by J Dan Francis
It had been forty-six years since Eli Sandford ran fifty yards for a touchdown playing for the North Hill Fisher Cats. Back then it was for the shouts and cheers, to hear the thundering applause and the stomping of feet coming from the bleachers, for the game ball, and the glory. Not any of this would play out here. The last fifty yards he must run would be for his life. There would be no grandeur in it, no one rushing the sidelines to cheer Eli to the end zone. There would be no spiking the ball, or a proud victory strut, and no teammates to chest bump him when he passed through the goalpost. No, none of that. Eli would be happy if he could just get to his truck, and back to his grandson.
Eli could hear the wolves growling and barking off in the distance behind as they closed in. He would not look back, he ran faster, struggling to pull the Red Spruce while pouring on the steam as he never had before. He could hear the drumming rhythm of the wolves paws on the snow as they moved in closer. Eli believed he still might make it. He kept going, praying the whole time. Exhausted, his lungs burning, and his feet feeling like clay, Eli had no choice but to let go of the tree; he could not drag it another foot. He was moving faster now, sticking his cold, stiff hand in his front pocket fumbling for his keys. His truck got closer with every gut-wrenching step, but the wolves were gaining fast. Eli was able to pull the keys from his pocket; it was a struggle. He was less than ten feet from the truck when he dropped the keys and then clumsily kicked them ahead. But he stopped fast and was able to pick them up in one fell swoop. Eli’s fingers were frozen and felt like they were encased in cement. He fumbled frantically and was able to hit the key-fob button unlocking the truck door. Eli flung the door open, reached behind the seat and grabbed the Colt 45 Peacemaker from the holster, cocking it as he turned around. He was a second too late as he raised the Pistol, two wolves were coming right at him, one high, the other low. Eli knew right at that moment; he was done for.
The high-flying wolf was going right for Eli's throat. The other wolf coming in low would hit Eli’s lower extremities. Eli went for the Hail Mary and squeezed the trigger hoping he might hit one of the wolves. The gun fired; the bullet hit a tall white pine along the tree line spewing bark and chips as if the tree had exploded. There was another loud shot, but not from Eli’s Peacemaker. It came from off in the distance. The wolf coming at Eli’s throat crashed lifeless into Eli slamming him into the truck. The Peacemaker flew out of his hand. Suddenly, there was a loud, vicious roar and the ground around Eli began the shake from a great weight. It was something akin to a freight train as it came across the parking area slamming into the wolf that was coming in low, picking the wolf up as it yelped, shaking it mercilessly. Eli was confused; he could hear the wolf's bones being crushed. This great and angry beast tossed the wolf some fifteen feet away right into a tree breaking its back. Eli pushed the wolf that landed on him off to see the black bear that had befriended him earlier standing on its hind legs giving an encore victory roar. Eli was never so happy and relieved as he laid back to catch his breath when he had noticed red and blue flashing lights all around the parking area. He sat up and saw that it was coming from the far end out by the road. Eli struggled to his feet to see two State Troopers, a Forest Ranger, and two other men that appeared to be old John and Phil Green standing near them.
The Ranger had a high-powered rifle and was drawing a bead on the bear when Eli realized he was going to kill the bear. Without any thought for himself, Eli ran out between the Ranger and the bear waving his arms yelling as loud as he could in his raspy voice, "DON'T SHOOT! DON'T SHOOT!" The Ranger, unsure, lowered his rifle, but the Troopers had drawn their weapons. John and Phil intervened, convincing the troopers to hold off. Eli, still exhausted collapsed to the ground. The bear went over to Eli nudging him and licking his face. Eli opened his eyes and looked up at the bear that saved his life twice, and said, “Thanks again, for this Merry Christmas.”
The bear looked up at the troopers cautiously moving toward Eli. He growled then ran off into the woods disappearing into the darkness. The Troopers satisfied the bear was gone holstered their weapons. One of them kneeled next to Eli. Eli did not look good, the trooper was fearing the worst and looked up at his partner.
“Better call an ambulance,” he said. Eli coughed then said, “Trust me, I look worse than I feel. Just help me get to my feet.”
