Carol W Hazelwood

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Web of Obsession available from

Web of Obsession

by Carol W. Hazelwood

Chapter 1

I dreamed a thousand new paths…
I woke and walked my old one.
Chinese proverb

Henri Deforte strode along the rock-strewn bank above the Thelon River, his old Winchester balanced in the cup of his right palm. Like a father taking pride in his son, he scanned the vast hills, carpeted with dwarf trees, grasses and stunted brush. Lifting his swarthy face toward the sky, Henri sniffed the air. Thunderheads gathered far off, threatening to sweep across the Barren- lands of Canada’s Northwest Territory. The first hint of a breeze brushed the land, and a deep rumble shook the air. The Arctic’s summer sun nursed its hold in the sky against the onslaught of the storm. A peregrine falcon darted earthward toward its prey on the opposite riverbank.
Henri scratched his thick eyebrows, then swung the rifle onto his shoulder, barrel facing behind him. Like the wolves he hunted, he loped over the ground, covering distances quickly, despite his stocky-bowed legs. Ice-heaved rocks crunched and rolled under his heavy boots. No matter. The terrain was as familiar to him as his own lined and weathered face.

Despite the beauty around him, his mood was as foul as the distant brooding clouds. He’d separated from his trapping partner in pre-dawn’s gray light after a bitter argument. For several years he and Erich had trekked across the land and canoed the rivers checking and setting trap lines, but this trip Erich had insisted upon visiting this new area near the boundary of the Thelon River Sanctuary. Grudgingly Henri had agreed, but with each passing day, his anger had built. Although wolf dens were in the vicinity, Henri had shied away from the area since ’78.

Henri headed back to the canoes after spending a fruitless day reconnoitering the area for future trap lines. Farther down the riverbank, he spotted Erich dragging a limb of a white birch tree, his tall frame hunched with the effort. Erich disappeared in a dip of the land, then re-emerged, and as he drew closer, Henri noticed objects tied to the limb. The glint of sunlight off metal seared his eyes. He stopped, then willed himself forward, despite a deep foreboding. With agility born of treading the wilderness, he leaped from rock to turf, brushing by scruffy shrubbery. As he jogged, his wolf hide vest flapped like beetle wings against his thick sides.

Erich waved. “I found it.” His voice carried across the distance separating them. Sweat dribbled down Henri’s broad face. His stomach churned. When he drew near Erich, he stopped and stared at the mass of twisted metal lashed to the white bark. He stepped closer, set his rifle aside and wiped his forehead with his shirtsleeve.
Erich’s thin horse face held a grin that split his parched lips. “After all these years, pieces of the satellite. Back there.” He swung his skinny arm toward the esker behind him. “In about a mile, buried deep in the sand. Just traces, but those led me to the rest. How could I have missed this all these years?” He threw back his shaggy gray-haired head and roared to the heavens. “I found it!” He pounded Henri’s shoulder. “Everyone thought I was crazy. Help me retrieve my box from the canoe.” He chuckled. “You made fun of my lead-lined box, but see, it’s important now. He pointed to a long metal object. “This is a beryllium rod. It could still be radioactive. We better be careful how we handle it.” He held out his hands in front of him. “See? I even wear my special gloves. Come on.” He gestured to Henri to follow him to the canoe.

Henri stood his ground, arms folded across his chest. His body quivered with rage. His mouth curled downward. “What do you do with this stuff?” He nodded toward the metal with a sneer.

“Take it to Yellowknife, of course. The Mounties will want to see this. I’ve completed my life’s task. I found debris from Cosmos 954. I…you and I will be heroes.”
Henri’s eyes narrowed. “The Mounties, they’ll want to search this area, no?”

“Of course.” Erich’s eyes gleamed as if he’d discovered gold. “There may be more pieces around. At least one part of my search is successful and I’m closer to the other. Closer than I’ve been in years. Geology doesn’t lie. I thought I might die before….”

