This story is by Heather Whitney-Williams and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The young woman woke with a start. Her two-year-old daughter lay next to her, a tiny creature buried under several inches of blankets with only her small face visible. The child’s breathing was different, labored. The woman leaned over and listened – soft crackling sounds emerged at every exhale and the breaths were uneven and shallow. She felt a pang of fear and she looked out the window, as if searching for guidance on what to do. The dark of night was no comfort. It was an hour till dawn.
She kissed her daughter lightly on the forehead and slid out of bed. As she padded across the cold floor, her breath created vapor clouds that disappeared instantaneously. Pearl whimpered, and the woman listened intently, then began to dress. Her husband and his crew stayed the week on the other side of the mountain at the new stand of Lodgepole pines. He would be back that evening, and the baby, Pearl, couldn’t wait – the woman would have to snowshoe with her twelve miles to Silverton to the doctor. The wool clothing and coat with a coyote tail hood would keep her warm during the half-day’s journey.
She dug out the beaver furs from the trunk and fashioned a toasty cocoon for the child in the Army backpack. After she dressed her in her warmest clothing she snuggled her into the pack, then knelt and heaved it onto her back. She left a note for her husband on the table and stepped onto the porch. The sky was dark grey, but the gently falling snow lightened up the surroundings. Her grandpa used to call eye adjustment to the dark “night shine,” and she had plenty of practice helping him hunt for deer and elk every fall in the pre-dawn. She pulled the snowshoes off their hooks and buckled the leather straps around her boots. She would stay on the logging road.
The woman was 21 and beautiful, with auburn hair and green eyes. Three years earlier, a summer shindig near the big lake east of town enticed the young people out to dance and prowl, and it is where she met her husband.
“Has anyone told you that you look like Grace Tierny? What’s your name, dove?” he asked, leaning into her, silky smooth.
“Ellen,” she replied, warily.
“Hello Ellen, my name is Earl. Why don’t you come check the trap lines with me tomorrow?” He had a voice like honey, and his dark hair and piercing blue eyes proved too magnetic for her to resist. After dancing with him the rest of the night, she agreed to go with him the next day. Several months later she tearfully informed him, “The rabbit died.”
“Darlin’, don’t worry. I can take care of us, and I want to have you as my bride, if you’ll have me, that is.” They married soon after in the Episcopal Church on Valentine’s Day. When she walked down the aisle and took his elbow, he whispered, “I am the luckiest man in the world. You are so lovely.”
A few months after Pearl was born, Earl enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the tank division and shipped to Southeast Asia. Ellen waited tables at the diner in town during the day while her mother babysat, and between rushes she ran home to nurse Pearl. After nearly two years, Earl returned with a medical discharge—bomb percussions that hit around the tank blew out his ear drums, and at the age of 27 he was half deaf. As she snowshoed on the road, she remembered the close call Earl had the previous summer when his helper had to body slam him out of the way of a falling tree because he didn’t hear it snap and groan against its great weight. He laughed when he saw the close call, but after that they expanded their traplines around the lake and in the foothills beneath the grand San Juan’s, to bring more money in that way. They brought in beaver, fox, coyote, and the occasional black bear to the mercantile to get paid for the pelts. Bobcats were too clever to get snared. She became proficient with a knife and didn’t mind skinning the animals, but she didn’t like to kill them.
For two hours she continued down the mountain as Pearl slept. The sky lightened to a soft grey hue and snowflakes fell silently, almost playfully. The air, muffled and quiet, amplified the crunch and swish of the snowshoes on snow. Pearl woke and said, “Mama, I tirsty,” so Ellen found a boulder by the roadside and propped Pearl against it. She took off the snowshoes and lay them down, as the snow depth was minimal at the lower elevation.
Something felt off, the space around them almost electric, as she reached for the canteen, and she turned back to the road. The mountain lion stopped in its tracks about a hundred yards away. It was a magnificent creature, nine feet long from nose to tip of tail, and weighed 250 pounds. It could bring down a full-sized elk.
Ellen whirled and put her back to Pearl, waved her arms and yelled, “Go away!” but it crept closer, its gaze fixed on her. She grappled for the pack side pocket but felt the void where her pistol should have been. She had forgotten it in her haste to leave. The lion was fifty yards away and advancing quickly – she looked down and picked up several fist-sized rocks near the boulder and hurled one, grazing its shoulder. It recoiled and stopped, then it charged. She hurled the second rock at ten yards away – hitting the lion on the nose. It squealed in pain, veered right, and ran into the Aspens on the far side of the field and disappeared.
She watched for a few moments, then gave Pearl several long gulps of water and took a few gulps for herself. The child’s lids were droopy, and her color was pale. Ellen’s heart sank. She touched her sheathed hunting knife on her belt – still there. She opened the pack and found two matches in the matchbox and put them in one pocket, and the rest of the rocks in the other. She put the pack back on and trudged into the forest to find a downed pine. Using her knife, she cleared away the soggy bark and fungi, and removed the core of the trunk, called “lighter wood.” Her granddad used these when they needed light during their hunting trips. It was full of sap and ignited easily.
Back on the road, Ellen scanned the forest and checked behind them frequently for the lion. An hour later they dropped below the snow clouds and arrived at the two-mile marker – town was only a half hour away. She relaxed a little as they walked under tall pines that lined the curvy and undulating road. They rounded a corner.
Without warning a flash of tan and a growl leapt upon them, knocking them onto the ground. The mountain lion ambushed them from a tree branch above. Ellen flipped so that Pearl was underneath her and Pearl began to wail. The lion snarled a few feet away as Ellen grabbed the knife from its sheath. She scrambled onto her knees as the lion paced in a semi-circle around her, and she gripped the knife tight. The lion lunged and Ellen pushed the knife up as it made contact, stabbing it in deep in the armpit as it engulfed her with its body. It recoiled, and she stabbed its arms and paws again and again as it lunged and swatted. It retreated, wounded, and she quickly pulled out a match and a rock, struck them together, and ignited the lighter wood club. The sap flamed with a WOOSH. Ellen lunged toward the lion with the club and the animal hissed and dodged. Ellen advanced and swung the club in large arcs between her and the lion, and finally it limped, in pain, into the forest. She went back to the boulder and extinguished the club and comforted Pearl, who was still crying and had a scrape on her cheek, but otherwise wasn’t injured. She put the pack on and walked briskly the last two miles to the doctor’s office.
The doctor propped Pearl onto the table and listened to her lungs with a stethoscope. “She has pneumonia, so we’ll give her some penicillin. She’ll be fine in about a week,” said, glancing at Ellen’s ripped pants and Pearl’s scratched face. “What happened, did you get into a fight with a wild animal?” he joked. “That must have been some trek down here.”
She sighed and smiled. “I guess you could say it was an adventure.”
Copyright©2022 Heather Whitney-Williams. All Rights Reserved.