The Trooper looked Eli over, then he looked up at his partner, then back at Eli. “You don’t understand, Mister. About the only part of you that’s not bitten, and bloody are the souls of your feet. We are taking you to the hospital in Saranac.”
“I’m not going to no hospital.”
“Oh, yes you are,” said a voice coming up from behind the Trooper who was standing over Eli. It was Old John the bartender. “You’re not callin’ this one, Eli.”
“Nice of you to show up. Guess you fellas were right about the wolves on Saddleback.”
“Yeah, no kidding.”
Eli laughed then went into a fit of coughing just as Phil Green came walking up carrying a blanket and a thermos of coffee. He handed the blanket to Old John then quickly unscrewed the cup and cap and poured some of the steaming hot liquid for the injured Eli. The Trooper kneeling was looking over at the two wolves laying nearby. Eli reached in his coat pocket and pulled out the flask of brandy; he sat up and unscrewed the cap.
“Those the only wolves?” the Trooper asked Eli.
“Hell no. I reckon there was twelve I counted.”
“Twelve? No way,” said the Ranger who walked over with Phil. “Five or six, maybe. But not twelve.”
“Go see for yourself. Four dead up on the trail heading to the base of Saddleback. These two here. That’s six. Alpha male is badly injured, probably watching us right now; seven.”
The Trooper that was standing pulled his weapon and began scanning beyond the tree line. “Leave him be. He’s hurt bad enough. I busted up his shoulder pretty good, cut him deep. He’s no harm to anybody now. There’s a couple of more females and three pups roaming around with that male; which makes twelve.”
“Must have come down from Canada,” said the Ranger.
“I wouldn’t know. Could have,” Eli replied.
Eli tipped the flask full up, but only a few drops came out; it was not enough to satisfy his thirst. John handed Eli a pint bottle. Eli took it and pulled the cork out with his teeth then spit it out and took a drink. He looked up at John and smiled.
“Guess you know me pretty well.”
“I know you like that Apple Brandy; that’s for sure.”
“What made you come looking?”
“You missed Happy Hour; plus, we made a bet.”
“Well, what? I wouldn’t have brought the Apple Brandy if I had bet against you.”
A siren sounded in the distance as the ambulance made its way on the snow-covered road. Eli sat, enjoying the pint of brandy which was quickly erasing any pain he had been feeling. He asked John and Phil if they would mind going up the trail a bit to get the Red Spruce and put it in the back of his pickup. John found the tree and stood it up, examining it with a look of disgust on his face. He rotated it little by little, grimacing at the broken branches. Despite its ghastly appearance, John carried the tree down the trail defiantly past the Ranger who was staring at him and threw it in the back of Eli’s truck. He walked back to Eli looking the staring Ranger in the eye. “What tree?” John said to him. The Ranger shook his head, the Troopers laughed.
“All this for a lousy tree?” The Ranger asked.
“No, all this for a four-year-old boy. It’s a long story,” Eli replied.
When the Trooper pulled into the driveway, Eli could see that John and Phil had dropped his truck off. The battered and broken Red Spruce was up on the front porch leaning against the railing. Eli was not about to throw it away. It meant too much to him, and to Joey. It was four o'clock in the morning. The house was dark except for the twinkling Christmas lights strung along the eaves and around the posts of the porch. A simple evergreen wreath with frosted pinecones and a red bow hung on the door. Eli thanked the Trooper, struggled out of the cruiser with crutches in hand, and hobbled up to the house. Before he got to the steps, the front door opened and Kik stood there in her bathrobe and pajamas. She had that tired, worried, up-all-night look about her. She was alarmed at the sight of her beaten and bandaged father-in-law. Kik ran across the front porch, down the steps, and took Eli's arm to help him along. When they got to the top step, Eli handed her the crutches. He limped over to the red spruce, took hold, and carried it inside. Together, with only a couple of hours left till sunrise, Eli and Kik trimmed the tree with colored lights and the various heirloom ornaments he, Rachel, and their son Joe had collected over the years. The battered Red Spruce was transformed into a beautiful Christmas Tree. They placed gifts and toys beneath it. And when they had finished, they sat down with coffee in hand and waited eagerly for Joey to come out of his room.