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Blue Moon (Chapter 19)

I smelled the fire before I saw the flames. Gimping along with my sore knee, I forgot there had been two wolves and only one gunshot. I forgot a lot of things, including my sudden unease in the forest.

I crashed through the underbrush like a cow. Domestic animals rarely bothered to move quietly. Why should they? I'm sure Mandenauer heard me coming long before I arrived.

My trail crossed another. I paused, glancing first one way and then the other. The two paths merged here. Mandenauer and I would have eventually met. Just as the wolves had.

Ahead orange flames glowed brightly against the night. Since it was June and not yet high tide for forest fires, I didn't panic, but I did gimp along faster.

I should have known Mandenauer could light a bonfire that wouldn't burn down the entire forest. The scent of searing fur and flesh hit me as soon as I stepped into the clearing. If you've ever smelled it, you know why I gagged.

"What the hell are you doing?" I shouted when I managed to regain my breath.

He didn't look at me, just continued to stare into the flames as if hypnotized. At least he'd surrounded the conflagration with rocks and placed the bonfire on dirt, as far away from trees and bushes as was possible in the middle of the freaking forest.

I limped to his side and tried again. "Have you lost what's left of your mind?"

He laughed. The sound was rusty. I'm sure Manden-auer didn't laugh much, if ever. Why he'd choose now was beyond me. This situation was anything but funny.

"Strange you should ask that, since my mind, along with my soul, was lost a very long time ago."

I frowned. "Feeling a little sorry for ourselves, are we?"

The remnants of his smile deepened. "You amuse me, Jessie McQuade."

"Yeah, I live to please."

I contemplated the fire. In the depths I saw the outline of a wolf. What else would he be burning? Though the fur was gone, the size was wrong to be the huge black beast that had been taunting us. I squinted against the leaping flames. It appeared the wolf had been tossed on a pile of… something. Hard to tell what, but probably leaves. They made good kindling.

"You want to tell me why you're burning this wolf?"

"I told you at the office of the medical examiner. It is safer to burn them."

That's right. He had.

"Flames and trees do not mix, mister."

"I am careful. I have done this a thousand times before."

A thousand? Right. Maybe his mind was more lost than even he was willing to admit.

"You couldn't wait? Burn it somewhere safer? Don't you think the DNR would like to check this out?

Even the CDC?"

"I am sure they would." He took several steps to the left and stomped on a stray ember with his boot.

Then he raised his gaze to mine. "But it is too late now, is it not?"

"I'd say so, thanks to you."

He turned away, but not before I could swear I saw him smile again.

Which made me wonder… a whole bunch of things.

Was Mandenauer crazier than he appeared? Could he be a holdover from the wolf hunters who had nearly eradicated the species by the mid-1900s?

Back then the wolf had been considered evil –  out to kill every domestic animal it found. Ranchers hated them –  still do –  and hired wolf hunters to take care of the problem. However, the true culprits were often coyotes or feral dogs, as well as wolves.

I'd seen pictures, read stories, about the atrocities committed upon the wolf population. They had sickened me. I'm not saying wolves aren't varmints, that they don't kill stock and even a pet or two.

But shoot the damn things; don't mutilate them. Sometimes the inhumanity of men made me want to become a complete recluse rather than remain a civil servant.

I'd met a few wolf hunters and they were as creepy as Mandenauer. They continued to kill wolves whenever they could –  despite any laws to the contrary –  as if in doing so they recaptured a bit of their youth.

But Mandenauer had been hired by the DNR, which, contrary to popular belief, was far from stupid.

They would have checked him out thoroughly and made certain he was the kind of man who would follow their anal ordinances to the letter.

The CDC agreed a new strain of rabies was spreading. I had seen some of these wolves, and they weren't acting like wolves. Of course they could be werewolves, as Cadotte would have me believe.

I kicked the dirt. Hell, I was starting to see a conspiracy behind every tree.

Something sparkled in the dirt I'd stirred up. I glanced at Mandenauer, but he was busy with his wolf pyre. I winced as I bent my sore knee to scoop the bright and shiny item into my hand.

A single key. No key ring. No markings to indicate it belonged to a car. Most likely a house key, but how had it gotten here? I shrugged and slipped the thing into my pocket.

A chorus of yips started nearby and I jumped, then spun toward them, rifle raised, my hand halfway to the safety before I recognized the nature of the calls.

"Coyotes," Mandenauer murmured. "Odd."

He was right. Why hadn't the wolves run the coyotes out of the area as wolves always did?

"Maybe foxes?" I proposed.

Wolves tolerated foxes. Lord knows why.

The old man shook his head. I had to agree. I knew the difference between a coyote and fox. Something strange was going on in these woods, but then, what else was new?

"What happened?" I indicated the pyre.

Mandenauer had been staring into the forest in the direction of the coyotes'calls. He blinked and forced his attention back to me. "You wish for a tall tale?"

"Just the truth, thanks."

"Truth. What is truth?"

My patience, nothing to brag about on a good day, snapped. "Spare me the existential bullshit and tell me what happened."

He smirked. The guy certainly was a jolly old elf tonight.

"I trailed the animal. It leaped at me from the night. I shot it."

"Yee-ha."

He shrugged. "You wanted the truth. The truth is not very ' yee-ha,'I have found."

Right again.

"How did you know the wolf was rabid?"

Mandenauer shoved a stone closer to the fire with the scuffed toe of his boot. "Does it matter?"

"Of course it matters! We can't just go around shooting every wolf in the forest."

"The DNR has given me leave to handle this situation as I see fit."

That didn't sound like the DNR. Control freaks thrived in government positions, and they rarely gave carte blanche to anyone. Certainly not trigger-happy old farts like Mandenauer.

"If we eliminate them all, your wolf problem will be resolved much more quickly. And who is to say that the uninfected wolf today will not be an infected wolf tomorrow?"

"Then we'll have to shoot the coyotes, the raccoons, the opossums. This could get messy."

"Yes, it could."

He reached out his bony hands and warmed them on the flames. We stood shoulder to shoulder as the fire died to embers. Then we stood until a cool breeze picked up the ashes and flung them into the forest.

As we returned to the car I had to squelch the nagging thought that Mandenauer had not just been talking about animals.

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