Running With the Spirits
I run now with the spirits in a world of shadows dark.
Hated, hunted and alone, no place to leave my mark.
A desperado, banished, yet guilty of no sin.
A soul once powered by the sun
in darkness decays within.
Breath rising in a silver cloud joins crystal mountain air
as I sing my wolf lament of loneliness, despair.
Howl into the sky, brandish my power and might.
Then listen for reply while those who fear take flight.
Keep my back to a wall of stone.
Am I the last?
Exiled from my mountain throne?
Running with the spirits in a world of shadows dark.
Hated, hunted and alone, no place to leave my mark.
An empty, silent, harsh domain
this wilderness so vast.
No others of my race remain.
Soon I will howl my last.
© Peter Williams 2014
At almost exactly the same time of the year that I arrived in the Cascades but two years previously, as winter approached, many miles north of the Canadian border one of the largest and most powerful wolf packs in the Northern Rocky Mountains looked forward to the forthcoming winter with relish. Located around Mount Urquhart amidst some of the harshest terrain on the continent, the pack numbered around thirty five. Among their members was an enormous solid black wolf standing some thirty six inches at the shoulder and weighing a full hundred and thirty pounds. He was alpha male. At that time in his tenth year, he had led the pack for the previous five, seeing off all opposition and threats to his supremacy with lethal brutality. His power and ruthlessness were unequalled but as well as his obvious physical attributes he possessed a high level of intelligence. Combined with his years of experience it meant that he had become an incredibly successful leader. The size and health of the pack was testament to that.
Summer months were always leaner times for the wolves because prey animals such as the elk and bison were able to find plentiful grazing, helping them to remain fit, strong and healthy. Their endurance levels were high and so they were able to outrun the wolf packs more often than not. They thrived and flourished, putting on weight and muscle in preparation for the harsher times ahead. From the wolf pack’s point of view, it meant that more hunts ended in failure and disappointment than were successful. Because of its sheer size the Urquhart pack needed to make several good kills each week but it wasn’t always possible. However the black alpha male was more canny and successful than most.
When winter came, things were different and the wolves came into their element. As temperatures plummeted and the snow thickened, good grazing as well as any other food such as berries and fruit, became scarce for the herbivores. The elk, deer and bison weakened. Deep snows and ice made it difficult for them to flee any predators. Larger, mature animals were forced to stand their ground and fight but weak or sickly members of the herds became vulnerable. They were easy prey and the wolves and coyote reaped the rewards. The longer and harsher the winter, the more the predators flourished.
That year though, as summer had dragged on, because of the ever increasing size of the pack the alpha male wolf had needed to use all of his cunning and hunting expertise to reduce the number of failed hunts. He had been forced to lead the pack further afield, expanding their range and occasionally encroaching on the territory of neighbouring packs. Searching out the largest herds, finding the most vulnerable prey and splitting the pack into groups to set up ambushes and traps he had used all of his experience to prevail. Eventually though, through no fault of his own, his five year unbroken dominance of the Urquhart pack came to an abrupt end.
They were in unfamiliar territory. The particular herd of elk they had been stalking was a large one but none of the younger calves or elderly adults had split from the safety of the main group during the chase, meaning it had become long and exhausting. The youngest and fittest members of the wolf pack had charged in initially, driving the elk down a narrow ravine towards where the remaining older and more powerful wolves waited to go in for the kill. But the fleeing herd had unexpectedly bolted down an unseen, smaller trail off to one side of the ravine and avoided the ambush, their leader being much more familiar with the terrain than the wolves were. Their diversion had taken them through a small area of dense woodland and then out onto a larger trail where they were able to open their stride and increase speed dramatically down the slope. The wolves had followed in hot pursuit but had gradually begun to tire and lose heart. All except the alpha male. Faster and stronger than the others with adrenalin coursing through his veins he sprinted ahead of the pack and gained on the quarry relentlessly. With a mighty surge of speed he bore down on a young female. She was obviously heavily pregnant and the wolf had no problem cutting her away from the rest of the herd as she tired Chasing her to one side of the trail and trapping her between himself and the dense woodland he snapped viscously at her heels. Unfortunately for him, hidden among the trees was one of the only animals he truly feared. A man. In the heat of the chase, distracted and intent on his immediate prey what little scent drifted on the breeze towards the wolf had mingled with the dank air and smells of the forest to pass him by unnoticed.
