The pieces had come together in Will’s mind; he knew who was responsible for his mother’s death and why. The disjointed images and gleaned fragments of overheard conversations had solidified into a clear picture of what must have transpired that terrible night in 1902 when five-year old Will had last seen his mother alive.
The memories began on a cold, sunny afternoon in October. The recent snows had allowed the pack train, a caravan of dog sleds heavily loaded with mail, equipment, groceries, and various other items to make the trek from Juneau to Eagle for the first time that season. It was a holiday of sorts; the locals and people from outlying areas congregated to receive the long awaited items they had ordered through the Trading Post’s catalogue months ago.
Donovan and Will were in the crowd. Among the bustle of activity, the two had become separated but Will knew the routine well. Once they had loaded their own dogsled with their supplies and Will had seen to the care of their dogs, he could have some free time while Donovan and the other men in the Roadhouse caught up with the news and happenings of the world outside.
Will had five dollars which Donavon had given him for his thirteenth birthday burning a hole in his pocket. He wanted a good knife, and had spent an hour happily going through the stock at the Trading Post. Having made his purchase, Will was eager to meet up with Donovan at the Roadhouse where he was assured of having something hot and good to eat.
As Will pushed through the crowded dining area to join Donovan, he collided with a man leaning against the high counter. The man turned to see who had interrupted his meal with a look of irritation on his face. The apology in Will’s mouth stuck as their eyes met.
‘I know this man.’ Was the immediate thought that sprang to Will’s mind. The man waited for his due, sucking his teeth, but Will couldn’t speak. It was as if time had stopped and only the two of them existed. He took in the man’s features; the unkempt red hair with as much gray as red, the full beard under the rather large nose which was misshapen, and those cold, steely gray eyes.
The man drew his brows together. “Keep movin’, boy.' He stood to his full height, several inches taller than Will’s and leaned forward, emphasizing the difference. Broad shouldered and at least fifty pounds heavier than Will, his body stance brooked no argument.
Time seemed to resume. Will must have spoken the correct words to the man because he turned back to his meal, but Will was completely numb. Will went through the rest of the day in a daze, and found himself lying wide awake in his bunk in the cabin he shared with Donovan.
That night Will had his first clear memory of the night his mother disappeared. His troubled thoughts and the sight of a man he hadn’t seen since childhood had unlocked something in his subconscious which manifested in a dream.
Will saw a small boy standing in the open doorway of a small cabin surrounded by trees. It must have been in the fall, because the sky was dark, but there was no snow on the ground. A cold wind stirred the fallen leaves on the forest floor. The boy called out again and again, “Mama! Mama!' No answer. The enormous blackness outside was watchful and still, keeping its secrets.
The boy looked around, desperate for a glimpse of his mother who had been forcibly taken from the cabin some hours before. He was afraid to be in the cabin alone, but too terrified to go out into the night and look for his mother.
The boy reluctantly shut the door and climbed into his bunk. The cluttered interior of the cabin was dimly lit by a single lamp on the table. The occasional pop and hiss of the fire in the woodstove was the only sound other than his soft whimpering. He pulled his caribou hide blanket over himself and lay on his side, watching the door.
He must have dozed off, because he was startled awake by the rush of cold air upon his face. “Mama?' A figure knelt before the woodstove, adding wood to the few coals that remained.
“Get up, boy.' Answered Donovan’s gruff voice.
Awareness set in as Will realized that he had been dreaming. The clear recollection of events that transpired the last night he had seen his mother had shaken him. He had been found by Donovan several days after her disappearance, half-starved and raving about the monster that had taken his mama away.
Donovan had been the one who stepped in to raise orphaned boy. He had been a tower of strength and the only constant presence in Will’s life. He had been Will’s father’s mining partner until the accident that took his life when Will was three. He felt responsible for Will and his mother and had checked on the two of them regularly.
Will was lost in his thoughts, and the weeks blurred together as he went about his tasks detached and distracted. More than once, Donovan’s hand cuffed him back to the present with stinging force. “Pay attention to what you’re doin’, Will.'
The next exposure Will had with the man from the Roadhouse was at the community Christmas celebration where Will learned the man was called Wolf Erickson.
Erickson was a loud, combative drunk who told coarse jokes and saw every request for moderation as a personal attack. He was braggadocios and liked being the center of attention. As Will went to the table laden with food to fill his plate, he caught snatches of gossip from the women overseeing the food, and managing the small children.
“I heard tell Wolf was run out of Fairbanks…' Said one woman in a brown dress.
“That man is nothing but trouble.' Said another with disapproval in her voice.
Will hung around the table, listening, eating, and learning more about Wolf Erickson than he had ever hoped to.
