Beyond the frozen lake, the jagged, granite peaks of the Wind River Mountains pushed upward through the morning’s early spring mist like the snouts of howling wolves. At the base of the ridge, near the entrance to the south approach trail, a swarm of SUVs gathered. Their occupants emerged with coffee mugs in hand and maps tucked under their arms to mark their routes. They were among the volunteer hikers, climbers, and professional first responders always mobilized when a hiker went missing in our little corner of Wyoming wilderness.
It had been 14 days since my husband Tom set out for the east-side trail of Mount Mitchelle carrying his favorite field glasses and the small spiral notebook he used for birding. I wasn’t sure, but I believed that he was headed to a low-rising ledge that had been the nesting place for the past three years of a pair of Red Tail hawks Tom had named Harold and Maude. I was occupied with washing the skunk smell out of one of his dogs, a yellow Lab he affectionately named Dewars. Somewhat angry that the task had fallen to me, I had been doing my best to ignore him that morning.
Sheriff Carl Larkin sat across from me at a table in the kitchen’s sun room where floor-to-ceiling windows gave us both a clear view of the distant rescue efforts. The same windows from which Tom would often gaze and share observations of a landscape that managed to remain both constant and ever-changing: the prairie clover’s due to bloom soon, he’d announce, looks like there are rednecks nesting in the high grass next to the shed, so you’ll have to replant your tomatoes somewhere else this year.
I looked at the group of men and women as they split into teams and began a newly plotted grid search. “Not as many as yesterday,” I said.
“No, Marcella, and I’m sorry to say there’ll be even fewer tomorrow.”
Carl had been in charge of the two-week search-and-rescue effort and would continue as lead point on what was now considered a recovery mission. He was also a friend. Over the past year since Carl was assigned to nearby Rocktown, he and Tom had spent many hours trading jokes and small sums of money during gin rummy games or while huddled over ice-fishing holes. Though they each claimed superiority at both, Tom was the better fisherman, Carl the better card player, so their wagers seemed to even themselves out. If, of course, you don’t include the ultimate prize that Carl had recently stolen from Tom — me.
There were few people in our lives, whether in Wyoming or back East, who knew of Tom’s struggles with rage and depression. When I first learned that Tom had confided in Carl I was happy that after 20 years of marriage, he had finally found someone, other than me and professional therapists, to share his burden. But during an extended stretch of time when Tom skipped his medications, what had begun as a shared concern among the three of us dissolved into a bonding of commiseration that included only Carl and me.
A little over a month ago, at the end of one of Carl’s midnight visits to our cabin to keep Tom from breaking his fist against my skull, Carl pulled me close and spoke into my ear: You deserve better than this. I was startled by the realization of how much I had missed the warm, soft cloud of a man’s breath upon my neck. The words I whispered back surprised me as much as they did Carl: Come back tomorrow, Tom leaves for New York at noon.
“I’m not sure I like you staying out here all by yourself, I could stay —”
“No, no, that is not a good idea. That’s not going to happen, not now, not ever.”
“Do you think he knew, I mean, he wasn’t exactly dressed for the weather and —“
“We are not having this conversation.” I said, and after an awkward silence added, “Shouldn’t you join the others?”
Carl rose from the table, his face was flush with what I thought was a combination of disappointment and regret. To be honest, I had mixed emotions about his leaving. I did not welcome the emptiness that was sure to seep in and, as always when I was alone in the cabin, fill the space between the walls. But he also bore a striking resemblance to Tom and shared many of the same characteristics. The way they occupied the seat at the table in morning, a tri-folded newspaper in one massive hand, the other free to hold a coffee mug or scratch the furry neck of an adoring dog. The ease at which their angular 6’4” frames moved through space. He was becoming a painful echo, a diminishing loop of memory of the man who, apparently, had left me for a mountain.
“So no more card games, then?” he asked.
“No more card games, Carl.”
The dogs heard it first. I was sweeping winter’s dirt from the porch. Dewars and Chase, Tom’s obsessively loyal yellow Labs, were perched at the head of the drive when both dogs jumped to attention and pricked their ears. They stared at the end of the long drive and released a low, simultaneous growl.
“What’s the matter boys?”
Just as they commenced to raucous barking, I too heard the distinct whir of a car engine growing louder and recognized the crunch of tires over gravel stones. A gray-brown blur in the distance sharpened into Carl’s F-150, which snaked its way up the drive at a slow crawl, past the entrance to the carport, over the sidewalk pavers and straight for the cabin. He finally came to a stop with his grill just kissing the split railings of the front steps. Carl threw open the driver’s door and took a slight stumble before catching himself against a fender; a bottle of vodka dangled in his hand.
“Ok. What are you doing here?”
“We need to talk.”
