The cold clawed into his lungs as he ran. Each time he stopped for a moment he coughed, and each time he saw the wolves he would run again. Panting, frantic, and delirious.
He had been asleep for three hours before a cracking twig woke him in the night. The young man had snapped up and seen the eyes reflecting the weak firelight. He had heard them howling, and had hoped they were after some other prey.
There were only a few bullets left in the pistol. Too few to stop a hungry pack of wolves.
Miles away, with a jacket soaked in sweat. Peter ran in a nameless direction, away from death.
The snow was heavy and wet. The moisture found his waterproof shoes, and the waterproof socks inside. It found his pants, and his long underwear. His sweat found everything else. If he could escape the wolves, the cold was next in line to claim his life.
So he ran. Clomping and slipping in the wet snow in the deep woods of Alaska. Every half hour a wolf would feel brazen and get close. Peter would give them a face-full of pepper spray made to irritate bears.
It would keep them at bay, but they had already committed to Peter. If the wolves gave up, some of them would go hungry.
There was no indicator on the pepper spray to see how much was left. The single, suicidal thought solidified in Peter’s head. He could use the gun on himself before the wolves took him down.
But he could hear the sound of running water. Not a creek, but not a raging river. A smaller river fueled by the melting snow of spring. He would have to make the wager that the wolves would not cross the frigid water.
He ran in the direction of the sound, and the wolves grew more desperate. They did not want Peter to get to that river. Even wolves with red, irritated eyes came close. They snarled and snapped, then retreated when he raised the pepper spray.
They moved, a circle of hungry wolves and an exhausted man. As Peter approached the river, the wolves backed away a bit. Their eyes looked across the river.
Peter shot a glance behind him at the opposite shore. In the light of early dawn he could see the unmistakable silhouette of a large grizzly bear.
His heart sank. His hand went into his right jacket pocket, pulling out the pistol. There was no debate anymore, the decision was made.
“I will help you,” came a voice from across the river.
The wolves instantly became quiet.
Peter turned, pistol at his temple, quivering and shaking. His body burned with adrenaline and fear. He stared at the bear, waiting for another hallucination.
“Come. I will help you,” the voice came again.
The bear’s mouth did not move, and it remained still as the words were spoken. Even over the river, Peter could understand each word like they were said right next to his ears.
As he watched in disbelief, the river’s surface changed. Cracking, popping, it froze. An uneven bridge formed from the shore next to him across to the bear.
Peter took a step. It was solid, and he began to relax. He laughed.
“Are you,” he heaved a breath, “Going to eat me?”
“If you are taken by the wolves, Atha will have her way,” the bear told him.
The wolves howled, and a couple took steps onto the bridge of ice.
In response, the bear growled, pushing itself onto its hind legs. The wolves retreated, barking and howling.
“This bear is full. It had no territory to claim. You are not a concern,” the words came from the bear.
“This is not over, Yupi,” words came from the wolves.
Peter giggled, wondering if he was already dead, or had passed out. He could be hallucinating, but he felt the solid ice underneath him. If he was hallucinating it was quite vivid.
“It is never over. But I have stopped you this time. Accept your loss,” the bear called to the wolves.
The wolves howled, and ran into the dark woods.
Peter stepped on the shore, off the bridge of ice. As soon as his foot touched the snow, the bridge began to break and melt. It was gone in seconds.
The bear, only feet away from him, nodded slightly to a copse of trees. A campfire erupted like a propane fireplace in a ski lodge.
Peter moved towards it, relishing the warmth. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He still was not sure whether he was going insane, dead, dreaming, or part of some rivalry between ancient spirits, or gods. Either way, the adrenaline was taking its toll. His body craved the warmth of the fire.
Is hands raised, sounds of joy escaped him. He sighed deeply as he dropped to his knees.
Peter turned to see the bear one last time, but it was gone. His body had reached its limit, and he fell to his side. He was asleep instantly.