That night, Will dreamed about a large man in a wolf-skin cape and a hat made from the wolf’s face delivering a load of split firewood to Will’s mother. She had thanked him and invited him in for a cup of coffee and some bread, fresh from baking. Little Will watched the man with fascination as he devoured the whole loaf, smearing each slice with cranberry jam, smacking his lips and licking his fingers. The man caught him staring, and growled at him. Will saw his mother’s mouth harden into a line as she drew Will protectively to her side.
The man was a frequent visitor after that, always bringing something he knew Will’s mother needed. Will could tell she didn’t like him, and he didn’t either.
Will remembered the man once telling him to go outside and play while he visited with his mother. He hadn’t wanted to go, but the man had forcibly ejected him over his mother’s protests. He’d heard the bar locking the door fall into place, and his mother’s voice rise in alarm.
Overcome with helpless fury, little Will had beat on the wooden door kicking and crying to no avail. The door stayed shut and his mother was never the same after that; she no longer laughed and played games with her son. His mother became a shadow of herself and now Will understood the terrible truth of what she had endured.
Wolf Erickson had violated her that day, and eventually took her life.
The hot fury of the injustice committed against his mother, and the lack of consequences for Erickson was too much for Will to bear. He couldn’t eat, and his sleep at night was troubled and full of nightmares. Will knew that he was powerless to do anything and his waking thoughts tormented him.
Will began to formulate a plan of how he would kill Wolf; he had his new knife, and he had hunted, trapped and skinned animals with Donovan for years. Will imagined what it would feel like to see the smirk on Wolf’s face change to terror as his knife entered his evil heart.
Donovan had been watching Will with concern over the past month, and was alarmed at how he was deteriorating. Will had retreated within himself and Donovan would know the reason why. He confronted Will one night after they had done the evening chores. It was an arduous process, but he had pried every memory and suspicion from Will.
“He was there.' Will choked out, struggling to keep the dam of his tears locked away. “He was wearing that wolf hat–that’s why I thought I saw a monster…' He sniffled.
Donovan nodded with dawning comprehension. He had suspected Wolf at the time, but the man had claimed to be twenty miles away, and no one could disprove that–until now. Donovan had loved Will’s mother from afar for all the years he had known her, but he kept that love undeclared; not wanting to betray his friend’s memory. He had taken her loss hard, and raising her son was the one outlet he had for expressing that love. Rarely outwardly affectionate, Donovan placed a work-hardened hand on Will’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. They sat there in shared grief as the enormity of Will’s statement set in.
Donovan shut down Will’s fantasy of killing Wolf right away. “Let the wheels of Justice turn, boy.' Will didn’t know how to feel about not being able to avenge his mother, but he was strangely relieved to have shared his burden. He trusted Donovan, and somehow knew that things would turn out OK.
Nothing more was said about that night and the two men resumed their lives. That February Will was surprised by Donovan’s decision to run the trap line alone. Usually, they prepared to spend a few weeks setting traps and camping at the little shelters they had built along the fifty-mile trail. Will had looked forward to the annual trip, and was more than disappointed to be informed that he would remain behind to complete the innumerable small repairs to cabin and equipment while Donovan was gone.
He helped Donovan load the sled with furrowed brows and cold silence. “Get me them big traps.' Donovan ordered with a nod toward the three large traps hanging on the side of the shed. Will looked at him with a question in his eyes; they never used those traps. They were too large and cumbersome for the game they usually sought. Donovan pinned him with a gaze, “I’m gonna trap me a Wolf.'
Their eyes met, and held. Nothing more needed to be said. Those few weeks passed with excruciating slowness, and Donovan returned from trapping with several beautiful pelts. Will was dying to know what had happened, but he couldn’t bring himself to ask. He watched Donovan’s body language for signs of what had transpired, but Donovan revealed nothing.
Spring brought much activity as Will and Donovan prepared for the mining that would occupy their entire summer. Many trips to town were required to get the supplies and equipment needed for the season.
On one of those trips, Will was having a meal in the Roadhouse when he overheard a group of men talking. Wolf Erickson’s body, or rather what was left of it had been found some fifteen miles out of town by a couple of locals. Apparently old Wolf had managed to stumble into a leg-hold trap and was probably too drunk to free himself.
“Dern fool must have frozen to death before the animals got to him.' Mused one grizzled old timer.
The men stood around shaking their heads at the poetic justice of a man universally disliked called Wolf, dying in a wolf trap. A few inappropriate jokes were made, and the conversation moved on.
Will sat in utter amazement–his food forgotten. His eyes searched the room for Donovan, and saw him standing with a different group of men discussing the price of gold. Will watched him for a few moments with admiration and then returned to his meal with the healthy appetite of a teenaged boy.