Town in a Wild Moose Chase
Cape Willington's annual Winter Moose Fest is in full swing when the sightings of a mysterious white moose-and rumors of a dead body found in the woods-send Candy scrambling to separate fact from fiction before she finds herself in the bullseye of a ruthless killer...
He found the body at the bottom of a gully, lying on its side, half buried in the snow.
The white moose had led him to the spot.
It wasn’t the sort of thing he’d expected to see when he set out from his fishing camp on English Pond that morning. If he’d had the good sense to let the moose be, or if he’d turned back at the edge of his property, or if he’d just stayed inside and worked on his carvings, he’d never have gotten himself mixed up in the whole blasted affair. But he walked right into it, all right. And he couldn’t really blame himself, could he? The day was too nice, too welcoming, and he couldn’t let the opportunity pass him by. They’d had some warmer weather lately, but it was coming to an end. Colder air and flurries were moving in, according to the almanac, which was accurate seventy percent of the time. Best get the chores done quickly while the nice weather lasted.
He’d laid up plenty of firewood for the season, but he liked to keep a good supply of kindling and lighter stock on hand too, and it needed replenishing. So he’d pulled on his light winter gear, stepped into his insulated boots, yanked the slatsided sledge out from under the leanto next to the woodshed, and headed out into the snowy woods, dragging the sledge behind him.
The sun was out, slanting through bare branches and wettrunked trees, and the snow crust was freeing up, loosening from the bottom and softening at the top. As he trudged across the winter landscape, he unhooked the top two buttons of his flannel shirt, and the ones at the wrists as well. He’d worn only the shirt and an insulated undershirt with his old down vest, which had flattened considerably over the years. It was warm out for a morning in late January, so the heavier stuff wasn’t required. He might have worn too much as it was. The mercury had touched fortythree degrees a couple of days ago, and had inched above forty yesterday. Temperatures were supposed to drop this afternoon, but the warmer air lingered, a few degrees above the freezing mark, continuing its gentle assault on the fringe of ice and snow that had tightly encased every single living and nonliving thing around Cape Willington for the better part of six weeks.
They’d had a couple of blizzards in early and midDecember, and a doozy of a sea storm right after the new year that left nearly twenty inches behind. The snowpack had thickened, and piles of snow driven by the hard winds had grown to chest height and beyond. But the January thaw of the past few days had cleared out some of itenough so he could maneuver his way through the woods, going about his business.
A few birds sang high in the branches, and he looked up. A mild burst of wind brushed past his face, and he smelled the life hidden beneath the snow, aching to burst free. He looked down and swallowed. Not for the first time he missed Abby, his retriever. She’d loved days like this. She’d be in her glory if she were out here with him today. He’d had her for nearly fourteen years, but she was gone now, and he hadn’t had the heart to replace her yet. He didn’t know if he ever would.
So nowadays he devoted most of his attention to the animals in the woods around his camp. He knew some of them by sight and could recognize their tracks. The forest creatures had been busy over the past few days, given the warmer weather. As he headed off in his usual direction, following a narrow path that looped around the west side of the pond, he spotted their familiar marks.
Just up ahead, bird tracks circled a low berry bush. Obviously they’d found a few remnants of interest. Off to his right, he could see the bony footprints of a gray squirrel, which had ventured out from its nest in a weathered old oak. Further on, in a grove of thick pines, he came across the tracks of a lone chipmunk, out foraging while it could. While crossing a low, reedy spot he spotted a few faint footprints with webbing between the toesthe hind feet of a beaver, which had a place nearby, on one of the streams feeding the pond. Another half mile on he spotted the fivetoed footprints of a red fox, probably made sometime during the night or early morning hours. It seemed to have spent some time through here, sniffing out vole tunnels beneath the melting snow.
As he approached the stream he noticed how busy it sounded, its waters rushing under a shelf of ice that had broken open in a few places. Here he saw more tracksa raccoon, whose prints looked like small, elongated human hands, and a thin weasel.
He found a good place to pull the sledge across the icy stream and headed up toward Cooper’s Ridge, picking up kindling as he went. The weather of the past few weeks had knocked down quite a bit, and the work went quickly through the morning. Twice he returned to the camp, the sledge piled high with wood, which he stored away in the shed before heading out again, going out further each time.
He’d inherited the camp from his uncle twentyseven seasons ago. It had been a beatdown place when he took it over, but he’d fixed it up over the years and made it livable. The camp consisted of a oneroom, openbeamed cabin right on the bank of the pond, plus a shed, chicken coop, makeshift boat shed, and a few other outbuildings. For nearly a decade he’d spent his summers here, only a few months at first, but it seemed as the years went by he was always arriving earlier in the spring and leaving later in the fall, until finally he’d just moved in fulltime. He’d had two propane tanks, a hundred pounds each, installed at the back of the place, which gave him hot water, a few lights, and heat when he needed it. He made his dinners on a woodburning cookstove, and usually warmed the place with that and a smaller woodstove he’d had for fifteen years. It was an efficient operation, though he needed six or seven cords of wood in a season, plus all the kindling he could gather.
