The kissing noises had been going on for almost ten minutes, wet lip smacking and sucking sounds that filled the tiny cabin, and Fraser was finally about to lose his temper and say something when at last , they stopped and he was able to look up from his book he had been using to give the others some privacy.
“I keep telling you, Ray. He can’t hear you. You haven't been away long enough to forget that, have you?”
Ray Vecchio wilted and dropped his hand to the floor in defeat. He was still bent nearly double and stretching out to Diefenbaker, who was just out of reach and pointedly ignoring him while chewing at a spot next to his tail. When Dief stopped and lifted his head, Vecchio perked back up, but sagged again when the wolf rose to his paws and danced about in front of the cabin door. “How’d he hear that, then?”
Fraser marked his spot in the book with a scrap of paper and set it aside. “He recognises the way his step feels on the floor. Ray always stomps his left foot harder than his right, and before he opens the door-” He lifted a finger then tapped it in the air when a loud thump rattled the walls of the cabin. “-he drops the firewood in a pile next to it.” Fraser turned in his chair and smiled a warm welcome to Ray Kowalski. His partner was somewhere under a massive parka and ski pants, with a hand knitted toque and leather mittens. Waddling into the room, Ray unwound the scarf that covered his face and sucked in a deep breath through his nose.
“Oh, hello, young man,” he saluted with his mitten to his forehead. After peeling out of the rest of his layers, Ray leaned over to accept a licked greeting from Diefenbaker. The wolf pranced from side to side, his tail wagging so hard his entire body wriggled. He hopped and bounced up to reach Ray’s face. With plenty of kisses and a few whining warbles, Diefenbaker welcomed Ray into the cabin. He buried his snout into Ray’s shirt, sniffing to make sure that his trip down to the river had left him in one piece. Such an epic journey would have been simple for someone like Fraser, but Dief knew that Ray’s fragile, city-raised body might have come to harm walking the two hundred metres to and from the river. Satisfied that the man hadn’t come to any danger, Diefenbaker sat at his feet to accept a scratch behind his ear.
“The ice is still too soft in the middle of the river,” Ray explained after toeing off his boots and crossing the cabin to sit on the arm of Fraser’s chair. He leaned into his partner to sap up some of his warmth. “It looks like we have to hunker down here for another night.” Ray puffed a few breaths into his hands and flexed his fingers.
The three men and wolf had been travelling an old trapper’s trail to visit an RCMP outpost when they had hit the slushy river. It would taken them sixty kilometres out of their path to cross safely, and they had agreed to give the sled dogs the break and wait for the temperature to drop. It was still snowing heavily, but the river moved too swiftly for it to freeze until a cold snap settled in. Fraser insisted that one was due any day now, so they had set up house in a hunter’s cabin where they had been for the last week.
Ray Vecchio had taken time off work to come north to join them, and had begun to feel like a third wheel very early on. Fraser was just as friendly and welcoming to him as he always was, but he and the man that Vecchio still considered his replacement had a language all their own, and countless jokes that he just didn’t understand while they were choking with laughter. It was a strange sort of jealousy, and Vecchio had tried to ignore it. That was easier to do when they were setting up tents and focusing on not losing their toes to frostbite or weasels, but now that they were snug and comfortable with a roof over their heads, it was glaringly obvious that he was the unnecessary add-on of the group.
And now the damned wolf wasn’t even acknowledging him.
Vecchio scowled at Diefenbaker who was gazing up at Ray like he was a cheeseburger and fries. When that got no response, he folded his arms over his chest and scowled harder. Still nothing. Vecchio decided it was time for something drastic.
He huffed out a breath and settled back on the wall behind his cot and put on his best sulking expression.
Fraser clearly didn’t notice the pity party happening in the far corner. He was far more focused on carefully making space on the chair for Ray and explaining to Diefenbaker that he couldn’t climb onto their laps, but he would be happy to pet him while he sat on the floor. With a look of utter betrayal, Dief turned his attentions back to Ray and inched his way up until he was poised precariously with one paw on the floor and his tail lashing from side to side for balance.
The whole scene looked like it belonged on a holiday card from an artsy fartsy souvenir shop that sold yard waste sculptures and wooden ducks for two hundred bucks a pop. Vecchio sneered at the thought, but was interrupted by the sound of claws scrabbling on planks as Diefenbaker struggled to haul himself the rest of the way onto Ray’s lap. Seeing the huge predator -a wolf that he had known to lunge at knives and guns without pause, who had been shot, poisoned, and had been leading the sled team across a frozen wilderness- Seeing him acting like a puffed up toy poodle fawning over Vecchio’s replacement finally tipped him over the edge.
“How the hell do you get him to do that?” he barked.
Ray’s face couldn’t be seen over Diefenbaker’s head.
“Oh, Ray,” Fraser practically tutted. “Diefenbaker has been fond of Ray since the day they met. It’s not anything you need to be jealous of, Ray. It’s just that Ray has spent much more personal time with him lately than you have.”
From behind the happy pile of wolf, Vecchio saw a hand raise and twiddle in the air. “Remember that whole to do with him and my ear?”
“Yes, Ray, I never told you about that. Diefenbaker was so keen to make friends, that he nearly licked Ray’s ear right off his head.”
Vecchio could feel his eye begin to twitch. He couldn’t tell if Fraser was doing it to needle him, or if he genuinely didn’t notice. “C’mon, Benny. You’re letting the guy coddle him. I bet he feeds him table scraps. Besides, who’s the one who got you the paperwork to keep the mutt?”
“For which we are both very grateful. But Diefenbaker and Ray have a unique bond fostered by many shared interests. They are able to argue about baseball without upsetting one another, and they both like the same pizza toppings, and Dief will happily let Ray dress him in costumes to post pictures of him.”
Ray ruffled Diefenbaker’s fur. “He’s got more followers on Instagram than that cat that meows the Muppet theme,” he bragged like a parent whose kid was in the ninety-eighth percentile while everyone else’s was in the ninety-seventh. Just shy of being smug, but it was over such a ridiculous thing that you couldn’t take it seriously.
“Which,” Fraser put in, “I’m told is a very impressive thing. And once Ray got used to speaking so Diefenbaker could read his lips, it was much easier for them to hold a conversation and get to know one another better.”
And all at once, Vecchio didn’t feel so strange about the whole situation. It wasn’t that he was being left out, or ignored. He wasn’t the awkward third wheel who wouldn’t be missed.
He was just the only person here who wasn’t completely bonkers.
After spending so much time with his dear friend Benny, learning his ins and outs and getting used to his unique personality, Vecchio had been convinced that no one would be as strange, or surreal as that Mountie. Then along comes this new kid on the block, who puts candy in his coffee instead of sugar, who does ballroom dancing for fun, who mixes up his words and forgets what he’s saying.
A man who went to fantasy baseball camp as an adult, for god’s sake.
He was the perfect match for Fraser and his deaf wolf and all their quirks. And Vecchio was the straight man that would have to keep them all from doing something stupid.
Still. It would have been nice for Diefenbaker to show him a little love.
Later that night, as the trees were bending and snapping in the wind outside, and the other cot was creaking from two men trying to fit themselves into a space barely large enough for one, four sets of claws clicked along the hardwood. Vecchio cracked an eyelid to see a big white face inches from his own.
Diefenbaker licked his cheek and hopped up to stretch alongside him.