The tracks left by She Wolf led off through the willows. There was a lot of snow on the ground, but the willows themselves were a deep red, promising spring. They boasted tight buds that were just waiting for the next warm week to burst into leaf. The snow was spring snow, sloppy and wet, and I was glad to have to boots on to keep my feet dry – well drier than they would be otherwise, anyway.
This time I could hear the distant sound of water, and at long last, the Skink and I came through the thicket to the banks of a river. It wasn’t a large river, and it was still partially covered with ice, but it was beginning to swell with the melting snow, edging to the tops of its banks; by next week, the willow thicket would be ankle-deep in overflow from the river. It was far too wide to jump, the ice was too thin to walk on and the water deep enough that wading wasn’t an option unless I wanted to be soaked to the waist and possibly swept off my feet by the current.
She Wolf’s tracks, of course, led right into the river.
I looked at the Skink speculatively. “Well, I guess I could throw you that far, and then at least one of us would be across.”
“Excuse me? I’m not a stick or stone to hurl across the river,” he replied indignantly, edging away from me slightly. “Just because I’m small and bear a certain resemblance to some of the old branches you see here,” he huffed, “doesn’t mean that I am one. Do NOT toss the Skink!”
I chuckled. “Relax Skink, I’m not really going to toss you across the river. Wouldn’t do me any good anyway, since that wouldn’t get me across,” I teased.
Mollified, he grunted and moved back beside me again.
“However, we do need to find a way to the other side.” I sighed and said, “Skink, you go that way” pointing downstream “and I’ll go this way” pointing upstream, “and maybe we can find a way across this river.”
The Skink looked at me and then nodded. “We can meet back here in two hours. That gives us both a chance for a good look-around,” he agreed.
The Skink skipped off along the river bank. I turned to go my way, and almost immediately had to duck back in amongst the willows. The Skink was small enough to walk along the water’s edge, but there wasn’t enough room for me to do the same thing. Still, I stayed near the edge and kept checking the river to see if there was anyplace that we could cross. After about half an hour, I saw an old beaver dam. It had a hole about three feet across in the middle of it, but the rest was intact and looked sturdy. Just in case there was a better option, I continued up stream for another half hour, but the beaver dam remained the best bet for getting across the river at least mostly dry.
I met up with the Skink again, and he didn’t have any better options. In fact, he said that downstream things got even worse – the river was already flooding a bit there and the ground was very boggy in places.
When he saw the beaver dam, however, he was concerned that it would not be sturdy enough. “After all,” he said, “I can scoot right across and the dam won’t know that anything was even on it. But you’re a bit…” he paused, looking for the right word.
“Larger?” I finished dryly. “No worries, Skink, I know how, ah, large I am. I hate to admit it or be confronted with it, but I don’t delude myself about it. Tell you what. I’m going to look for some sort of stick to use as a staff to help me balance. You go across and see how sturdy the thing actually is.”
The Skink nodded, and scampered across the dam, leaping gracefully across the gap in the middle. He reached the far side, and then started back more slowly, carefully assessing the structural integrity of the dam.
I turned back to the willow thicket. While the willow boughs were much too skinny to use as a walking stick, I had seen some aspen trees farther back and thought that something there might do.
Sure enough, I found a perfect walking stick in the form of a dead aspen. It had been chewed by the beavers but never actually cut all the way through. It was enough to kill the young tree, though, and the winter had left it with the top broken off. I wiggled it and it broke perfectly at the deep notch left by the beaver. When I got it loose, it was about six feet tall and just the right diameter to hold comfortably. I flipped it over, putting the narrower end to the ground. The bark was peeling off of it in places, so I peeled enough in the right spot for a hand grip. Then I stripped off the few branches that remained on it and, smiling, returned to the river where the Skink was waiting for me.
“Nice,” he commented, sparing a glance for my new staff. “The dam seems to be okay. You’ll want to go slowly, though, ‘cause that water’s really cold and there are some sort of rickety places.” He jumped from the bank to the dam and stood there waiting for me. “Come on, I’ll help steady you.”
I tried not to smile at the thought of the Skink stopping me from falling and stepped out onto the dam. The sticks under my foot slid a little, but I used my new walking stick to help steady myself. Slowly and carefully, one step at a time, the Skink and I worked our way across the river.
The gap in the middle of the dam presented more of a challenge. It was a bit too wide for me to just step across without doing the splits and I was leery of jumping since the sticks making up the dam had a tendency to shift. I didn’t want to be dumped into the icy cold water pouring through the hole. The Skink danced across the gap and stood on the other side – to encourage me, he said, but I thought it might be so that he didn’t get pulled into the water with me when I fell.
After considering all of the options (quickly, since I was standing on a wobbly beaver dam in the middle of a river that was still half ice), I finally planted my new walking stick in the middle of the gap, made sure it wasn’t going to slide, and used it to swing myself to the other side. The Skink grabbed my pants leg and pulled, helping me get my footing on the sticks. I wobbled for a moment, steadied myself, and then stood there in relief. I had done the hard part and was still dry.
The rest of the trip across the dam wasn’t too bad, and a few minutes later the Skink and I were on the other side. Interestingly, the She Wolf’s tracks through the snow led away from the dam. Never mind that they had ended on the far bank half an hour’s walk downstream. The Skink looked up at me, smiling, to congratulate me and then stopped and stared.
“What?” I looked around me, and seeing nothing there, up at the sky. “Do I have mud on my face or something?”
“Jane, look at your walking stick.”
I jerked it away from me in a panic, thinking there must be something big and slimy or maybe venomous on the top of it. Then I stopped and stared myself. There, on the top of the length of rough, peeling aspen was a knob that hadn’t been there before. And that knob was carved into a wolf’s head.
My mouth opened and then closed again – several times. I didn’t know quite what to say. Finally I said nothing at all. I closed my eyes briefly and when I opened them again, I said, “Come on, Skink,” and set off into the willows on this side of the river with more hope in my heart than I had felt for a long time.