"Looks to me like a wolf." Eddie grounded his rifle and glanced up to get his grandfather's opinion. Gregory pursed his lips, studied the footprints, then nodded wisely.
"I think you're right. Lead on, Chingachgook."
Eddie walked ahead with a rhythmic swish-swish of padded red nylon leggings, keeping to one side of the line of tracks. Gregory followed quietly, rifle in one hand and ammunition pouch slung over the other arm. It didn't matter to either of them that Eddie's rifle was a stick he had picked up from under a bush, or that the pouch was only a plastic bag labelled Nick's Grocery and containing a two-litre carton of two-percent milk.
It didn't matter, either, that Gregory's long flintlock rifle was really a rubber-shod alpenstock, which he used to help him limp along on a slightly arthritic knee. He preferred the alpenstock to the usual cane because it looked less like a prop for age.
Right now the staff was Killdeer, and Gregory was the legendary scout Hawkeye.
It was the blue half hour between sunset and full night. The snow gave off an eerie glow that made you think of undersea grottoes, or phosphorescent caves far beneath the earth. The park was no longer the cheerful, diamond-bright place it was by day. It was a different world, a world of mystery and strange possibilities.
Gregory walked very softly, not letting his boots squeak in the dry snow. He was walking on magic and anxious not to crack the fragile crust. This was a world he'd thought closed to him forever. The door had been locked, the key lost.
"Look!" Eddie/Chingachgook whispered. The old scout and the young chief stood gazing down at the snow, reading the signs there. The footmarks had suddenly changed their spacing, becoming much farther apart, and deeper. Over there you could see where they closed on a line of smaller tracks. These too lengthened stride and headed in long leaps towards a big oak. At the base of the tree was a confused trampling.
"He lost it," said Hawkeye/Gregory. The chief smiled.
But they both knew what it meant. Having missed his prey, the predator would still be hungry, and dangerous. The tracks led away from the tree and vanished in the deepening twilight. Chingachgook followed cautiously.
Kids hadn't changed much over the years, thank heaven. Even, thought Gregory, if they no longer knew the old favourites and had to learnThe Last of the Mohicans at second hand, from their grandfathers.
When Gregory was ten, as Eddie was now, a fresh fall of snow meant adventure. The park became a vast forest where neighbours' dogs took the forms of skulking wolves. The houses beyond the iron fence became a stockade to be protected, or an enemy camp. And a child was a tall buckskin-clad Pathfinder, wilderness-wise, eagle-eyed. Ever on the alert for ambush, whether by human cunning or crouched, lurking beasts.
But that was sixty years ago. Decades of paper-pushing and dollar-chasing tended to deaden the imagination. And there'd been a couple of wars in there too, that had left indelible marks.
Gregory had come to accept reality early. He'd had to admit wonder was the province of childhood. Magic -- that mingling of fear and anticipation, that sense of astonishing things about to happen -- lay behind a door that had wedged shut when he reached his teens. All part of growing up, he guessed.
Once in a while, over the years, the door had opened. Never wide enough to let him back inside, just enough to tantalize him with an echo or a reflected gleam. Gulls circling over a deserted beach, with something too human, too mournful in their cries. Or at sunset, a pile-up of cumulus clouds that rose over the flat horizon like golden hills and valleys, and faroff seas, and made him want to drop everything and set off on a journey into the west.
This evening Gregory had slipped back through the door. Maybe it was the spell cast by the blue snow-light. Maybe it was Eddie who had led him in by the hand. Or maybe it was because he, Hawkeye, was just old enough.
As they followed the line of tracks he stopped wondering. He even stopped pretending that the dog prints were the prints of a wolf. He knew they were wolf tracks.
The young chief was getting too far ahead. That could be fatal: the beast they hunted was itself a hunter. "Chingachgook! Slowly!" He pitched his call low. The boy stopped and looked back. Silently, he pointed downward.
The wolf no longer hunted alone. A second line of tracks, nearly as large, angled in to travel beside the first. Its mate, no doubt. And they were heading towards the stockade, probably hoping to catch some unwary settler outside the wall.