The hunter had been out stalking the same herd of elk for several days, taking his time and enjoying the experience, expecting to have to spend many hours before being able to make a kill. However he had heard the approaching commotion from quite some distance away. The sound of crashing hooves on rocky scree, the thudding of many more on firmer ground along with the barking and yelping of the frenzied wolves had carried on the breeze for at least half a mile, maybe more, and the chase was obviously heading straight towards him. Finding it difficult to believe his luck he’d had plenty of time to check his rifle load and then conceal himself in some trees at the side of the trail in anticipation of a simple kill, virtually an execution. It wasn’t going to give him the same sense of pride and excitement as a difficult and prolonged stalking would have done but a kill was a kill and it would impress his buddies back home just as much by the time he had embellished the story sufficiently over a few jugs of beer.
When the solitary doe, blowing hard and with eyes wild with panic had burst onto the scene and galloped towards the hunter the huge black wolf was very nearly upon her. The hunter threw his rifle up to his shoulder and quickly took aim, sighting on the elk’s shoulder and traversing as it ran across in front of him from right to left just thirty or so yards away. Despite the speed of the moving target it was an easy shot for him. However, he was distracted. As he focused on his shot the way he had done so many times before, a nagging voice at the back of his mind broke in and told him that hunting down and killing a giant black wolf would be a much more impressive tale to tell. The beast in his peripheral vision was absolutely enormous, monstrous in fact and was in the process of taking a final lunge at its terrified and exhausted prey.
On a whim the hunter altered his aim, sweeping the barrel away from the elk and letting fly at the wolf instead. Alas, because of his lapse in concentration the shot was too hurried, just a snap shot which relied on luck as much as skill. The new target was moving just as fast but more erratically then the elk. As the huge wolf leapt upwards in an effort to bring down its prey, the bullet almost missed entirely but not quite. It struck the wolf’s leading foreleg just above its paw before deflecting and burying itself into a tree trunk beyond. The wolf was knocked off balance as the bullet struck and he went down, the momentum of his lunge causing him to roll several times, throwing up a cloud of mud and grit before regaining his feet. Pain, anger, shock and confusion, all emotions burst forth simultaneously in the form of an almighty roar. He instinctively took flight away from the explosion and the source of his agony before the hunter could take a second shot.
The herd of elk continued their panicked flight at full speed down the trail, closely followed by the fortunate young female who had escaped what had seemed to be certain death and rejoined them. The rest of the wolf pack, about a hundred yards in the wake of the alpha and already tiring from the long chase, were startled by the explosion and acrid stench erupting from the trees ahead. They veered away from the trail, turning and retreating before milling around confusedly in search of guidance, looking for their leader. But he was nowhere to be seen. The hunt petered out. The pack lost interest and set off dejectedly in the direction from which it had come.
Once the huge black wolf had put enough distance between himself and his attacker he slowed his painful progress and a short way further on he stopped altogether. As the adrenalin rush diminished and the excitement of the chase waned he became overwhelmed by the pain from his shattered foot, collapsing in the undergrowth and crawling out of sight. There he lay for a long while, listening for any sign of pursuit while he recovered his breath.
The wound was bad. Any damage to a leg or paw was disastrous for any predator, impairing his ability to run and hunt and putting his very existence in jeopardy. A big chunk of flesh had been shot away from around the joint just above his paw. Splinters of bone were visible. One end of a snapped and frayed tendon protruded from the gory mess, bright white against the crimson. The blood gushed onto the ground beneath him, running in rivulets into the snow. Giving out a slight whimper the wolf licked the wound as clean as he could until the blood flow eased a little. Realising how vulnerable he was, seriously wounded and separated from the pack he knew he had to move on before being discovered by other predators that inhabited the area. A pack of coyote or a grizzly bear would take the opportunity to kill him without hesitation if they sensed the smell of his blood and discovered his hiding place. So as soon as he felt sufficiently rested he got back onto his feet and limped off in the direction of where he knew the rest of the pack would be reforming. The leg, which had stiffened badly began to bleed again profusely. The pain was excruciating, even worse than before. The wolf was unable to put any of his considerable weight on the injured limb. Even brushing it against long grass stems sent red hot lightening bolts of pain shooting through it. Progress was slow. As darkness fell the black wolf decided to seek a suitable place to conceal himself and take refuge, perhaps to die.
