The icy air caressed Jeff's cheek, hissing softly through the gray-brown stubble that decorated his weather-beaten face. His faded leather boots smashed the freshly fallen snow, leaving a heavy imprint on each perfectly formed flake. The bluish glow of morning shone on the dewy leaves of the spruce trees, peppering the ground with glowing rays that danced to and fro.
Jeff smiled as his trapline came into view. A plump snowshoe rabbit was struggling valiantly between the steel teeth, emitting plaintive squeals of distress. Lifting his rifle to his shoulder in one fluid, effortless motion, Jeff pulled the trigger and ended the rabbit's pain forever. The shot echoed hollowly through the surrounding mountains, a mournful cry that pierced the heart of every animal that could hear it.
The second trap was untouched, but had a telltale circle of paw prints rimming its rusted structure. Jeff bent over and studied the clearly defined tracks, cursing under his breath. Lynx. A chill scurried up his spine. A lynx was an unmerciful killer, a thief to be reckoned with.
The next trap was sprung, but only a tuft of fur remained between the metal jaws. And another ring of identical prints decorated the surrounding area. Jeff carefully reset the trap, smearing deer fat onto his callused fingers so as not to leave man-scent.
The next one had a bare skeleton attached, with a bloody trail that writhed away into the bushes. And the next was no better. A half-eaten carcass of a marten lay frozen in the snow, its pelt shredded and the upper half of its body scattered around the site in bloody bits.
Jeff groaned in anguish. That's ten dollars lost already, he thought with a sigh. What am I gonna do? A chilly wind whipped through his hair, burning his eyes until they turned red and began to run. He continued along the trapline doggedly, watching as the damaged pelts materialized before him.
His finger played with the trigger hungrily, eager to kill something, anything, to pay for this destruction.
He returned home with a meager allotment of pelts, all worth under two dollars. His cheeks were flushed under the shadow of his growing beard, and his dark eyes glinted with rage. He would catch that lynx. He had to catch that lynx. And when it was caught, he would kill it. Jeff licked his cracked, bleeding lips with anticipation.
Everything was ready. The traps were set and baited, and Jeff had slathered on a layer of lard to mask his scent. The sun, cold and pale, was setting over the mountains like a scoop of vanilla ice cream melting on its cone. The bitter Alaskan wind tossed flakes of fresh snow about in a raging tempest, clouding the air with stinging drops that clung to anything and everything with their sticky tentacles.
Jeff pulled his rifle down from its regal throne on the shelf, cleaning it gently with a soft chamois rag. People often said that this was his best friend, his companion, the love of his life. And perhaps they were right. An old, hardhearted hermit that caught animals for a living couldn't possibly care for something of flesh and blood. It seemed only right for him to dote on his steel destroyer, an object that existed only to wound and take away life. But there had always been a hole in their relationship—an emptiness that Jeff could not explain or even try to understand. His rifle was a part of him; but a dead thing of metal could not fill the void that existed deep inside his hardened and seldom-used heart.
But right now the lynx consumed his thoughts. It would be on the prowl tonight, hungry for an easy meal that took little effort to kill. Jeff buttoned up the collar on his weathered, fur-lined jacket and stepped outside. The snowladen wind slapped his bare face viciously, sending icy tingles down his stiff spine. But nothing could keep him inside tonight.
Darkness settled in on the frozen Alaskan wilderness. The local screech owl began to hoot, its glowing green eyes roving the ground for a mouse or two to satisfy his rumbling stomach. Jeff hid himself in the frosty brush in front of the trapline, wetting his finger to make sure the wind wasn't blowing his lard-covered scent straight down to the traps.
The minutes ticked by. A small mink crept silently out of the brush on the opposite side and pressed his nose to the ground. The strong, alluring odor of meat soon led him into the mouth of the third trap, which closed with a SNAP! around his back leg. Jeff fought off the urge to kill the writhing, squealing animal. He knew that the noise would soon lead the lynx straight to him. All he had to do was wait.
