sister had left her sleep, figuring she could go in the morning, and she’d wake her up for supper.
She said to herself, ‘What a strange dream,’ it was of a wolf’s tooth, too much for the mind to fully acknowledge, but the tooth showed up in the strangest way, ‘What a strange dream,’ she said, and then a soldier showed up, it was an old WWI veteran soldier, she recognized the picture, it was of her grandfather, he had showed her once his picture, he had died in 1947, and it was 1962, fourteen-years had passed, and she (thought, what a memory I have) then she said to him, ‘Why are you in this strange dream of mine?’ Not expecting a response.
‘Death was embarrassed to tell you-so Death sent me, to tell you, you are dead, this is not a dream.’
And then she thought of Mr. Nick (so Death had called himself), said aloud to her dead-self, ‘No, I simply fell to sleep; I am going to a hotel, as Death warned me to.’
‘No, you are dead, a wolf came while you were sleeping on the porch, and killed you,’ said the old WWI soldier, and grandfather just like that.’
She, Ruth, looked in a state of contemptuous unbelief: to die like this, how unnatural, she thought.
She felt it was completely criminal, miscast, condemned before her time, condemned for a simple failure to detour her schedule to a different destination-a hotel was on her mind. She felt as if she was a delayed rocket, and the fuse was relit, and the old soldier said, ‘we are, are we not, such puny creatures.’
The young man had seen Yvonne going into his cabin, and asked himself, “It could not happen twice, could it? Do you think it might?” Then he told himself to keep warm, keep walking, and “…remember we are in December. The unpredictable month of snow and cold weather; I got some beef jerky in my backpack,” he mumbled this as he pulled the earflaps out from under his hat, to cover his ears, and tightened the scarf around his neck, a wind was chilling him.
“Wake up,” the young man told himself, he was resting by a tree, waiting to hear a sound or see a shadow. He hit his knees and arms to wake his body up. He opened his eyes wide, he was coming out of a near sleep, and then he took in a deep breath.
(He could not see by the position he was in by the tree that the wolf was circling. He was too tired for that. He just felt a faint pressure in his throat; and then he commenced to look everywhichway, pulling on his body gently to turn right, his right hand near asleep. His chest tightened, and he twisted his neck, and then shoulders and then head from behind the tree to around the tree, in a quick swinging motion, his young half frozen legs pivoted with the swing. “It is a very big forest,” he said. “I know, I can feel it, he is circling.” Then he knelt to see more clearly across the white sheet of snow, grudgingly. “I think he was closing in on me,” the young man concluded, “Was…I must remain alert, all I can,” he told himself. “Perhaps another hour, I will see him. But I must convince him, I am weak, and unguarded, like I was but be to the contrary.” But the wolf stayed out of sight and kept circling slowly now, wet and sweaty and tired. For the following hour the young man was seeing spots before his eyes, wiping the sweat off his forehead. He was high off the tension. Twice though he had fallen to his knees as he trekked through the hard snow; he had even felt a bit faint at times. He told himself the wolf is bound to come, jump out of nowhere at him. “I must hold myself together, alert, control my cold body, this will drive him mad.” After a while to wolf stopped circling, and disappeared. And the young man’s neck was getting sore.)
“Where are you Gray Wolf,” he babbled. “Lunch time,” he told himself, and pulled out the piece of beef he had stored in his pack. “I’m going to have lunch. I’m not really hungry, but I have to eat to keep up my strength. Come on where are you!” the young man alleged, “I know your belly is empty, it needs protean.”
He drank from his canteen. “I know,” he whispered as if talking to his second self as if a person to it’s self, “it’s not whiskey, only water. It’s not very kind of you to keep me waiting day after day after day, let’s eat together. I’d like to take Faulkner wolf hunting, or Hemingway, show them a thing or two. But Hemingway would just talk about Africa, and Faulkner, he’d never stand for the cold. Who is the greatest hunter of them all-Tarzan!” And the young man started laughing, to keep himself from going back to his near sleep.
He knew the wolf could smell a man’s scent, even in the snow as it was, from his paws, there was a breeze but the white snow was blinding. He still dreamed of the great hunt, as if he was on a Jack London journey, but his dreams always started in the woods, and ended in the woods, not on beaches, or in Africa, he never dreamed about those places, he simply read about them, looked at them in books, and then shut the books to explore the woods. He urinated outside by a tree, sipped up his trousers, and started walking along the edge of the woods again.
Quickly the top line over the forest-crest had cut off his shadow, leaping like a snake into the rim of the woods (he must have come from near, one of the cabins); Jay saw it gradually become the wolf, and then nothing. And then there was no shadow at all. His thick shape and wide paws were with tints of auburn-to-brown and dried blood amongst the gray, all blending into his overall gray husky body. He told his muscles to move, it seemed as if they had forgotten to heave and thrust through the snow, he had been standing a long while, his hands felt as if they had fallen to sleep, forgotten to feel the rifle it was holding. There was still sunlight, but the days are short in a Minnesota winter, especially in the immortal cold. He told himself he could look for him tomorrow, his reflexes were dull, and to near asleep and every move was casual.
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