He’d decided to make the third trip his last, but the moose tracks caught his eye. They were easy to spotlarger than the deer tracks he often saw around his place. Deer frequently overnighted in sheltered areas on the other side of a hillock behind the cabin, but moose weren’t as common around here. They tended to stay further north, but a few wandered down on occasion to explore the woods around Cape Willington. They were shy, quiet, distant creatures, who preferred to stay pretty much on their own. They didn’t seem to mind his presence, though, when he came upon them in the woods.
From the prints, this one looked like a newcomer; it had a Vshaped wedge cut out of one hoof, something he didn’t recognize. The tracks were fairly fresh, headed southeast. Proceeding in a straight line that cut right between the trees.
That struck him as odd. He stood for the longest time staring at the tracks.
Rather than meandering through the trees, stopping here and there, searching out any leafy shoots that might have become unburied by the retreating snow cover, this particular moose had headed in a singular direction, unwavering, as if drawn by an invisible line to some unseen point in the woods up ahead.
He squinted through the trees, trying to see where the moose had headed. What was going on in those woods? he wondered. But the tracks disappeared into a miasma of muted browns, sullen grays, and dirty whites, giving him no clue. He knew the general direction, though.
The moose tracks were headed toward Blueberry Acres.
Candy and Doc Holliday’s place.
He looked behind, knowing he should turn back. Best not to get too curious or too involved. He had the kindling he needed; he should head home. But for some reason he would never be able to explain, he turned the other direction, leaving his sledge where it sat, and trudged off through the wet, heavy snow after the moose tracks.
He soon began to sense that he and the moose weren’t alone in the woods, and he felt a prickling on the back of his neck, in part because he started hearing things he couldn’t quite placean odd, distant crackle that sounded suspiciously like the crunch of snow as a boot stepped down, or the snap of a broken branch as someone passed nearby, carried on the faint wind that wove through the woods.
And then there came a single, sharp thudding sound, like an ax entering a tree. It sounded as if it had been made by a human. He’d never heard an animal make a sound like that.
There was probably a simple explanation. A few hikers or homeowners out today, gathering firewood like he’d been doing. Or kids playing hooky from school, pulling a sled or two, cutting through the woods to meet up with friends.
But something in his bones told him it wasn’t that simple. Something else was going on. The vibrations were off. The air felt wrong. He stopped several times, looking back over his shoulder, willing himself to turn around and head home.
But the moose tracks drew him on. He followed them across the contours of the land.
Soon he heard a snort. He slowed his pace, moving forward cautiously. The trees parted, and quite suddenly he came upon the scene.
Standing directly in front of him, on a rough edge of land that fell off to a gully behind it, stood a white moose.
He’d heard about them but never seen one before, though a buddy of his from up near Millinocket had seen one once, a decade or two ago, or so he said. They were more common in Canada, in places like New Brunswick, off to the east of Maine, and Ontario, to the northwest, and all the way up to Alaska. But sometimes one or two were seen around New England. He’d heard they weren’t albinos but true white moose, whose coats turned darker in the summer but lighter during the winter months. It was some sort of genetic thing, someone had told him. This one had a few darker spots and smudges on its coat, which was long, thick, and a little shabby for the winter season. The animal stood about six and a half feet tall at the shoulders, he figured, and had shed its antlers, giving it a bald, almost comical look. It had ridiculously long, thin legs, which held up its thick, muscular body. The elongated head ended in a drooping snout. The hump at the top of the shoulders was particularly pronounced in this one, shown off by the wet spiked fur sticking up from the top of it.
The moose watched him with large brown eyes for a few moments, turning its head from side to side, as if agitated.
He backed away a little. He’d heard stories of people being trampled by moose. It was never a good thing to approach or upset one.
But this particular fellow remained where it was, its head turning and dipping so it could look down into the gully at its side.
Then it looked back at him.
He cleared his throat and said softly, “Hello, fella. You’re a rare sight around here. You’re not lost, are ya?”
If the animal understood, it gave no indication, until finally its head shook in a rapid movement, causing the dewlapthe loose patch of fur and skin hanging under its neckto jiggle around furiously.
He took that as some indication to continue. “So . . . do you need help? You doing okay?”
In response, the white moose snorted, pushing the air out forcefully through its large nostrils, creating great puffs of mist as it turned away. It started off in long, determined strides, its twotoed hooves leaving distinctive tracks in the snow.
He was tempted to follow but hesitated.
A feeling of dread washed over him. Taking slow, cautious steps, he walked to the edge of the gully.
That’s when he saw the body.
And the hatchet buried in its back.
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