The snow fell lightly through the frosty air, slowly covering the brown earth, and blanketing the roof of the nearby log cabin. The same log cabin that James Willard McCann called his very own home on his small ranch somewhere near the Flathead National Forest in northwestern Montana. Cottonwood Ranch had formerly been owned by James’ father, also named James, but after James sr. had fallen ill, and later passed away, James’ elder sister Megan gave up ranch life, and moved to LA. Left in charge of the ranch at just twenty-three, James had worked hard to keep the ranch stable, but was forced to sell fourteen of his thirty-two sheep, and his last cow, all just to keep enough money to buy essentials. The winters were always a hard time for ranchers, especially in northern Montana, so James made sure to keep an eye on the shed and barn, just in case any new gaps appeared in the walls.
James let out a breath and rubbed his hands together.
It wasn’t so much that James was cold – he was used to that – but he was nervous, nervous because it was wolf season. Earl Donovan, a nearby rancher who James had known since he was a kid, had reported that a wolf had recently killed one of goats, and in response to this, James had set up a few of his father’s old traps near the perimeter of the ranch, just in case.
Turning back to his cabin, James trudged through the light snow, which seemed to be collecting quickly already. At the door, James looked back. The mountains rose high above the little wooden building, and they lay blanketed in large swaths of green forest, pines mostly. The sun was already behind the peaks to the west, save for a tiny sliver, which was still sinking quickly. The sky was streaked with the colors of sunset; purple, orange, gold, and blue, and little wisps of cloud littered the skyline, which was already turning to a shade of gray.
Returning to the present, James entered his house, and locked and bolted the door securely behind him, leaving not one little draft of cold, mountain air, to seep in to the cabin. Doffing his coat, gloves, boots, and wet socks, James proceeded to light a fire, which he watched steadily grow.
As it was getting late, James made himself a small pot of stew, and washed it down with some warm tea. He sat in his father’s old, oak rocking chair, and watched as the fire crackled and spat gently. Before long, James’ eyes drifted closed, and he dosed off.
James stirred suddenly. He was sure he’d heard a bleat. He sat in his chair quietly. The fire was out, just a black pile of ash and soot, and without its presence, the cabin was cold and dark. Soon enough, however, a sound broke the silence. Another bleat.
It was all James needed, he jumped up, threw on his socks, boots, coat, and gloves, before he loaded his hunting rifle, and brought some of the ammunition with him in his coat pocket.
He then eased the door open, and steeped out into the freezing air of Montana. The dawn glowed with a faint gray. James knew the sun would rise soon, and his day would start. Though he’d only heard a bleat, his sheep weren’t normally awake at this time, and with wolves and bears living nearby – especially with bears hibernating soon – James had to be careful.
He slowly trotted to the barn, and as the snow crunched underfoot, James scouted the area, and stopped in his tracks.
There, by the front of the barn, lay wool and blood. Small pieces of meat and bone littered the ground around the entrance to the barn. A low growling sounded from inside of the barn, and it was followed by a bleating.
With a rush of anger, James rushed to the barn, rifle in hand. As he ran, James checked that the gun was loaded, and pulled back the bolt. At the entrance to the barn, James listened for a second or two, and he heard a loud ripping noise – most likely, one of his sheep was dying.
Whipping around the corner of the barn, James unlocked the barn in one quick motion. Stalking inside, James raised his rifle, and aimed it in the direction of where he’d heard the sound.
Only one carcass lay on the floor of the barn. It was ripped open, and missing quite a bit of wool, so James assumed it was the same sheep as the part of one outside. A wolf with magnificently white and gray fur turned his way. Its face was smeared with the red of the sheep’s blood, and it barred its teeth at the sight of James.
There was intelligence behind its eyes, a kind of brilliance there, like it was developing some sort of scheme. And maybe it was. It turned back, and leaped towards the sheep, causing them to scatter, and flee away from the barn. They raced towards James, blocking the entrance, and barreling out into the cold. James had to leap out of the way, rolling onto his back, and sitting up, aiming his rifle. The sheep poured out of the barn, until it seemed to be empty. Carefully standing, James creeped to the entrance to the barn again, and poked the gun inside. After a second, James looked inside, and was greeted by the sight of a completely empty barn, save for the carcass.
A hole in the left side wall let a brisk wind into the now empty barn, and a tuft of fur hung to the broken edge of the wood. Growling in frustration, James turned back to the outside, where sheep stood frightened, and near the edge of the woods, a wolf – the same wolf – raced to the shelter of the forest.
Taking quick aim, James fired a round from his rifle, but he doubtful that it had found his mark. Then, not a second later, the wolf was gone, and the loudest sounds were the scared bleating of the sheep, the ringing of the rifle’s shot, and James’ own breathing.
It was later that day when James checked the traps again. He boarded up the barn, checked the edge of the woods, and cleaned up the remains of his lost sheep.
The sheep were back to the barn, and several traps placed around the big red building, but by the next morning, nothing had happened.
By nighttime, James was cleaning his hunting rifle, prepared for tomorrow, and ready for the wolf to return. Only a few seconds later, he heard the same frightened bleating from only a couple nights ago.
Rushing out the door, rifle in hand, James ran to the barn, and when he arrived, he threw open the door.
Inside, the sheep stared up at him. They weren’t hurt, at least not to James’s eyes, and there was no wolf to be seen. Spinning around, James was surprised to see the same brilliant, white-gray wolf standing there, calmly staring at him.
Raising his rifle, James considered the wolf’s eyes again. Something told James it was a female, he wasn’t sure how he knew, but he did. She had several scars along her gleaming pelt and legs, which James could only assume were battle wounds from past hunts.