“No!” Henri’s lips trembled; his head spun with disbelief and rage. “Leave the stuff. Take it back.”

“Are you crazy? The government needs to know.” Erich stared at his treasures.

“Screw the government. Hide the stuff.” Henri grabbed the sleeve of Erich’s khaki shirt.

“Are you nuts?” Erich brushed aside Henri’s hand and faced his partner, his hands on his hips. “Why do you think I’ve been out here for seventeen years? I’ve been searching for pieces of that damn Russian spy satellite ever since it went down. If my geological calculations are correct, I may have stumbled onto another find. Stick with me and you’ll be rich.”

Henri shoved Erich’s shoulder hard, sending the taller man backward. “Don’t feed me shit. Operation Morning Light fini! What they find? Not much, but my land got scars. No one, no government screws with my wilderness.”

“Your land? Your wilderness? You crazy half-breed. This material is radioactive. You know what that means?”

Henri stuck his pug face forward; his forehead touched Erich’s bearded chin. “Don’t call me half-breed you dumb kraut. Shove the junk in your lead box and hide it. Nobody need know.”

“If you’re so stubborn, I’ll handle this myself.” Erich turned away.

Henri snatched his arm, spinning him around. “No. You can’t.” He spat out the words and followed them with a menacing growl, more wolf than human. Seizing Erich by the hair, he yanked hard, bringing Erich’s face level with his. “You fuckin’ government brown nose.” Henri’s spittle narrowly missed Erich’s face. “Once a sergeant, always a sergeant.” He let go of Erich’s hair and shoved him away.

“And proud of it.” Erich launched himself at Henri.

The little man stepped aside, tripped Erich and caught the man’s shoulder on his thigh. Reaching down, Henri trapped Erich’s head under his armpit and clamped his arm down hard. Erich thrust his boot behind Henri’s heel, tumbling him backward. They fell to the ground in a heap with Erich on top. A rock gouged into Henri’s spine, sending a spasm of pain through his body and forcing him to release his hold. Erich reared back, straddled Henri’s body and pummeled Henri’s face with his fists. Under Erich’s weight, Henri writhed, feeling his skin split.

The quiet of the tundra echoed with angry sounds as if two bull caribou had collided.

“Radiation,” Erich said, as he swung his gloved fists at Henri‘s head again and again, “is not going away.” With one hand, Henri tried to ward off Erich’s stinging blows, while his left hand searched in the scrabble grass for a weapon. His chunky fingers clawed around a rock; he clutched it, swung it at Erich, once, then again. Erich sagged. Henri struck him again and heard a hollow thud. Erich fell to one side and Henri twisted on top of him. On splayed knees, he straddled his opponent.

Through gasps of air, Henri yelled, “Not in my land. Never. You never take that stuff out.” Henri slumped over Erich’s chest. With the stillness of his partner under him, his anger seeped away. He leaned back to gulp air and nudged Erich’s chest with one hand. “Hey, big man, good fight. Hey, mon ami. I got you this time.”

Blood poured from Erich’s ears; his eyes, like marbles, stared at the vast sky. The round granite rock still nestled in Henri’s callused hand. Slowly the rock slipped from his fingers and tumbled down the stony slope into the wide churning Thelon River.

Henri shook Erich’s shoulders. “Hey, you. Come on. Don’t fool me.” He tapped the man’s cheek. “Nooooo!” He didn’t want to believe what he knew was true. Although it was Erich beneath him, he saw the image of another, the prospector, the old man he’d killed in ’78. How could this happen again? Forcing his eyes away from the body beneath him, he searched the horizon as if the answers lay out in the stunted landscape of the tundra.

He squinted at a far knoll where a lone bull caribou stood motionless, framed against the blue beyond. The rolling plains of the Barrenlands stretched out in all directions, hiding an endless seam of eskers, rivers and lakes. Only muskoxen, caribou, grizzlies and wolves inhabited this area. Dwarf shrub, moss, lichen, stubbly grass, and sedge enveloped the jade green land. Except for the roiling river, silence surrounded Henri. A wolf howl broke the stillness, and he thought of his wolf traps set deep in the taiga.

