The snows were here, and winter was heavy. The trees had already shed the last of their leaves and stood as skeletal figures, casting long shadows and drooping as though in despair and begging nature to return them to their former vermilion lustre. The wind was sharp and frigid as it whistled through the air, sending involuntary shivers down my spine whenever it touched any exposed skin.
I recognised him immediately. We had met before, he and I. I had beheld him at the head of his pack as they hungered after the bison. He and his pack had watched me trapping game with curiosity. We had had our share of disagreements. They had stolen our kills, we had chased them from theirs. Such was the way of the world, especially in these harsh lands.
He was injured. And badly, it seemed. A ragged wound was visible on one of his front paws. As I drew closer he alternated between running his tongue over his wound as if commanding it to heal faster, and baring his fangs, warning me to keep my distance. He had climbed, or crawled, down into a natural pit formed by boulders on one side and trees on the other. He sat at one end of the pit, trying to shelter himself as best he could from the elements. At one point he rose and attempted to totter away, only to be brought down after a couple of steps, snow falling off the layer of thick grey fur he’d grown for the winter.
Whether through stubbornness or pride, I didn’t hear one whine escape him. The only whining was the wind through the tree trunks and he voice in the back of my mind bidding me return to the fort. He was a tough one, no mistake. No wolf is alpha without thick skin, sharp fangs, and the survival instinct to do Mother Nature proud. That was his challenge now, survive. He was useless to his pack now, and they had no doubt abandoned him because he couldn’t pull his weight. Mother Nature seemed a utilitarian, and a brutally honest one at that. Without meaning to I stepped closer and closer, each step a crunching sound with the snow underfoot. I raised my rifle, intending to end his misery, and he looked up.
He looked up at me and there was something in his eyes. I don’t believe an animal knows a gun when it sees one, but this wolf. The alpha of his pack, practically crippled and cast aside, seemed to know I meant to end his life. He just looked at me. No anger, I didn’t sense any fear, only acceptance. If he could speak I’d imagine him saying “Make it fast”. I don’t remember my mind commanding me to, but my arms lowered, and I slid my rifle onto my back. Taking out some of the dried squirrel meat I had, I tossed a morsel of it towards him. He looked down at the meat at his feet then at me, and I swear I sensed surprise. What a hunter I must have made in his eyes, feeding the quarry instead of hunting it down. Laughable.
I turned to head back towards the fort. I was done checking the traps. It had been slim pickings for today, but we had food in the stores and would replenish it with elk meat. Hopefully no visits from the Sioux this time. I heard a sound behind me in the snow and I turned. There he was. Three legged, holding his injured paw up, limping after me without a sound. He saw me staring and stopped, closer than I would have imagined, and sat in the snow, as if waiting for me to continue walking. Taking out another piece of meat, I tossed it to him and kept walking.
By the time I made it to the fort, he was doing his best to walk, well, limp alongside me. I made to touch him, but thought better of it. I’d lost two fingers already and I wasn’t looking to lose more.
“Jones! What took you so long? Search Party was about to head out!” The sentry at the gate, wrapped up tight so I only knew him by his voice, “What you got there?” he asked in surprise.
I smiled and looked down at him, my new friend it seemed, “New recruit” I smiled.