by J Dan Francis
Eli struggled painfully to his feet and found the walking stick. Using it for a crutch, he limped over to the Red Spruce. He stood there, carefully looking it over. It was a pathetic sight for sure. The tree was as beaten as he was. Branches had snapped off where the wolves had grabbed it and tugged on it. Some of the branches had been stripped clean of their pine needles, and only one lone pinecone remained intact. There was blood on the tree; his own blood, or the wolves Eli did not know. He considered abandoning the Red Spruce but pushed that thought from his mind. He was bringing it home. Eli had fought too hard for the prize to have to leave it dying at the base of Saddleback Mountain. The Red Spruce earned its place in the Sandford home. Regardless of its poor condition, Eli would set it proudly in the corner of the living room. It would be decorated with heirloom ornaments and lit with all colors of light even if it did look scrappy and bare in spots, and Joey would have his best Christmas ever.
Eli grabbed the tree by one of the sturdy bottom branches and dragged it over to the trail. He looked up into the night sky and noticed the snow had stopped falling and the blue-silver hue of the moon was coming through the breaking clouds. And, in those breaks, he could see brilliant stars, which made Eli feel good in some way. He saw one star that shone brighter than all the others, like the star in his dream. It was the North star he believed. But wait, he thought. As he looked up into the sky, he looked all around to get his bearings. That one lone bright star was not in the North but was shining from the East, and it hung low just above the trees. Eli began to walk in the direction of that eastern star, and when he came over the ridge, he could see way off in the distance the parking area and the lean-tos. Eli was relieved, almost giddy. He knew right at that moment he was on his way home. It all looked different than when he had arrived earlier. It was all white under a blanket of snow, not the brown covering of fallen leaves and decaying brush from earlier. There was a lone light above the privy that was now turned on, and Eli could see his snow-covered pickup truck parked across the way. It was a welcoming and relieving sight. Then that star in the East oddly disappeared. Eli believed the star to be the result of answered prayer; a gift from God. He was not about to question its fading away into the night. Seeing the moonlight, the stars, the privy, and his pickup truck gave Eli his second wind, and he began to move faster, hobbling down the snow-covered trail, dragging the Red Spruce behind him.
With each step, Eli was getting more anxious. He just wanted to get back to his truck so he could put Saddleback in his rearview mirror. He wouldn’t be sorry if he did not have to return there for a long while. All he could think about was that he wanted a hot cup of coffee, a shot of whiskey, and a hug from Joey. One thing was for sure; Eli Sandford had one hell of a story to tell the fellas back at the Brass Lantern Tavern; that is if he lived to tell it.
Eli still had about three hundred yards to go. But a lot can happen in three hundred yards. He kept looking around for the wolves. They were nowhere to be seen. He was growing paranoid, and fear was taking over. His mind started to play tricks on him. Every time Eli heard a sound, or thought he heard a something, he about jumped out of his skin, spinning around, terrified, looking back into the dark, eerie woods. He would then move a little faster. His heart pumped like a locomotive going full steam. He kept running and limping, keeping to a good cadence of perfect movement even though he was severely injured; his feet and hands frozen and painfully stiff along with the pain from his wounds. He wasn’t slipping or sliding which was unusual given the conditions and felt as though something was holding him up carrying him along the way. Then he heard that distinct sound of howling from behind. Eli stopped dead in his tracks and looked back into the woods. But he could see nothing but black. There was no mistake as to what it was, and it wasn’t the wind. Then he heard howling off to his right. Eli looked over, and still, he saw nothing. Then there was howling coming from his left, and Eli looked in that direction also; nevertheless, there was nothing to see. The howling suddenly intensified, coming from all directions. Eli turned ahead and wasting little time, began to run and limp forward, trying to regain the rhythm he had only a moment ago. But his movement was all uncoordinated, and he was slipping and stumbling in the snow. "Why did I stop?" he asked himself. Just then, he heard a growl from behind. Eli froze and looked back. He could not believe his eyes. Standing there was the lead wolf he had thought was undoubtedly done in by the other wolves. It was covered with blood from his shoulder all down his leg. And, when he moved, he only hobbled on three legs; his front leg useless from being broken at the shoulder by Eli's hatchet.
The wolf growled at Eli. It was a guttural sickly sound. Then from behind the lead wolf came another wolf ambling up. It was a smaller wolf, and it began sniffing the lead wolf and nuzzling him. The smaller wolf appeared to be whining, crying as it nestled into the big wolf's furry neck. She-wolf, Eli had surmised; the lead wolf's mate. Then three small wolves came from behind and joined the other two in playful banter; pups, they were. The howling stopped as Eli stared at the family of wolves before him. He felt for the injured wolf. The last thing Eli wanted to do was hurt any animal and cause it to suffer. He looked the growling wolf in the eyes and said, “You started this.” As if that was going to make it all right. But all the same, Eli felt terrible for the wolf who hobbled on three legs, and for his crying bewildered mate. One of the pups approached Eli sniffing around his boots; the lead wolf growled, even more, warning the big man. Eli bent down and petted the pup, smiling as it licked his hand. Eli pushed it toward the worried parents. The lead wolf stopped growling as the pup came back to him. He sniffed the pup and pushed it to his mother.
For some odd reason, Eli believed he would have no more trouble from this wolf. The wolf had his family to worry about, and Eli had his. So, Eli turned away and continued hobbling toward the lean-tos. The howling picked up again, reminding him that the battle was not over. He knew the other wolves wanted to settle the score and figured any moment they would come out from the trees and mount a final assault. Eli got his rhythm back and was moving at a good pace. He knew he should drop the red spruce and make a dash for it. But he thought of Joey and stubbornly would not let go. He was now a hundred yards from the truck. If Eli could get to the pickup, then he was home free. The Colt 45 Peacemaker was hanging right behind the seat loaded and ready. Getting his cold, stiff hands on that pistol would give Eli the advantage he needed; getting there was the hard part. Eli was past the tree line, and out in the open. The pickup was now fifty yards away.