Suddenly aware of the inert body between his knees, he rolled off, stumbled to his feet and staggered a few yards away. His breath came in raspy gasps; he rubbed his hands down the side of his stained wolf-hide vest. Despite the heat, he shivered with the pressure of guilt. Although he knew there was not a soul within hundreds of miles, he glanced around, then wiped his bruised mouth with the back of his gnarled hand.

“You dumb kraut,” he shouted. “Why you have to find goddamn wreckage? What’s it worth to you now?” He stared at the beryllium rod, the large jagged piece of metal, the small cylinder and other odds and ends. They lay like serpents strapped onto the dead birch limb. Some treasure!

He sniffed and pawed at his cheeks as tears sliced through his craggy facial lines. “Hey, Erich, the wilderness is all I got. Honest. I didn’t mean to hit you so hard. Remember, I told you this was an evil place. No good. Now look what’s happened.”

He sank to his knees by Erich’s body. “This is crazy.” He leaned over and grabbed Erich’s shoulders, shaking him. “Come on. Come on. You live.” Erich’s head lolled backwards. Henri laid his partner back down and rested next to him. He hadn’t cried since his mother died, but now his wide shoulders convulsed in hard sobs.
After a time, he quieted and stood. A keen wind ruffled his clothing, keeping the persistent blackflies at bay. Temporarily, only temporarily. The tiny, carnivorous flies would soon descend upon Erich’s gray-bearded face. In early August the flies were at their peak.

Piss on uranium, Henry thought. What did he care about Uranium 235? After listening night after night to Erich’s talk about Russian Cosmos 954’s disintegration over the Northwest Territory, the story had become a fairy tale to Henri.

He stumbled off through the scruffy vegetation and wandered down the rocky embankment to the river’s shore. He sat with his short legs crossed Indian fashion and stared across the moving ash-colored water. Clumps of caribou fur, silent evidence of the herd’s massive crossing somewhere to the north, clung to the river’s edge. The great movement of the herd would continue on through the years. Nothing would stop their natural instincts as long as man stayed out of their way. He, Henri, was their savior. Wolves were predators just as he was theirs. He made nature’s cycle complete. The Thelon River Sanctuary and the wild lands surrounding it were all that he loved. “Everything at peace in the wilderness,” he murmured. “Nobody, not you, Erich, not shitty government, not anyone, can harm my land. I tell you over and over. You knew I spoke truth. The government must not know. Nobody destroys the peace of the tundra.”

His eyes searched the distant slope for the mantled head of the caribou, but the bull had vanished. Henri’s breath came in one long rasping sigh and he shook his head as if to dispel all thoughts of what had just occurred. It was then that he thought of Leah, which he often did when away from Fort Smith for long periods of time. “Leah,” he whispered her name. “You always say my temper’s too quick.” Had her Inuit blood given her second sight? No, he thought. The devil grabs my head.

His hands fell limp in his lap. It was an accident. Who would believe him? They all knew he had a temper. Should he leave the body here? Where would it be safe from the animals? Would the Mounties want to see the body? Why? He had to report the death. Use his short-wave radio. No. It was an accident, men stumble, fall. He pondered a dangerous place where a man could fall and hit his head on a rock, visualizing the river and its tributaries. He knew the exact place and formulated his plan, his alibi.

The permafrost of the north had no place to bury a man. But in the south near his cabin was a proper burial site and he’d be thanked for taking Erich there. The Mounties would believe his story of how Erich died. What reason would they have not to?