The wolf cocked her head, and continued around the corner of the barn, and with a brief moment of hesitation, James followed. He looked around the corner, and there she was, trotting towards the lone pine tree that sat in the middle of a nearby field. James raised his rifle, took a step, and nearly had his ankle broken, as one of his own traps closed just next to his foot, and James hopped backwards, cursing.
Looking back up, the she wolf was nowhere to be seen, which struck James as strange, because there was little cover. Still, to be sure, James checked the area. There were no tracks, and no signs of any wolf. When he returned, the sheep grazed calmly in the field, while the bloody carcass of the sheep still lay torn and gored.
Three nights later – James stared out the cabin window, watching the woods and the barn for any signs of the wolf, which he’d named Queen, for he thought that she seemed in charge of any situation, and was rather clever. Precautions and defenses could only do so much, and James knew that Queen was quite an intelligent creature, so he had decided that he only had one choice – he had to kill the beast.
As the clock struck one in the morning, and James’ eyes began to close, a flash of white fur caught his eye. His eyes opened wide, and he sat up straight. The wolf was creeping up to the barn, and the unknowing sheep would be defenseless and asleep. James ran to the door and grabbed his loaded rifle.
He crept out the door, and made his way to the barn.
With rifle raised, and boots steeping lightly, James snuck to the corner of the barn and – taking a breath – turned the corner.
The wolf wasn’t there, but worried bleating broke out from inside the barn, and James raced to the door, unlocked it, and threw it open. A new hole in the back of the barn had appeared. Growling, James whipped around, and spotted the wolf, Queen, dragging the carcass of a sheep towards the woods. Taking aim, James fired a shot, but it struck the ground where Queen had just been.
Attempting to reload his rifle, James clumsily seized a round of ammunition, and crammed it into the chamber of his rifle, pulling the bolt back, all while running after Queen. He stopped, lifted the gun to his shoulder, and fired. Blood spayed from where the bullet had struck the flesh of the creature, but Queen picked the sheep back up again. James had only hit the sheep, and Queen was using it as a partial shield.
For the rest of the morning, James used his auxiliary barbed wire, and set it up around the barn, leaving no entrance to the barn for Queen. He then grabbed enough feed for the sheep for a little more than a week, and packed supplies, including a tent and his rifle, plus plenty of food and water, and filled the gas tank of his old ATV.
Looking back at his ranch once more, James took off into the woods, as the sun rose over the mountains.
On day two of his quest, he ditched the ATV, covered in a camouflaged tarp. Queen would surely hear the ATV, and he couldn’t sneak up on her that way.
On day three, he trekked for nearly a dozen miles, and set up camp. He continued following the wolf’s tracks but the snow was beginning to fall.
On day five, he stumbled across a shallow hollow, and an abundance of prints. Not much later, he found a den, and waited.
He was about one hundred yards from the den, on the ridge of a small hill. It would’ve been a tough shot for James, as he wasn’t a terrific hunter, and his rifle had no scope. Next to impossible, maybe.
He stuffed some jerky in his pants pocket, slowly, carefully, creeping his way towards the den.
Hoping that Queen wasn’t as clever as he feared, James left a trail of jerky-bait, and set the three traps he’d brought, and waited some more.
About thirty minutes later, Queen emerged. Her eyes, bright, her tail lashing in excitement. She crept towards the first piece of jerky, spotted the other, then stopped, and sniffed the air.
James first thought was that she’d sensed the trap, or him, but he was downwind, and so this couldn’t be.
That’s when another wolf emerged from the den. It had a dominance about it, and stood tall, with its tail straight in the air. James assumed it was a male, and most likely Queen’s mate.
Queen looked back at him, her gaze looked…fearful?
The male, who James just had to call King, growled at Queen, and swiped at her with a paw, drawing blood from her left ear, which trickled down her head, and past her eye.
Maybe those scars and wounds on Queen weren’t from her hunts.
Spotting the jerky, the King trotted confidently towards the easy meal, probably intending to eat it all himself. Queen snarled at him, and he growled back at her, as her tail drooped between. She seemed like she knew the traps were there. Had she tried to warn him?
James realized he was forgetting his quest. He had a long way back to his ranch, and the sheep didn’t have too much food. He stared down the barrel of his rifle, and as King took the last step towards the trap, and Queen stood watching, he fired.
Several things happened at once. First, King stepped right next to the trap, which then snapped shut in a blur. Queen flinched, and James’ shot missed by about two inches, striking the earth beside her.
The echo of the shot rang for a moment, then King looked up to where James lay, now only partially covered. Then, with a snarl, King charged up the hill. James rushed to reload, and by the rime he’d pulled back the bolt, King was nearly on him. As King leapt, James fired, and King growled in surprise, falling back to earth limply. James stood, and ran to the den, loading his rifle. What he saw surprised him: Queen was nosing two little pups into the woods, the three of them attempting a pitiful escape. Queen turned to James, snarling protectively, but one of her pups crawled towards the second trap, eagerly searching for meat. Queen saw it, and, ignoring James, raced to the pups, throwing a paw out to block the pup. The trap closed, and Queen was caught there with it.
James had a job to do, but for some reason, he couldn’t bring himself to kill the brilliant wolf. Queen stared with hate up at James, and then, her expression changed, she seemed expectant, like she knew exactly what James was going to do. He stood there, quivering, unsure. This wolf was just trying to lead a good life, protect her pups, care for them. Survive.
James had to take the shot. The wolf had killed his sheep. A tear tricked down his face, and fell to the ground. He had to kill this wolf, or his ranch would be done for. He had no choice. He had to survive.
The snow fell lightly through the frosty air, covering the brown earth. The man was gone. The pups were gone. The king lay dead, and caught in a trap, lay the cold body of the fallen queen.