The wolves came that day.
Crisp cold made the air brittle. Small clouds of vapor hung in the air for a moment each time he exhaled. It was, he knew, only the promise of things to come. The first cold snap of the year always seemed worse than the same temperature would seem, later in the winter.
He walked briskly, head down against the bite of the breeze, hands stuffed deep into the pockets of the well-lined jacket. Because he walked that way, he wasn’t sure how long they had been there, shadowing him, pacing him, keeping even with his gait.
When he spotted the first one his head came up sharply, his breath catching in the back of his throat. He knew what it was with that first, fleeting glance. He just didn’t believe it. There were no wolves here. There hadn’t been for a hundred years or more. Even when well-meaning but foolish policies reintroduced them in the higher mountains, they had at least been sensible enough to keep them out of this area and others more heavily populated.
So at first, he refused to believe what that fleeting glimpse had telegraphed to his senses. It was somebody’s dog, out for a forbidden run. Anyway, even if it had been a wolf, it wouldn’t bother him here, right in town.
He glanced around at the rows of houses that lined the street. It did seem odd they were almost all dark, shuttered against the early blast of winter. The street lights seemed dimmer than they used to be, too. There had been a lot of talk about lights that use less energy, about light pollution interfering with nocturnal animals, about the need to save tax money wherever possible. The result was fewer street lights burning, and those that were lit were the newer, less effective, but environmentally friendly variety.
It was half a block later when he spotted them again. This time he saw two of them. Closer. There was no longer any question in his mind. They were wolves. Gray Timber wolves. Big. The one must weigh well over a hundred pounds. He saw them for several seconds, their yellow eyes fixed on him rather than where they stepped.
He picked up his pace. Three more blocks. The three or four inches of new snow slowed him some, but not that much. Just a few minutes.
He moved his hand from his jacket pocket and brushed it along the bulge at his hip pocket. The heavy presence of the small weapon gave him a rush of confidence. It was only a derringer, but it was a double barreled nine millimeter. It packed a big wallop for a small gun. It only had two cartridges, but it was something. Well, three, if he had time to reload. The wallet in which it was encased, from which it could be fired without removing it, had a small spot to put one more round as a backup. That made three rounds. He had only seen two wolves.
As he passed near one of the few, dim street lights he caught his breath. There were more than two. Three. No four. Four of them. All trotting slowly in a line, single file, all watching him with single-minded concentration.
He thought briefly of firing a warning shot at one of them. Kick up snow under him, maybe. Make a loud noise. Somebody might hear and come outside to investigate. Or else call nine-one-one. Something.
He dismissed the thought immediately. He didn’t dare waste a bullet. He already had one fewer than there were of the wolves. If someone called for help, he’d be dead long before they could arrive.
The familiar bank of reddish butte rock reared up out of the ground on his right. It effectively blocked him from any possibility of fleeing in that direction, should he need to do so. The wolves were nearer now, padding along in total silence, watching him, heads low to the ground. The leader emitted a low snarl, baring a formidable double row of razor sharp teeth. As if in response, the other three mimicked the look and the sound. For a quarter of a block, they continued that way, crowding closer to him, savoring what promised to be an easy kill.
The leader swung in toward him and lunged. He barely had time to whip out the derringer in its wallet before the huge animal was on him, lunging for his throat. He didn’t even remember pulling the trigger, but the nine millimeter roared with exaggerated volume in the snow-covered stillness of the night. The wolf made a strange gurgling noise and slumped to the ground at his feet. It flopped over on its side and kicked a couple times, then lay still.
The second wolf leaped across its fallen leader, still intent on the mission to kill this two-legged prey that had looked so helpless. The derringer roared again. The second wolf yelped in surprise and pain, and fell across the dead body of the first.
The other two backed off, facing him, snarling with a mixture of fear and blood-lust, clearly surprised by the unexpected turn of events, but still just as determined to finish their prey.
With fingers trembling in haste, he snapped open the wallet, lifted the keeper and broke open the derringer, exposing the base of the spent cartridges. He jerked the spent brass out and jammed the lone remaining round into the barrel and fastened it shut again. He snapped the wallet closed, watching the wolves.