Time crept by like a weary snail. Each minute seemed an hour, each hour seemed a day. A fine dusting of snow had settled over Jeff's immobile form, melting into his coat and sending shivers down his back. He clenched his jaw to stop the chattering of his stained teeth and clung ever tighter to his long-barreled shotgun. The mink screamed and twisted against the cruel steel teeth of the trap, but only succeeded in tearing his flesh even more. A crimson trickle of blood pooled under the metal vise, its warm scent reverberating in the cold night.
A twig snapped. Jeff cocked his rifle and tucked it into his shoulder, his fingers trembling with excitement. Two green, almond-shaped eyes glittered from behind a spruce tree, cautiously roving the area. Jeff held his breath. There was his enemy, the unmerciful thief.
The sleek, cat-like creature stepped into the clearing, her pointed, black-tipped ears twitching nervously. Jeff found a bead, aiming for her snowy breast. The lynx bent her regal head and sniffed the mink, her ivory teeth shimmering in the moonlight. Jeff placed his finger on the trigger and pulled.
There was an ominous CLICK as the gun misfired. The lynx vanished.
Jeff cursed as he never had before, throwing the rifle from him like a dirty rag. It landed with a soft thunk in a snowdrift; a fair-weather friend rejected in a moment of despair. Jeff walked silently home.
The sun was well into its zenith when he awoke the next day, puffy-eyed and angry at the world. He guzzled down at least three cups of cold, black coffee and puffed a few cigarettes—neither of which seemed to help his spirits.
Lying back down on his lumpy mattress, he thought about his predicament.
There were already enough pelts in the storage building to get him through another year—if he stretched it. But there would be no fancy new traps to use next season, and the beautiful pair of boots he longed for would simply remain a dream. And then there was his old and leaky roof—it wouldn't get the shingles it needed either. The list went on and on.
Jeff closed his eyes with a sigh. There's only one way to get what you want, he admitted to himself. Kill the lynx.
Early that evening, he unearthed his frozen rifle and filled it with fresh powder and balls, shooting a few quick rounds to make sure it still worked.
The air was crisp and clear, contrasting greatly with the stormy weather the night before. Jeff stopped a moment to drink in the sweet scent, smiling as a refreshingly cool breeze kissed his cheek. But the moment couldn't last forever. He continued on his way, rifle clenched tightly in one hand, cup of coffee in the other. He approached the trapline from a different angle this time, down by the stream where the iced-over reeds would hide him from view. Nestled down in a prickly bed of grass, he sipped his cold coffee slowly. It would have to keep him awake tonight; his heavy eyelids were already beginning to droop. The sun was nearly down now and the moon had started to rise, a pale globe of crystal that twinkled and shimmered with its stolen rays of light.
An hour passed. The night shed her cloak of darkness on the frozen mountainside, wrapping it tightly in her dark arms until the only light that remained was the cold twinkling of the stars and moon. Jeff yawned softly, feeling the pain from lack of sleep in every inch of his body.
Another hour crept by. The coffee was nearly gone, and Jeff knew that if something didn't happen soon, he was going to fall asleep. A large marten leaped gracefully out of a spruce tree, attracted by the delicious odor of cooling blood. He paused to sniff the chilly air, his luscious tail ramrod-straight behind his sleek, rust-colored body. Jeff held his breath. The lynx would most certainly kill for a meal of this beautiful creature; if it was caught.
The marten approached the bait warily, saliva dripping from his eager jaws. He must have sensed some danger, however, for he simply circled it, staying a safe distance away and keeping one yellow eye on the surrounding shrubs. Jeff's hand tightened on the gun. The urge to simply shoot the marten was overwhelming. The gorgeous pelt would bring in at least ten dollars, enough for those boots . . . He trembled as the desire to end the creature's life consumed him. Kill, kill, KILL! it whispered seductively. KILL IT! You can kill the lynx too. You can kill anything. You'll be happy and have everything you want. Kill!!
