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The big mother-wolf and her mate had made a den in a small cave along the stream. She was heavy with her pups, and she and the father had left the pack to give birth. She had done this before-left to bear her young, tended to by her mate, only to return to the howling site when her pups were able to travel and eat solid meals. Memory and instinct were both guiding her now.
The male-wolf was out searching for food. It was still cool, this spring, and the air carried elements of ice and water, buds and new leaves, stale grass and lush shoots. She took a deep whiff of it, noting that though he had been gone some time, she could still smell her mate on the breeze. He was not far away.
A shift inside of her told her the time had arrived. The birthing would start momentarily. Suddenly extremely thirsty, she left the den and eased down to the stream and lapped at the clear water. This would be her last drink on her own for several days. Her mate would regurgitate all of her sustenance while she lay nursing. But right now she drank and drank, some primitive part of her calculating the need to take on liquid.
Her senses alerted her to a shift in the breeze. She heard it in the trees and smelled it before it stirred her fur, but by that time her head had already whipped around, her pupils dilating and her nostrils flaring.
The wind was now flowing straight from the direction of the den and it carried with it the scent of a killer. The mother-wolf could tell that the lion was approaching, whether by chance, or because it was tracking the tantalizing odor of the fluids that had started to leak from her.
She hesitated. Her instinct was to flee, but it battled with the urge to return to the den to give birth. She padded a few feet toward the den, then halted. No. The lion was coming from that direction, coming fast.
She turned and ran for the stream, which even deep with meltwater could be forded without swimming. She lunged across, her pregnant belly slowing her down, scrabbling up the opposite bank and hearing the lion hit the water behind her. She turned and the lion was upon her.
The attack was swift and brutal. The mother-wolf ignored the pain as lion claws raked her flanks and she twisted, snapping her teeth, trying to get the lion's throat.
Then a massive impact tumbled them both. Male-wolf had arrived and had thrown himself into the fray, slamming into the lion and seizing the feline behind its head. Yowling and growling and screaming, the two did battle.
The mother-wolf turned away and fled toward the den. She could not rejoin the fight; her only concern could be for the pups.
Her rear legs gave out when she was still two dozen yards from the mouth of the den. She crawled ahead, panting, while behind her she could hear the yelps and screams of her mate's final moments. The lion was nearly twice the size of the male-wolf-the outcome of this bloody engagement had been foretold the moment the feline found them.
She was still struggling toward the mouth of the den when the sudden silence behind her pronounced the end of the fight. She kept her eyes on the opening where a gap between rock and ground made for the entrance, dragging her useless legs, focused on getting to safety and not looking back even when her senses told her the lion was coming after her.
* * *
The man had never been alone. Not like this, not with no prospect of seeing another human as he made his way along the rocky bluffs bordering the slender stream. No prospect of ever seeing another human, not ever again, though that seemed impossible, even ludicrous. Of course he would return to his tribe, would be allowed to return. He could not imagine anything else.
But on this day, with winter still lurking in pools of crystalline snow in deep shadows and buds barely making their long overdue appearance on the trees, he was turning his back on his people, both literally and figuratively.
Just as they had turned their backs on him.
He had tracked along the stream for most of the day, trekking into unfamiliar territory. This was land that belonged to no clan-he was safe here.
He carried a pouch sewn from reindeer hide looped over his shoulder, and carefully extracted some dried meat to chew on while he walked. His mind was on rationing, stretching his supplies as long as he could, but his stomach was focused on hunger and the easy availability of food. As a sort of compromise, he did not use the smoldering horn dangling from his neck to make fire to heat his snack, as if depriving himself of that luxury was a relevant sacrifice. The horn was packed with coals and moss and, with a few sticks and leaves added every so often, would still be potent enough to allow him to make camp before dark.
He carried both club and spear and was watching the ground for animal tracks when he heard a strange, almost ghastly, grunting and hissing. Several creatures of some kind were just ahead. He stopped, tense-hyenas? His heart was pounding-though he had never seen one, he knew he could neither successfully flee nor fight a pack of hyenas.
A shadow crossed the path and he jerked his head upward as a huge bird ghosted out of the sky and landed to a chorus of loud hisses and furious wings beating the air. Less afraid-no one had ever, to his knowledge, been killed by birds-he eased forward.
There was blood on the trail, here. Something had happened on this path, something savage and brutal, with lion tracks and wolf tracks jumbled together.
He tightened his grip on his club and, drawn by the noise, went down to the stream and stopped. A flock of immense, hideously ugly birds, with deadly beaks and featherless faces, were pecking at what he determined was a dead wolf on the opposite bank. He had never seen them before, but he supposed these were vultures. He watched their greedy plunder of the corpse for a moment, his lips twisted in repugnance.
