“I can’t believe you’ve never heard of the Christmas Wolves.” Iowa was slightly amazed. “It must really be a local thing.”
“Sorry, never heard of them,” Jack replied, shrugging in an embarassed sort of way. “They look cool, though. Very …lupine. But very Christmassy. Never seen anything like them. So they’re characters from a story?”
“They certainly are,” Iowa replied, and she led Jack over to a park bench between two of the wolves. “Want to hear it? You can’t really have a Kekionga Christmas without the Christmas Wolves”
“Yes, please, Miss Iowa!” Jack imitated the audience at Story Hour at the Public Library during Iowa’s brief internship in the Children’s Department and earned himself a light kick in the shin as he sat down.
“Hush now,” she said, in a quite professional voice, “And I will tell you a story.
“Back in the earliest part of pioneer times, before Kekionga itself was founded, even before the new United States had started to show much interest in what would become Indiana, the first settlers lived in scattered settlements all around what is now Salt County. Just one or two families in a little clearing, maybe a mile or two from their nearest neighbors. A lot of them didn’t know each other very well—they came from all kinds of places and some of them thought the others were … strange.
“Then there came a winter that was much worse than the previous ones. This still happens today: winters come along in clumps, and when a harsh one comes after several mild ones, people can be caught unprepared, especially newcomers. So when the lake effect snow started to pile up early in December and some domestic animals and even a couple of people had already died, the settlers got frightened and sent messengers around the the settlements and they finally decided to hold a meeting at the Deer Tavern, which was pretty much the only gathering place there was.”
Jack looked down the block, where the Third Deer Tavern occupied the space between the bike shop and Iowa’s favorite café, The Beanery. “Yes,” Iowa said. “It was right there, a big log building where the Old Fox Road passed through the district.
“At the meeting, the settlers voted to move in closer together and winter over in the Tavern and a couple of big houses that had been built over the summer, so they could pool their resources and protect each other other and their animals. The snow got deeper and deeper and even the short journey in from the clearings was frightening, but by Christmas everyone was gathered in, even the animals, the cows and the sheep and the horses. The men fenced some big corrals for them, and the women and children built them shelters out of pine branches and chopped up turnips for them to eat and melted snow for them to drink.
“Then on Christmas Eve it got terribly cold. There was a full moon, and all around the Tavern and the houses packed full of people, and the corrals packed full of horses and cows and sheep, from Mystery Hill and Rook’s Hill and all the high places along the Terminal Moraine as far as Balancing Rock, wolves started to howl. So many wolves, and they were howling so loudly that the animals panicked and knocked over the fences, which had been built very quickly, of course, and all the horses and the cows and the sheep stampeded away out into the snowy woods.
This was a disaster. The wolves were sure to eat all the animals, which the settlers needed to work the land and give them milk and wool, and without them things were going to be very bad even if everybody lived until spring. The men were getting ready to go after them, and the wolves, with their guns when it started to snow again.
“The women and children made the men put their guns away and come to bed. Having their animals freeze or be eaten by wolves would be bad, but having their husbands and brothers and fathers freeze or get eaten by wolves would be worse. But a few teenage boys and girls stayed up and watched, thinking that if the snow stopped the search party could still go out.
“So they were awake to see the sky clear up, and the moon come back out, and the howling start again, as the wolves drove the animals back to the corrals and stayed by the toppled gates, pacing and growling, keeping them inside until, very timidly, the young people crept out of the taverns and the houses. They were terrified, but the wolves stepped back and let them come closer, and they were brave enough to put the fence rails into place and set the gates back up, and close them. The wolves never touched or threatened them, and as soon as the pens were secure, they ran off.
“But they didn’t go far. The wolves clumped together on a little hill nearby and howled in the moonlight for a long moment before fading into the woods.
“By then, the adults had woken up and the boys and girls told them what had happened. Nobody wanted to believe that wolves had actually done what they had done, but the animals were in the corrals and the snow all around was thick with wolf tracks, so the evidence was there. The settlers decided to thank the wolves by making a second Christmas dinner for them and they put it out for the wolves the next night, at a safe distance from the animal pens, of course.
“The winter eased up after the new year, and the settlers returned to their homes. But after that Deer Tavern and the little hill where the wolves had howled were the center of a new community, and well, you know what happened after that.
“And to this day, when it snows hard on Christmas Eve in Kekionga, you can hear the Christmas Wolves howling in the wind, and if you do, you might put out some of your food on Christmas night to thank them.”