I stand still amidst the drifting snow. My revolver is heavy and cold; the metal sticks to my hand. I pull it free, grimace when skin tears away. Opposite me are the lean men whose very look is hungry, bundled in furs, guns propped on shoulders, waiting.
In the distance run the wolves, coming closer.
“Used to be we jest paid you fellas off,” says the taller poacher, squinting at me.
“Used to be,” I say. “Not anymore.”
His buddy walks up. He is fat, squat, and his eyes have a bloody cast that make my hackles stiff.
“The other warden had an accident, didn’t you hear?” A jet of brown tobacco-spit arcs across the white snow. “Poor fella. Just up and disappeared one night. Family too.”
I vaguely remember the man I’ve replaced. Tall, with crooked teeth; there had been pictures of his family on the desk I inherited.
“I heard,” I say, feeling hoarfrost anger crackle just below the surface.
“A hundred pelts per season,” the bloody-eyed one said, pointing with his gun toward the wolves, milling about now in a gray mass. “And nothing...ah...unfortunate, happens.”
“That’s a tall order.”
The tall one looks from the gathering wolves to my brown Department of Fish and Wildlife jeep to his companion.
“They shouldn’t be hangin’ round like that, Bill. Ain’t normal.”
Bill scoffed. “Shit, they’re just used to humans, is all. All the more reason to thin ’em out, you ken, warden?”
I tap my chin, blow out my breath in a white mist.
“So, we have an understanding?”
They have not noticed the other pack padding softly toward us from downwind. I smile, and Bill takes this as an accord, and returns my smile with his own brown grin.
The tall poacher sees them first, swears softly.
Bill, still chewing and grinning, follows his eyes. His jaw stops working. His eyes bulge. He rounds on me.
“What the fuck is this?”
The men raise their guns. I raise mine. Two shots ring clear across the cold evening air; two men slump to the snow and melt it with hot blood.
The wolves close in around us. I smile, and presently I am not quite a man, clothes fluttering, and soon I am not man at all.
There’s a new warden in town, I think, licking the blood from my muzzle.