Spain Remembers

Spain Remembers

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


The End of the Trail

The mailman was confused. Confused and very tired. The snowfall of three days past made the snowshoeing heavy going and today, the second of March, 1930, the full mail pouch felt like an iron weight on his shoulders as he slugged across the ice of Dog Lake.

Every two weeks, he brought the mail to Koski’s Lumber Camp . Usually it was an easy treck walking on the tracks made by the horse-drawn sleighs. But now he was breaking trail through eight inches of fresh snow and huffing badly. He’d be glad of a good dinner in the cook shack, a smoke and talk with the guys and maybe some of the home brew hidden in the cook’s pantry before he turned in at the bunkhouse.

He stared ahead through the snow swirls and the dazzle from the western sun, checking out the decks of logs piled on the ice ready for the spring drive down the Kam River. The week’s work must have gone poorly, he thought. The size of the logs piles had not increased at all. At the half-way point, where he often spied the teamsters coming in with their loads, he saw only white as flat as a table. Usually, one of the drivers would spot him, let out a halloo and the guys would clamber to the top of the logs for a look and a wave. Everyone loved to see the mailman.

But today, only the snow devils were moving in the light wind. He could make out the tops of the three camp buildings behind the snow bank along the shore, but the welcoming smoke rising from the cook house was absent. As he squinted into the glare, he saw a dark movement on the bank. A dog? No, a wolf. Two wolves. He stopped in disbelief. Why would wolves be allowed so close to camp? He knew that the boss, Matt Koski, had a 30-30 hanging on the wall of the office shack and Matt, who’d been a sergeant in the Black Watch in the war, was a good shot.

The wolves were lolling on their haunches, their heads on one side, their expressions, even at a distance, curious and casual, as if they felt quite at home

“Hallooo,” the postman hollered and to his amazement and fear, a third wolf appeared to sit beside the others in the same relaxed, easy posture, as if it’d just stepped to the shore to welcome the visitor.

The postman felt fear trickle down his neck. He picked up a chunk of ice and threw it even though he was still a good two hundred feet away. The wolves looked at each other and seemed to shrug. They turned and trotted slowly back over the bank to the camp.

“Halloo-o-o.” He was answered by silence.

Twenty snow-shoe steps closer and the postman saw the sprawled black partially -buried shape. It was a man , half-dressed, face down. He ran to roll over the stiff body, a weight as dead as a log. The large mottled hands were clasped around the neck as it the man had been trying to strangle himself. The face was huge, the neck bulging between the fingers, the eyes covered in snow. The postman wiped them clear with his leather mittens. The skin of the cheeks was blotchy black as if, even in this freezing weather, putrefaction had set in.

The postman had seen plenty of corpses in France during the war. He’d seen faces like this at Vimy Ridge and Passchendale, the mouths contorted, the tongue showing, the dark patches of spittle and vomit. The wolves had not touched the body yet; there were no signs of a wound and, strangely, there was little clothing on the man, only the heavy melton cloth pants now frozen solid and the braces that crossed over the bare chest in a black X. He thought the dead man might be the camp owner, Matt Koski, but he could not be sure.

Then a terrible thought hit him and he leapt up, hastily shuffling his snowshoes backward. He dropped the mail pouch, and ran over the bank to the camp, pounding from one building to the next: bunkhouse, office shack and cook shack. They were all dead, all of them, a dozen men, frozen in various positions, some in their bunks, others lying in the snow in grotesque attitudes and all with the same puffed faces and neck, the bull neck that was the sign of diphtheria. Like all residents of Kam, he feared this disease which causes a leather-like skin to form in the throat cutting the airway and strangling the victim.

The three wolves raised their heads at the far side of the clearing. They had brought down one of the horses and were feeding on it but they only moved off a few feet when he yelled at them. None of the other horses was in sight.

He decided to move all the bodies into the bunk house to get them away from the animals but, as he reached for the jacket of the man lying in the path, he saw it was the young cookee, Bill Ranta, blue eyes wide open, blond hair frozen to the ground. He hesitated, his hand in the air. The postman had won the Military Cross for Bravery at the Battle of the Marne but his courage was deserting him now in the face of this invisible enemy.

He did not pick up the mail pouch as he fled back across the bay.

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