My plan was to put on a pot of coffee, make him a hot meal and send him on his way. But Carl was not exaggerating, he really wanted to talk, and having been swallowed by my own guilt since the first sunset of Tom’s disappearance, I let him.
He was having nothing of the coffee. But I convinced him to switch to wine. After a few hours of reminiscing, his expression hardened ever so slightly and he said in a very sober manner, “You know this is really all for the best.”
For the first time that evening, I felt the heat of uncertainty rise in my throat. I glanced across the room at the glass-fronted mahogany cabinet filled with a variety of rifles and shotguns. Carl followed my gaze.
“Quite a collection Tom left you; they could come in handy out here.”
I found myself measuring every word. “They could, if I knew how to use them. Tom was the great outdoorsman, not me. Besides,” I added, “Tom always kept the key with him.”
“Well, in a real emergency, like a bear scratching at your back door, I’m sure you’d want to know how to use one. If you want,” he added, “I could show you?”
I considered his offer, “Thank you, that’s probably a good idea.”
I continued to keep Carl’s glass filled and allowed him to drink himself into a deep sleep. I fetched a blanket to cover him and contemplated how concerned I should be with the situation. Why did he ignore my request to stay away? Is he simply grieving or something more? Just as I was about to switch off the lights and head for bed, I noticed a familiar leather strap hanging from the pocket of Carl’s coat that lay draped across a chair. My hands were shaking when I pulled Tom’s field glasses from the pocket.
When Carl awoke the next morning I was gone. I left a note on the kitchen table informing him that I was off to town to pick up food and supplies and would be back in the afternoon, in time for a shooting lesson if his offer still stood. Coffee was on the stove, and if he wouldn’t mind, Dewars and Chase could use a run on the lake.
Carl found himself about a quarter of a mile onto frozen water before he realized his error. Just as he put the Ford into reverse, the first crack of thawing ice could be heard. He stopped the truck and he and the dogs jumped out. Carl was so occupied with surveying the status of his truck and the ice; he didn’t notice the petite figure emerge from a grouping of trees at the lake’s edge. It was the excitement of the dogs that first drew his interest. When he looked up to see what had gotten them so energized, he was startled to see me standing just yards in front of him, bundled in camouflage gear; a 20 gauge Winchester swung loosely at my side.
“Where is he?” I demanded.
“Where is who?”
“What have you done to Tom?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about?”
I reached into my pocket, removed the field glasses and them up for show.
Carl stood still and silent before a shrug of resignation lifted his shoulders. “I told you, you deserved better.”
I let out a howl of regret and anger. I was dizzy with disbelief. Had my foolish indulgences and pillow talk complaints twisted this madman into hurting Tom? Tears were streaming down my face as the furry movement of Chase and Dewars broke through my field of vision. Having abandoned their chase of a squirrel, they bounded toward me and began jumping demands for attention. I lost both my footing and my grip on the rifle, which went skidding across the lake before coming to rest just beyond the front tires of the truck, midway between me and Carl.
Carl stood motionless as the ice beneath us continued to groan and crackle. I took one, then two tentative steps toward the rifle. “Marcella, don’t be a fool, don’t risk your life for a rifle you don’t even know how to use.”
I tried to remain calm and stoic, just like Tom had taught me, neither fear nor anger creased my brow. I watched his expression change as he took in my image. I could see in that moment, in the brief capsule of time it takes for a hawk to sweep a squirrel from its prey, that he suddenly understood. I was not a fool. If I could reach that rifle, I would know exactly how to raise it to my shoulder and settle its crosshairs to the left-of-center target on his chest. I was certain he was now aware that before him stood a woman who no longer flinched at the recoil of a gun, a woman adept at tracking the movements of others while eliminating the traces of her own. Before him stood a woman completely comfortable with separating rabbits from their skins.
We both lunged forward and instantly the ice beneath us released a spider web of cracks and began to rock with a readiness to break into flows. Again we both stood still and silent. Carl was the first to break the impasse. He raised his arms in semi-surrender, palms toward the sky. “He beat the crap out of you.”
“I loved him,” my screams were now primal.
“I can explain, Marcella, I never meant to hurt him, honestly. We argued. About you. Now, let’s work this out before this ice kills us both, ok?”
“Work this out? THIS CANNOT BE WORKED OUT.”
We both had a decision to make. He could wait for me to make the first move and hope that the ice would be kinder to him than to me, or he could act. One lunge, either toward me or toward the rifle. My choice was simpler; it was the gun or nothing.
A thunderous crack of ice barreled across the thawing tundra, lifting birds into flight and sending a bobcat scurrying up a nearby tree; the rifle volley that followed was tame in comparison.
Jo Ann Povia lives in Ewing and works for the Mercer County Board of Freeholders.