Now it was up to the scouts to ward off the predators. Hawkeye stopped to adjust his flint and reload his rifle. Then he took the lead, with Chingachgook padding watchfully in the rear.
Not so far, now, to the stockade. The blue light was seeping away into the darkening night, the tracks were harder to see and follow. And the scouts were approaching a dangerous neck of the forest.
Their path lay between two long stretches of thick brush and trees, a perfect spot for an ambush. Hawkeye could just make out the wolf tracks as they detoured behind this cover. They might have run on and be far ahead by now. Or -- there was no way yet of telling -- they might be only a few feet away, watching through the bracken with their shining night eyes, waiting for the right moment to circle around noiselessly and attack from the rear.
The trackers stood very still and listened. The distant buzz of traffic was part of another dimension, and Hawkeye easily cut it out of his awareness. He heard Chingachgook's even breathing and his own, heard the hiss of wind through dry stems, the whish-sh of powdery snow across a hard crust.
Then something moved in the shadows. A branch stirred, snow crunched softly. They were stealthy sounds and they were made by something large. Something human.
Instantly Hawkeye was Gregory again. He took Eddie by the shoulder and swung him around to his other side, the side farthest from the noises in the shrubbery. His heart was making a nuisance of a thudding in his ears but he disciplined his legs, made them move at a brisk pace. He even managed to hold himself with jaunty confidence, as if he were up to dealing with any kind of predator, instead of being an unathletic senior citizen who walked with an eccentric cane.
The park gate was in sight, its posts and arch a black tracery against the bright snowy street beyond. The path towards it looked a mile long. The bushes pressed close on either side. Gregory heard sounds on his left that told him the other was keeping pace. He must be heading for the thin place in the bushes, the easiest place to break through.
Now the thin place lay just ahead, three yards this side of the gate. With every step the light grew stronger. Gregory stopped and bent down to Eddie's unalarmed face.
"You go ahead." He placed the grocery bag in the boy's hand. "Your mother will be wanting that milk. Go on," he said, in a tone Eddie recognized as final.
"Aren't you coming?"
"I'll come at my own speed. Go on, run!"
Eddie ran. Through the park gates, up the street, his red nylon jacket flashing in and out of the pools of light cast by the streetlamps. Gregory watched until he was sure he'd reached the house. Then he walked on.
He came abreast of the place where the shrubbery thinned. To his left came a crackle of breaking stems. It should have sent him running, but instead it paralyzed him. He was no runner, not on that knee. Arthritis was about to make a hero of him.
He looked into the bushes and saw, where the streetlight struck in, a bright, cold gleam like a knife blade. Or a long claw. Or maybe -- keep your cool, Greg! -- maybe only the reflection off an ice-coated branch. He took a deep breath to steady his disloyal heartbeat, squared his shoulders and got a firm grip on the alpenstock.
"It's not worth it, friend." He aimed his voice at the bushes and hoped he sounded a lot more confident than he felt. "All I've got is a couple of loonies. And don't think I'll make it easy for you."
The silence was dense with listening. I'm the loony, thought Gregory, as he turned crisply on his heel and strode towards the gate with a fair imitation of Hawkeye's firm step. But nothing followed him. The trembling held off till he was on the sidewalk, with cars passing along the road in front of him.
Quick, now: back to the house, phone the police. And tell them what? he wondered, as he hurried up the street. They'd never catch the prowler now. They might even put it all down to an old man's frightened imagination.
Still, it had to be done.
He limped up the walk and opened the front door of his daughter's house. On the threshold, with warm air pouring out past him, he looked back. At the end of the street the park fence was clearly lit. Behind the iron tracery was a lake of darkness. One big shadow, more solid than the rest, moved for a moment and then faded back into the dark.
No, it wasn't imagination. The world really was a vast, wild forest, a place of wonders and terrors. There never had been a locked door between.
But here was a door, and with a sense of relief Gregory closed it against the cold and turned the latch. He hung up his coat and went into the living room, where his family were gathered.
Here he found warmth and bright light, the smell of coffee and the sound of laughter. And a fire on the hearth, a big, vigorous fire, to keep away the cold and the things that prowled in the night.