After the Wolves
A/N: This is A/U to my own Gunsmoke canon -- sort of meta fan fiction. I’ll be re-posting my other Gunsmoke fics. They are sort of prequels to this story but you don’t have to read them first. To be honest, I took them down because of the racist flames I got in my PM. I was shocked and saddened so I removed my stories. After some thought, I decided to put them back up. We are one of the smaller fandoms and we need to stick together! Much love to all who were so very supportive.
I have no beta. All my fubars are belong to me.
I winced at the glare from the sun and from the bright pain that scored my throat with hot iron nails. I coughed hard. Each spasm was as painful as a pistol shot to the chest. I had dug a bullet out of my own leg two days before and it hardly bled. Now, if I didn’t get some broth in my belly and a good night’s sleep by a warm fire, I was going to die from an ague that started as a light case of the sniffles when I rode out of Dodge a ten days ago.
I shielded my eyes with one hand and squinted through the haze of my fever. A pack of wolves growled over a large bloody patch in a vast meadow of clean white snow.
I checked my ammunition. I had four bullets in my pistol and two shells in my rifle. I watched the beta wolf face down the others while the alpha ate his fill. If I could pick off the alpha, the rest would scatter and I could take a piece of their kill. They would be wary of me only temporarily -- hopefully, long enough for me to get beyond their territory. If I missed, I would be only a loud noise and harmless – and easy prey.
I heard the thick crackle of cartilage being separated from a large joint.
“What do you think, Buck?” I murmured. The horse flared his nostrils and kept an ear turned to the wolf pack, but he was otherwise silent and still.
We moved slowly along the tree line until the pack was downwind. The alpha wolf lifted his head and sniffed the air. I raised my rifle, aimed and fired.
The shot rang in my ears and seemed to reverberate all around me. Buck stamped a foot and nodded sharply. The wolves ran into the trees on the opposite side of the meadow. I heard a distant rumbling -- perhaps the sound of a storm closing in.
As I approached the kill, I could not, at first, make sense of what I was seeing. A bloody boot. A leather poke with its contents strewn about. Torn dungarees. A clenched fist stood straight up out of the snow.
The wolf kill was a man.
I dismounted and knelt by the body. The man was young, a teenager. I pressed my fingers against his cheek. He was cold but not frozen, his half-open eyes not yet clouded over. He’d been dead an hour, maybe two. I searched him and pulled out a worn buckskin wallet from his coat pocket. Inside was a manumission stamped with the crumbling seal of a deed office in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. The boy’s name was Lucien Lemieux, he was nineteen years old and he was the son of a freed man.
I sighed and felt a tug in my heart. Even after Emancipation, Negroes carried proof of their status as free people. They were right to be distrustful of white men. The war had been over for twenty years but former slaves were still being abducted and sold to plantation owners in Cuba and Panama. But freedom papers were a flimsy shield against determined slavers. Free men and their families fled to these mountains where they were less likely to encounter whites.
I tucked the document back into the billfold and pushed it deep into my coat pocket. A finely wrought metal cross on a silver chain was embedded in the gore on the boy’s chest. I lifted his head and eased the necklace from around his neck. I dropped it into my coat pocket with the manumission.
I stared sadly at Lucian’s face. His skin was fair – lighter than my own skin when tanned in the summer. He could’ve passed for white if he wanted to. My guess was he didn’t want to, when members of his family perhaps could not. His half-open eyes were gray and flecked with bronze, like granite stone and fool’s gold. I reached down and gently closed them.
Light, wet snowflakes began to fall and the icy wind picked up. The wolves paced along the tree line. It was time to go. The ground was too hard to dig and even if it wasn’t, I didn’t have the strength to bury the body. I had no choice but to leave him.
“I’m sorry, son,” I said.
I heaved myself onto my horse and watched the wolves. I thought about shooting another but the pack was not advancing and I needed all the bullets I could save. There was a trail of blood and drag marks leading from the trees. I spurred my horse and followed them from force of habit, even though I knew I had little time to spare before I had to find a place to make camp.
The trail led into the trees and to the bottom of a steep, rocky slope. The snow was churned with wolf tracks, and the hoof prints of a horse. A large rock jutted from the ground, a clot of blood and hair pasted to one jagged edge. It was easy for me to reconstruct the scene. The slope was nearly sheer and the footing treacherous. A horse could not make it up the slope with a man on his back. Lucien had gotten off his horse, slipped on an icy patch and hit his head on the rock. There was blood, but not a lot. He died here, hitting his head hard enough to stop his heart.
The wolves had not hunted the boy, only scavenged his dead body.
I turned my horse in a circle, searching the ground. Fading hoof prints went up the slope and into the low clouds. Horses are creatures of habit and usually ran straight home if left to their own devices. I looked back at the wolves. They were cautiously approaching their fallen alpha. There was no shelter for me as long as I was in their territory and there was nowhere else for me to go but up the slope. I had nothing to lose by following that horse home. Hopefully, his home wasn’t far.
I burned with fever and was lightheaded from lack of food. I dismounted and swooned, nearly falling myself. I wrapped the reins around my saddle horn then cinched them under my arms and around my back. If I slipped or lost consciousness, I would not fall to the ground. Buck was used to tracking other horses and often picked up sign that I had lost. He would drag me along until he found the horse or I told him to stop. I hooked my arm around his neck.
“Let’s go find him, boy,” I said.
We stumbled up the incline, leaning on each other like a couple of drunken bums.