Fiction: The Standoff

James Bates
Without warning the snow ledge we'd been traversing collapsed, sending Jerry and me hurtling twenty feet down the side of the shear granite canyon into the boiling rapids of the boulder-infested Tettegouche River. In a matter of moments our packs were swept away and our heavy winter clothes were completely soaked, but we were able to fight our way out of the icy water onto the snowy riverbank where we lay exhausted in the minus-ten-degree February air. I'd sprained my wrist and from the swelling in his ankle it looked like Jerry had either a bad sprain or a fracture. We were minutes from freezing to death and had to get a fire going. Thankfully, Jerry was able to. 
"There's hope," I said scooting closer as the first flames licked the pine needles we'd used for tinder. "We may make it yet."
Jerry gave me a sick grin, "Always the optimist, aren't you Steve? We've lost our gear, I used all our matches to get the fire started and we don't have any food except these granola bars." A point he emphasized by reaching into his pocket and handing me one of the two he had remaining. I had none. "And no one knows where we are. Yeah, things are looking great."
I gratefully took the bar, opened it and contemplatively munched. My friend did the same.
If I was an optimist, Jerry was a realist. We'd been camping on Lone Loon Lake for two nights, only three miles from the trailhead where we'd parked our car. We could have snow-shoed the distance back in half a day easily, but we'd taken an alternate route for fun. Not a good idea. We'd gotten lost, ended up in the river, and now here we were, the flames from our fire the only thing keeping us from dying a slow agonizing death from exposure in the unforgiving Minnesota wilderness. 
With the sun hanging low on the horizon and with the kindling in the fire starting to die out, I hurried to collect as much firewood as I could, hindered greatly by my sprained wrist. Jerry could hardly move due to his swollen ankle, now nearly popping the laces of his boot. By the time I had gathered a healthy pile of pine, birch, and aspen, the pain had become so intense he was fading into and out of consciousness.
With that in mind, I almost didn't believe him when he recovered momentarily and pointed to the top of the canyon on the other side of the river. "Steve, you're not going to believe this. We've got visitors."
Thinking we were going to be rescued, I was about to cheer when my throat constricted and my heart rate jumped from the adrenaline pouring into my blood. There, peering over the edge of the canyon in the fading twilight was a wolf - a large one, an alpha male. In a moment he was joined by a smaller wolf, probably his mate, then three more, most certainly last year's offspring.
I turned to him, "My god, it's a wolf pack," I whispered. "What are we going to do?"
For once in his life, Jerry was had nothing to say. Then he spoke softly, "I've no idea, but off hand I'd say we're toast."
We'd been friends for over thirty years, ever since we met in fourth grade. In our friendship, I was the stable one, he was impulsive. I was down to earth, he was free spirited. I was the follower, he was the leader. But now I took over. "I'm going to stock up on firewood. Maybe the flames will keep them away."
He nodded, agreeing, "Good idea." Then he lapsed into unconsciousness.
It was completely dark by the time I'd replenished our firewood supply. I had waited only a few minutes when out of the shadows and beyond the ring of our fire I sensed a movement. Moments later I saw him. The big male had arrived. His eyes were the color of bright amber and they seemed to look directly into my soul, taking my breath away. Bile rose in my throat. I'd never been so afraid.
I shook Jerry. He regained consciousness and I pointed to the wolf. He grabbed my arm in a gesture of solidarity. "It's up to you, buddy," he said grimly. "Do what you need to do. I'll feed the fire."
I could only come up with one plan. "I'll see if I can scare him away," I said, sounding way more confident than I felt. We both knew what we were up against. One big, strong, hungry wolf against two injured men? We'd be no match for him. Plus, he had his pack of four other wolves to attack us if necessary. The odds were not in our favor and I began to lose my resolve. Suddenly, though, in my mind I had a vision of my wife and two kids, my reasons for living, and something snapped inside. I wasn't going down without a fight.
"Give him hell," Jerry said.
"I'll try," I responded, giving him what in retrospect was probably a pretty pathetic thumbs-up sign.
I grabbed a stick the size of a baseball bat, stuck it into the fire and got it burning flaming hot. Holding it with my good hand, I approached the wolf until I was maybe ten feet from him. He didn't move. I stopped, my body shaking as I forced myself to hold on to my weapon. We stared at each other. He didn't blink. I don't think I did either. Impatiently, I thrust the flaming stick at him. He didn't bat an eye. Nor move. We stared each other down. His fangs were bared and I was close enough to see his black jowls. He growled deep in his massive chest and took a step toward me. I held my ground and waved the burning firebrand which now suddenly seemed the size of a pencil. The wolf stopped and growled low again but didn't come any closer. I stayed put. I may have even bared my own teeth. Neither of us moved. It was a standoff. 
I don't know how long we stood there, poised, both of us staring - me into the wolf's glowing amber eyes, he into my terrified blue ones. I'll bet he could smell fear all over me. It was only a matter of time before he attacked. Still, I held my ground and stood firm, the flame on my stick barely flickering.
Suddenly he blinked. Distracted. One ear perked up, then the other. He'd heard something. In an instant, he turned and ran, the rest of the pack following, silent and ghost-like. In a blink of an eye, they were gone. 
"Steve. Steve," Jerry screamed, pulling me back to reality, "Do you hear it? It sounds like a motor. Listen."
In the background I could hear the rhythmic thwap, thwap, thwap of rotating blades. I looked up just as a helicopter seemed to float over the edge of the cliff on the other side of the river, its searchlight methodically scanning back and forth. In spite of being nearly frozen we managed to get to our feet and wave. The side door slid open and a person waved back and yelled something we couldn’t hear. It hovered above us and in a matter of moments, a harness was lowered with a rescuer in it. We'd been saved. Apparently, one of our packs had been discovered by some day hikers a few miles downriver. They’d notified the authorities and a search party had been sent to investigate. That night the temperature went down to forty below zero. There is no doubt in anybody’s mind we would have frozen to death. We owed the hikers and the rescue team our lives.
I'll never forget our near tragedy on the Tettegouche River, especially that big wolf and both of us staring each other down. Even now, years later I can still see his bright amber eyes and his bared fangs. I can see something else, too. I can see myself reflected in those eyes of his. It's an image of me coming to terms with my own mortality. I could have died that night but didn't. I know I would have gone down fighting, but there is no doubt that big wolf would have won. He'd have killed me and then Jerry and that would have been the end of us forever.
However, I do know this: Something happened between him and me during that standoff that I still feel to this day, a primitive connection of sorts was forged between us. Me at one with that wild animal. 
In fact, sometimes at night I am compelled to rise from my warm, safe bed, leave my wife comfortably sleeping, and sneak outside and go to the park near our home. Especially when the moon is full. I feel this strong urge, a primordial wild desire that I can barely control. It's overwhelming. I feel like running and sometimes I do. I run through the darkness, my way lit by the starry sky and the brightness of the moon and I feel alive. I feel free. I feel like something greater than myself. It's uncanny but, sometimes, with the wind blowing through my hair and my feet flying over the earth I feel like I'm more than alive. I feel at one with the wildness of nature. Like that wolf. And, sometimes, I even feel like howling. And sometimes I do.

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