He stood, picked up his rifle and headed toward the canoes, left above the waterline. Reaching into Erich’s canoe he pulled out his partner’s tent and thought of the irony of its use—protection in life and now in death. His hand brushed against Erich’s load of furs. As far as he knew, Erich had no relatives, so the profit from the furs belonged to him. His gaze fell on Erich’s personal pack. The man was never satisfied with maps and carried a Nautical Almanac and a sextant. He’d even talked about getting one of those Global Positioning System gadgets. Merde. I always knew where we were.

When the summer sun sagged briefly below the horizon, it killed the wind. He had to bundle the body quickly. Darkness came for short spurts this time of year in the far north, but in light or darkness, the flies and mosquitos would descend upon any warm-blooded creature. Erich wasn’t warm-blooded anymore, but the carnivorous blackflies would feed anyway.

From his inside vest pocket, Henri yanked out his head net and pulled it over his battered wide-rimmed canvas hat. With the tent slung over his broad shoulders, he trudged back up the rocky incline. When he reached the body, he stared at his partner. He’d seen death in animals a thousand times. Although he told himself there was little difference in death between one species and another, he felt a stirring somewhere deep inside himself and wondered what it was.
Vaguely he remembered his Catholic upbringing. He shrugged off the dim memory, for he found no hope in pious words, priests, nuns and other do-gooders. Born a bastard from an Inuit mother and her French lover who had disappeared, he had faced the world alone: unloved, unwanted and unfettered. The wild land of the tundra had become his home.

He knelt next to Erich and fanned the flies away from the face before pulling the tent’s cover sack over the head. He cinched the drawstring tight around the neck. Even then flies would crawl inside, but at least he wouldn’t have to look on their work. Resettling himself, he squatted with the toes of his heavy boots nudging up against Erich’s torso. Methodically, he examined the man’s pockets and laid the items on the matted grass.

Then he stood, unpacked the tent, unzipped the opening and spread it out next to the body. The arms and legs flopped unceremoniously as Henri rolled Erich onto the canvas. Like stuffing sausage into a casing, Henri pushed and jerked Erich’s long frame into the tent. “Mon Dieu,” he muttered as he finished his task and lashed the package with rope. Breathing heavily, he stretched and belched. With the summer heat, the stench of the dead would draw bears and wolves. The journey homeward would have to be fast, but against the current it would take him at least three days even if he paddled day and night.

Moving away from the wrapped body, he looked down the slope and glanced over at the canoes some distance away. He shrugged, bent and shoved the bundle, watching as it bounced over the rocks and came to rest at the edge of the river. In short order he settled the body in the bottom of Erich’s canoe. Climbing back up the slope, he picked up the items he’d retrieved from Erich’s pockets—pencil, spiral notebook, wallet, pocket watch, handkerchief wrapped around an odd looking rock, knife, and a harmonica. Fingering the harmonica, he realized how much he’d miss the music. The haunting tune Aura Lee echoed through his head. Irritated with the thought, he stuffed the items into his pockets.

He slapped his hands on his thighs to rid himself of the annoying insects and pulled on his leather gloves. Now he would handle the scraps from Cosmos 954. What had Erich said? Radioactivity could last hundreds of years. Were these pieces really radioactive? Erich had thought so. What did this mean to the land? He’d hide the pieces and no one ever need know of their existence.

He wrestled Erich’s lead-lined box from Erich’s canoe and carried it up the slope, grunting as he did so. Erich had been particularly worried about the long rod. He’d handled it with his special gloves. Merde. They were still on Erich’s hands. He looked at his leather gloves. Surely they’ll protect me, he thought. He lifted the rod and fit it into the rectangular box, then gathered up the rest of the fragments and dropped them inside as well. He closed the lid and snapped the hasp shut. Studying the ground, he scratched his face under the head net. He jerked his head back and studied his gloves. They looked okay. The stuff had been stuck in the earth for seventeen years. What harm could it do? Erich had always obsessed about safety.

Hiding the box was a problem. The permafrost would prevent burying it anywhere but back in the eskers, a long way away. In the distance a wolf howled. He smiled. The wolves would be the sentinels of the box.

Web of Obsessions available from