He was almost too slow. The third wolf had decided this business with the wallet was an opportunity. It rushed across the intervening space. It barreled into him at chest level, knocking him backward into the snow. Even as he fell, he shoved the gun barrel against the animal and squeezed the trigger. It only clicked. He had been forced to merely guess which barrel would fire with the next pull of the trigger, and he had guessed wrong. Feeling and smelling the foul breath of the beast he pulled the trigger again, a scant split second behind the first effort. The gun roared in response. The bullet passed on an angle clear through the length of the animal’s body. It slumped on top of him, pinning him to the ground.
He dropped the now worthless wallet and thrust his hand into the pocket of his trousers, feeling in desperation for the only thing he had left that would pass for a weapon. His hands closed around the large pocket knife he always carried. It wasn’t nearly enough to protect him from a wolf, but at least it was something.
He jerked it from his pocket and opened the blade, even as he struggled to get out from under the restricting weight of the dead wolf. The remaining wolf was on him before he could fight free.
Instead of cringing away from the animal’s charge, he leaned into it, jamming his arm crosswise into his gaping mouth. His heavy coat and the sweat shirt he wore beneath it afforded his arm some protection. Not enough, but some. Even through the layers of his clothing he could feel fierce teeth ripping away at his skin. He shoved his arm as far back into the wolf’s mouth as he could force it, trying to deprive the predator of as much of the effectiveness of his powerful jaws as he could. At the time he used his other hand to frantically saw at the creature’s throat with the knife.
The knife was large for a pocket knife, and he always kept it razor sharp. He was rewarded with a large spume of blood that shot out of the animal’s neck, showering him with the pungent warm fluid.
The wolf hesitated momentarily in his attack. He shoved it back, his arm still jammed into its mouth too far to allow it to bite down and rip the flesh and intervening cloth from his arm. Blood shot out in a rhythmic, geyserous fountain with each pulse of the wolf’s heart. Sensing the severity of its wound, it broke off the attack, jerked away from the arm in its mouth, and wheeled away.
He wasn’t sure why he followed it. He certainly didn’t want anything more to do with it. As if by some instinct he didn’t understand, he scooped up the dropped derringer and thrust it back into his back pocket. The pocket knife still open in his hand, he set out on a run after his wounded attacker.
It was easy to follow. Even in the darkness, the scarlet trail that raggedly dyed the soft whiteness of the snow made it impossible to miss.
Even bleeding as heavily as it was, it ran for nearly a mile, running along the edge of the cliff, then down into a ravine at the edge of town. The width of the blood trail narrowed perceptibly, then became intermittent. He was amazed the animal could still continue its path, with the huge amount of blood loss it had suffered. It acted as if it had a destination in mind that it had to reach, that if it reached that point something would be done to prevent its inevitable death.
It didn’t make it. He caught up with it where it lay in the snow. Very little blood marked the spot of its demise. It had no blood left to spill by that point.
He sighed deeply, studying the dead animal. It was only then that the predictable question formed on his lips. Why? How? Why wolves? Why right here in town? Why did nobody hear his shots and respond?
The questions beat against his mind with unrelenting confusion. He shook his head. He backed up and looked at the trail of blood, clearly visible even in the moonlight that softened the darkness. He looked on past its end, trying to ascertain where the animal was so determined to go before it succumbed.
In the edge of the ravine he spotted an almost half-round dark aperture in the wall of the ravine. Normally, it would have been completely concealed by the bush growing directly in front of it. By chance, just now, the heavy, wet, newly fallen snow weighed down on the branches, exposing the hidden entrance behind it.
“A cave,” he breathed softly. “I wonder where it goes.”
He well knew the whole area was honeycombed, deep beneath, with natural caverns. Many of them served as tourist attractions – sources of income for those who owned land containing a passable opening. He had no way to know how deep it was, or where it led. He only knew there was something in there that had sent the wolves. He didn’t know how he knew that. It was just there, in his mind, as certain and immutable as his knowledge that the earth was round.
It was just as certain in his mind they had been sent for him. He had no idea by whom nor how.
He did know why. He also knew it was only the beginning. There would be more attacks.