"Yah!" the man yelled. "Away!"
The birds all but ignored him, so he stooped and picked up a rock. He hit one and the entire flock took flight, beating the air as they strained to take off.
The wolf was completely torn apart-the tracks suggested the fatal injuries had come from a cave lion, whose immense paw prints sank into the mud, but the vultures had stripped the flesh to the bone.
The man knelt, puzzling it out. It appeared that there was a vicious fight on the other side of the stream, the lion taking on the wolf. The male-wolf was eventually killed in the battle right there where he lay. Yet the blood trail was on this side of the stream. What had happened over here, away from where the vultures had been feeding?
He studied the tracks. They told a contradictory story, both lion and wolf prints seeming to go back and forth to the stream. But the blood only went in the direction away from the banks, away from the dead wolf. How was that possible?
What if he had it wrong? What if there were two wolves? Both fought the lion. The shredded carcass of one canine lay where it died, on that side of the stream, while the other one fled to this side.
But a lion probably would not attack a pair of wolves unless they were pups, and, judging by the tracks, the surviving wolf was even larger than the dead one. But something brutal had occurred here. Also, where did the wolf go when it escaped? By all appearances, it had crawled off to die.
The corpse of the wolf on the other side of the stream was too picked apart to be of any use, but if he could find the other one and it was more intact, the man decided to harvest its fur. There was great honor in wearing a wolf pelt.
He cautiously followed the blood trail, his club at the ready. A wounded wolf would attack instinctively, though judging by the blood loss he felt fairly certain the other wolf would be dead.
The track led directly to a small hole in the rock wall-a dark semicircle where the rock pulled back from the soil like an upper lip curling to reveal an open mouth. Blood was smeared on the earth in front of the hole.
The wolf was in there.
He drew in a breath, considering. If he went in with a torch held out in front of him, the wolf could not attack without getting a mouth full of flame. He could at least assess the situation, and retreat if the wolf was aggressive.
Or, if he went in with the torch, the wolf might rip it from his hand and then tear out his throat.
This was, he reminded himself sternly, why he was a man, not a boy. A man needed to meet challenges such as these. He, he needed to meet the challenge. There were those who said he would not survive the year-he would not allow himself to prove them right by failing on the very first day.
He made a torch by winding dead grasses around the end of a branch. His heart was beating strongly in his chest, and when he lit the torch from coals in his fire horn, his hands trembled.
The wolf, he reminded himself repeatedly, was probably dead.
He shoved the torch into the hole in the rock, listening for any sort of reaction, but heard nothing. He could not see much past the flames, not from outside, so he squirmed in, hating how vulnerable he was as he pushed past the lip of the cave.
Inside, it was a narrow squeeze, and he was only able to advance if he remained on hands and knees. His palms picked up a sticky liquid as he crawled: more blood.
At a very tight turn, he had to climb over some rocks, and then a shaft of light fell on his shoulders. He glanced up and saw that a crack in the rock extended all the way up to the sky, many times a man's height and large enough in radius that had he known about it, he could have climbed down it instead of wriggling through the hole.
Starting with the crack, the cave was larger, tall enough for him to stand if he stooped, wide enough that he could not quite touch both sides with his fingers if he spread his arms.
His torch seemed weakened by the light from the shaft, but just past it and the flames licked back the darkness with authority.
He saw the wolf, a female. She was lying on her side, her eyes closed. He stopped, holding his breath. Pressed up against her were three tiny pups: newborns. The mother-wolf's side had been raked by lion claws and glistened with blood.
She was breathing, though he could not tell if the pups were also alive.
Now he understood. It had been a fight to the death by a male-wolf defending a mother-wolf ready to whelp.
He stared at the scene, his vision becoming more clear in the dancing flames from the torch head. The mother had a white spill of fur on her dark grey face, looking a little like a man's hand. She was still motionless. If she were almost dead, the pups would never survive.
He needed meat-while he had never heard of anyone eating an adult wolf, the very young of nearly all animals could usually be made into palatable meals. He decided to take the pups and harvest the adult's fur. There were plenty of rocks he could use to finish off the mother, though judging by the way she looked-her eyes closed, her chest barely moving-she was very near to death.
Should he wait, or pick up a rock and get it done?
Tired of stooping, he knelt in the gritty sand. It was an awkward motion for him, and he made some noise as his knees hit the ground.
The mother-wolf opened her eyes.
Copyright © 2015 by W. Bruce Cameron