Finding a cave of sorts, more of a split at the base of a cliff face, hidden behind fallen rocks and debris, he crawled in and remained there for most of the night in far too much pain to sleep. As dawn approached he tried again to move on but due to massive blood loss as well as the continuing agony, he felt too weak and vulnerable to leave the refuge. With a whimper he resigned himself to staying hidden for longer, hoping that in time some of his strength would return. But it didn’t.
Over the following hours and days the awful wound became infected, throbbing unbearably as it swelled and sending more bolts of pain up his leg at even the slightest movement. After a while the pulsating agony seemed to take over the whole of his body, spreading through his chest and up his huge muscular neck until his head felt fit to explode. Stinking pus oozed from the livid wound and maggots appeared as if from nowhere, feasting on his rotting flesh. A lesser creature would have succumbed at that point, curling up and dying where he lay but not the black wolf. Something deep in his psyche, a primeval instinct forged over millennia prevented his spirit from breaking.
Over those days and nights as he lay helpless in his refuge, his mind became focused purely on survival. Remaining alert, listening out for other predators, always believing that his strength would return and see him through and eventually his fortitude was rewarded. His magnificent physical condition had played its role in helping him fight off the infection. The maggots did their part in preventing it from spreading further up his leg. One bright morning the wolf awoke from his feverish sleep and sensed that the pain was easing slightly. Despite the terrible hunger which consumed him, he was convinced he had regained a little strength. Rising slowly to his feet he emerged from the cave, blinking in the dazzling daylight reflecting off freshly fallen snow which he licked in an attempt to quench his raging thirst. He hobbled on three legs painfully down the slope to where a tiny rivulet of water trickled from beneath some rocks. There he drank deeply, the icy water splashing on his wound and numbing some of the residual pain. He drank until he felt well refreshed and ready to begin the long, arduous journey back to the security of the pack.
Hour after hour he travelled, just a few yards at a time to begin with, his black coat merging with the shadows as he silently made his way through the seemingly endless wilderness. Occasionally he paused to taste the air, straining his senses to detect any danger that might threaten. He plodded on painfully, picking his way along familiar trails until late in the evening. Exhaustion returned, his muscles were once again wracked with agony and the determination with which he had set off that morning began to wane.
Then, just before the light disappeared entirely, the sound that he had been longing to hear drifted into his pain addled consciousness. He lifted and cocked his shaggy head, both ears swivelling forward in the direction from which the sound originated. There it was again, way off in the distance. The cry of a lone wolf, howling into the ever darkening sky. It was a voice he recognised and moments later it was joined by others until it seemed that every wolf in the territory must have joined in, urging him on and calling him home. With renewed vigour the black wolf scurried up a scree covered slope onto the crest of a small ridge and there he raised his huge head to the heavens and answered the distant pack with his own, still powerful voice. He stayed there for a long time howling into the night, brandishing his power and letting every creature in the territory know that he, the alpha male of the Urquhart pack was returning.
It was almost daylight by the time the black wolf approached where the rest of the pack were laid up in a clearing deep in thick woodland. Half a mile out, on the final trail he came across a recent kill that the pack had made that night. It was a mountain goat, one of several kills he assumed as the carcass had been abandoned after being only partially consumed. Now it was being devoured noisily by a group of coyote. Emerging from the cover of some trees he rushed in as robustly as he could, snarling furiously and driving the coyote off before they had a chance to realise what a weakened state he was in. Giving a final roar he returned to his prize. There was plenty of meat still left on the bones and he set about it ravenously, literally feeling the energy course through his body and his heartbeat strengthen as he digested the meat so that he was able to complete the last stretch of his journey home with a little more spring in his stride.
Upon his arrival the black wolf was welcomed by some of the junior members of the pack who approached him submissively. Not making eye contact, with tails firmly between their legs and hackles raised nervously along their spines they whimpered and grunted while licking the black wolf’s face. He allowed them a few moments to display their feelings and then snarled aggressively to reassert his authority, sending them scurrying back to their place on the margins of the pack. His mate the alpha female, a magnificent solid white specimen almost as large as he was, approached next along with two yearling cubs, both large for their age and jet black like their father. She rubbed her head along his flanks and licked his face and mouth before sniffing his wounded leg, letting out a sympathetic whine. The black wolf took comfort from her and allowed the repatriation to continue for a few moments before limping over to a comfortable spot under a tree and stretching out to rest. It had been a long and gruelling ordeal since he had been shot, his leg was hurting badly again and he needed time to fully regain his strength.