His hands were pulling the gun to his shoulder, his finger was unlocking the safety catch. Kill, kill, KILL! His eye found a bead on the marten's chest. KILL!!! As his finger was wrapping itself around the trigger, the marten leaped for the bait. The steel jaws of the trap leaped out of the snow and clamped tightly about his front paw with a sickening CRUNCH. The marten yelped in pain and tried desperately to free himself; but his struggles were to no avail.
Jeff released the gun and drew a shaky breath, wiping the glaze of sweat from his forehead with a clammy hand. What's wrong with me?! he asked himself angrily. Why am I so possessed with this "kill" thing? He gulped down the last bit of his coffee and shifted position. Remember, you're here to kill the lynx, he reminded himself sternly. Once the lynx is dead and mounted on the wall everything will be all right. He nodded as if to convince himself of the fact and sighed. It won't be long now . . .
The night was silent. The marten had settled down to gnaw at his bleeding appendage, hoping to extricate it before his fate was decided by a pistol or another animal's teeth. Jeff lay half-asleep in the reeds, his eyes weighted with the stubborn lead called weariness that threatened to close them for the rest of the night. A dark, shadowy form crouched low in the brush that dotted the ridgetop, surveying the land below it with slitted yellow eyes. Nothing stirred.
It slunk down the hill cautiously, making scarcely a noise as its feet lightly kissed the ground. Jeff sat bolt upright when he saw the dusky figure inching toward the defenseless marten, moonlight shining off its thick, speckled fur.
The lynx licked her jaws hungrily, aching for the taste of warm blood. Her luminous, amber-flecked eyes glittered as they hit a ray of starlight, sending a chill down Jeff's spine.
There she is, the voice hissed. You must kill her! He tucked the rifle's butt into his shoulder and slid back the safety. Kill! KILL! KILL!! He cocked the gun with his thumb and wrapped a finger around the trigger. Kill!! KILL!!! KILL!!! The voices screamed inside of him, demanding, possessing. But something deep down in his heart was quietly saying that killing the lynx wouldn't make everything right. There would still be that hole—that emptiness that neither killing nor his gun could fill. Kill the lynx. You must kill the lynx. Kill now, before it's too late!! He shook his head, trying to resist the voices. Kill, kill, KILL! His head spun. Kill now! Kill, KILL, KILL!!! His finger tightened on the trigger, he gave in to the voices. He took a perfect bead on the crouching shadow and then . . .
The lynx turned from the marten with a growl. A tiny kitten, not even a month old, stumbled out of the bushes, crying plaintively for his mother. Jeff froze. It was a baby lynx; a perfect miniature of its mother, complete with the lightly speckled fur and black-tipped ears. The adult quickly scooped up her offspring, glancing around to make sure no one had seen the vulnerable fur ball.
Kill them both! They'll bring lots of money. Kill, kill, KILL, KILL!!!! Jeff let the rifle slip out of his hands and fall to the ground with a clatter. No; I can't do it! he said to himself, watching the innocent kitten as he was carried off to their den. Not a mother—not a baby! He covered his craggy face with both hands and sighed. I'm done for. My trapline's just as good as ruined now. Oh, God, what am I gonna do?
The kitten danced before his eyes, a peaceful picture of love and happiness. He managed to smile at the vision, imagining how warm and soft that spotted downy fur was. . . He stopped. The ever-present hole—the emptiness that seemed a part of him—had faded. It wasn't quite as painful, not quite as piercing, as it had been for many, many years.
You have loved, a tiny voice whispered. You have shown compassion and mercy. Your heart is filled with love. He took a deep breath and felt the crisp air rush through him as never before. I have loved, he said to himself. Me. I have loved. He lifted his head slowly and stared up at the sky. The stars winked back at him, glittering jewels of hope studding a beautiful black tapestry.