Home > Hunter's Trail (Scarlett Bernard #3)

Hunter's Trail (Scarlett Bernard #3)
Author: Melissa F. Olson

Prologue

Remus arrived at the park while the sun was still high and parked in the lot for the Kings Canyon Lodge, now closed for winter. His old pickup looked forlorn in the abandoned lot, a dingy little boat on a sea of white snow. Remus got out his snowshoes and gear and began trekking east, cutting north into the wilderness as soon as he was certain no one was watching. The main road through the park had closed three days earlier on account of a blizzard, and was not expected to reopen for another week at least. Christmas was only a few days away, and between the weather and the holiday, park security had relaxed to the point of near desertion. Even so, Remus kept the Nikon close to hand, in a separate bag slung across his chest. If the rangers did find him, he would play the part of an ignorant hiker, an amateur photographer with no concept of personal safety. Once upon a time, Remus marveled, shaking his head to himself, he had even been that person.

It had taken forty-four years to find his purpose, but now he knew his place in the world, the true calling that pulled him farther north with each shuffle of his snowshoes. The only thing that mattered was protecting the wolves. He talked to himself on the hike, mumbling through the long string of affirmations and pledges that had propelled him through the last few months of preparation.

He paused to rest at the foot of one of the enormous sequoias, squinting up to admire its thick trunk in the fading sunlight. His breath crystallized in the air, and he took a long moment to appreciate the quiet, so different from his parents’ neighborhood in Los Angeles. Then the sound of shifting snow drew his attention downward. A white-tailed jackrabbit bounded closer, pausing to stare at him from a few yards away.

Remus was delighted. “Why, hello, baby,” he crooned, squatting a little. “I’m headed in that direction too. Can we walk together?”

The hare gazed at him for another moment, its empty black eyes only mildly curious about the intruder. Then it twitched a hind leg and flashed back the way it had come, its white tail disappearing in an instant. “Fine, then,” Remus muttered angrily. “I’ll make bigger friends, and we’ll come back and eat you.”

He followed the compass north for another two hours, until the last trace of sunlight had vanished and the moon had risen, low and fat on the horizon. It was well below freezing now, the trees heavy with snow that hadn’t quite completed the journey to the forest floor. Remus found the spot where a long, winding line of same-sized trees formed a sort of natural entrance to the thickest part of the woods, and he dropped his pack. He squatted down and unzipped the main compartment with cold fingers, pulling out a brand-new camping lantern and a little collapsible tripod. He turned on the lantern first, using the light to set up the tripod and the Nikon on a flat, stable stretch of embedded rock, with the camera’s lens facing toward him. When he was satisfied with the positioning, he angled the lantern to get as much light on his face as possible and turned on the camera, thumbing the switch to the “Record Video” setting. Knees creaking, he settled back on his butt, smoothed down his hair, and began.

“My name is Remus. This video is either scientific evidence or my last will and testament, depending on how the night goes.” He gave the camera a big winning smile before continuing. “On the night of December twenty-third, I have come to Kings Canyon National Park, where I hope to be bitten . . . by a werewolf.” He paused for dramatic effect. “I have heard that the nearest pack sometimes visits the northernmost stretches of this park during the winter, and that one bite can change a man into a werewolf himself. It is my life’s mission to protect and celebrate these magnificent wild creatures, and I feel the best way to truly understand their needs is to become one with them.”

Remus sipped from his water bottle, enjoying the sounds of the woods around him. He imagined an audience for the video, an awestruck congregation of his fellow eco-warriors and activists. Putting down the bottle, he turned to face the camera again. “This is the fourth month in a row that I have traveled to Kings Canyon. So far I have seen little sign of wolf activity, but I have high hopes for this fateful night. It is a busy time for the world of men,” he said with distaste, “and the snow makes the trek difficult for the two-legged. Hopefully—” Remus stopped short, listening. He forgot to keep the low dramatic tones in his voice, which came out high and excited as he continued, “Did you hear that? I swear, it almost sounded like a—”

The second time there was no mistaking it: a long, deadly-sweet howl that was snatched up by the wind and braided through the tree line. The acoustics were confusing, and Remus couldn’t pinpoint the direction the howl originated from. The sound wasn’t quite what he’d expected, either. It didn’t seem wild and noble, like on his recordings. It seemed . . . terrifying. For the first time since he’d concocted this plan, Remus felt a thin edge of fear slicing through his excitement.

He struggled to smile broadly at the camera. “That was quick,” he exclaimed shakily, and rummaged in his pack for his digital recorder and the cattle prod. “This was recorded from a pack of wolves in Idaho,” he told the camera as he hit the “Play” button on the recorder. A territory howl came blasting out, loud enough to make Remus feel smug about the extra money he’d taken from his dad for the upscale equipment. He played three full minutes of howling, grinning stupidly before hitting the “Stop” button. “Now let’s see if they respond,” he said to the camera. He made a show of looking toward the forest entrance, but it was fully dark now and the brightness of the camp lantern had destroyed his night vision. The silence was eerie, and he realized that somehow the park had gotten even quieter. What—

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