In the shadows on the opposite side of the clearing sat another large black wolf not far down the pack hierarchy. Sensing the alpha male’s weakness and obvious vulnerability, from his secluded position he studied the body language of the others, watching the proceedings with interest. He was the pack’s enforcer and there was malevolence in his eyes.
It was just a day later that the enforcer summoned enough courage to make his move. For five years there had hardly been a challenge to the alpha male wolf’s supremacy. No other within the pack could match the power and strength of their leader and few had risked confronting him in any way for fear of being driven off or even killed. But now the alpha was ageing and in his weakened state along with the terrible injury to his paw there was an opportunity for the enforcer to take over. He waited until the white female was out of the way with her two young cubs for she was known to be almost as dangerous as her partner and would side with him in a fight. With her gone there wouldn’t be a better time.
He had two smaller but equally feisty and powerful brothers to back him up. Grunting and blustering, feeding from each other’s courage they crossed the clearing and took up aggressive positions in front of the injured black wolf, growling and snarling to make their intentions clear. He got stiffly to his feet, baring his teeth and rising to the inevitable challenge. He was a terrifying sight with eyes blazing and ears flattened back. His muzzle wrinkled as he snarled with hackles up, weight shifted to his back legs ready to spring and clearly committed to standing his ground. However, together the three young brothers felt invincible and didn’t give an inch. Feinting, snapping, coming from all angles they harried the big black wolf who struggled to turn fast enough to defend himself. Several times he charged at the enforcer but his injured leg gave way beneath him, leaving him open to another painful bite to his flanks. The rest of the pack became agitated, barking and baying. Excited adolescents ran about and snapped at each other, youngsters cowered behind their mothers in fear as the fight for dominance escalated. One of the younger brothers darted in and actually got a grip on the alpha male’s throat, sinking his canines in and making an attempt to crush the windpipe. With a supreme effort the black wolf shook him off and got in a savage bite of his own. Furiously he fought with all of his remaining strength. It went on for twenty minutes before the alpha male’s power deserted him. He had taken too much punishment and was bleeding heavily from bite wounds all over his body.
By the time his partner had realised what was happening and rushed back to join the fray it was a forlorn hope. The black wolf had nothing more to give and was desperately running for his life, knowing he was too badly incapacitated to escape. She barrelled in valiantly and turned on the attackers, protecting the cubs and fighting a rear guard action. She caused the enforcer pause for thought, giving her mate and the cubs a chance to get away before turning tail and sprinting after them for they would surely all have been killed otherwise.
It was the end of an era, the Urquhart pack had gained a new leader and continued to dominate their home range. The crippled black wolf along with his mate and the two yearling cubs were banished from the territory which he had dominated for the past five years and had to seek out a new range of their own. They travelled south for many miles over harsh terrain, ever vigilant and knowing they would not be tolerated by any other resident wolf packs as they passed through their hunting grounds. All they could do was move to a more desolate place, uninhabited by any other pack where prey was likely to be more scarce but where they might be left alone to recover and form a new pack of their own if given time.
Winter came. The terrible wound was slow to heal and the leg never fully recovered, leaving the huge black wolf crippled with a severe disability. In time, his strength returned. He still possessed the intelligence and instincts of a natural predator and leader but gone forever was his blistering speed and relentless endurance. He was fortunate that his loyal partner was a fine huntress. As the cubs matured, between them all they managed to find enough food to get through that first winter. The following summer was difficult and the next winter even more so. They had to adapt their hunting tactics to concentrate on smaller, more elusive prey but they continued to survive. The new life was a struggle with more leaner periods than they had been used to as members of the mighty Urquhart pack. Age relentlessly crept up on the black wolf, compounding his already reduced abilities to run down the goats, rodents and other creatures they were now forced to live on yet still they just about coped. The following spring the white wolf even gave birth to another litter of cubs. Three more mouths to feed.