A small bird landed on the rock that was providing shelter for the wolf. Its chirruping woke her. Though tired, she knew that it was time to press on. Slowly she lifted her bulk and got to her feet. The startled bird was unaware of how close it was to danger when the wolf walked out from beneath its stand. It abruptly flew off through the dawn's mist that clung thickly to the ground and lazily drifted upwards toward the sky.
The wolf trotted many miles. Instinct told her that the humans still chased her, and the wind brought to her the strong scent of impatient dogs. This quickened her pace, but her pregnancy hindered her badly and near midday she felt the oncoming of exhaustion. Her tread was no longer light and graceful. Her breathing was heavy and laboured, her paws sore and her joints aching.
She stopped, defeated. It would only be a matter of time before the dogs led the humans to her and death came. She collapsed onto her side, next to a dead tree.
She had not lain down long when she heard the excited barking of dogs, and smelt the hideous scent and felt their enthusiasm to kill the enemy.
Her heart pounded. Would she really just give herself up like this? The barking increased with loudness, and she felt herself stirring as instinct forced her to move again. She was already on her feet when one dog burst through the undergrowth.
Trees and bushes flashed past her eyes as she fled for her life and the ones of the unborn cubs inside her. The dog, unburdened and well fed, was hot on her tail. She ran desperately, her legs moving back and forth faster than ever before, almost gliding across the earth.
Then, up ahead, she noticed a difference in the ground. She realised it was a large gap, and she evaluated its size in a split second. Within a few moments she was at its edge and leapt as far as she could. It used all her strength and she had just made the other side. The dog was not so lucky. In its frenzy it failed to notice the change to the ground. Yelping in sudden alarm, it fell. The wide crack itself was not too deep but the dog became unconscious as it hit solid earth. Wasting no time as she heard more barks and human voices, the wolf ran on.
"What the-? My dog!" Rick's father had stopped at the crack and seen his animal knocked out at the bottom. The other dog growled ahead, where the wolf could be seen fleeing.
"That wolf! Come on!" Just over a hundred yards away was a small bridge unnoticed by the wolf or dog. Rick, his father and the remaining dog crossed over it. If the dog was not too hurt, then once the wolf was dispatched they could rescue it.
The wolf was panicking. She heard the group of pursuers close behind, and they had managed to get over the crack.
She turned to look behind her, but blurred images did not provide her with an accurate picture of the approaching danger.
Ferns whipped her face, and her paws cried out in pain. Instinct drove her on without sense. When her misty eyes saw the huge wall of rock ahead and she knew that she had run into a gorge, it was too late. Like the dog before, she now fell into the trap.
Looking left and right she saw that the only escape was from where she had come. But the humans and their other dog had followed, and now she was trapped.
The dog snarled and would have sprung forward onto the cowering animal, but its master held it back with a cuff to the ear.
The wolf backed up against the wall of rock. There was no question of climbing it, and the scent of both human and dog intoxicated her. She growled and drew back her lips to reveal a set of sharp, white fangs. This, for a moment, intimidated her attackers. But then a shiver passed through her rigid body as one of the humans brought out the shotgun from behind his back.
"Rick, take the gun." His father said in a low voice, pushing the weapon into his arms.
The overwhelmed boy looked at the terrified wolf, and its eyes were locked on him and the instrument of death he held. Those eyes…they showed him the terrible, rooted fear of man, the pleading to let little lives of her cubs live.
"Go on, shoot it." His father nudged him. As he brandished the shotgun and then looked back at the wolf, a strange feeling overcame him. It was the rush of adrenaline, urging him to kill the prey. Savour the moment of its death; revel in the sound and recoil of the shotgun as it did the wielder's bidding. Everything else except him, the weapon and the wolf dissolved, and he raised the shotgun to aim at the animal.
And then he thought, 'in this moment I will choose another animal's life or death. I have that power. I will use it.'
His finger pressed a little more on the heavy trigger, and his aim was jogged slightly. But because of this, his aim went to the wolf's belly and he almost felt the beautiful life that stirred inside. It was not just one life that he would decide the fate of, it was many more. Would he deny some unborn animals their only chance to live on this wonderful earth? Did he have the strength to make that decision?
Time was ticking and he had to reach a decision. He felt the impatience of his father beside him.
Two days later, Rick was back home, standing on the front porch. His father was inside making a racket at his mother. He felt sorry for her, because when something went wrong she would be the one to receive the anger.
At least Rick himself was happy at the decision he had made. He gazed up at the high tree-swarmed hills that formed the valley around his home. Never before had he appreciated the beauty of nature, and life. Its undying will to continue whatever happened. The sun was setting beyond the hills, and it had painted the encircling clouds a radiant pink. A flock of birds glided on the wind past it, and on the hills was the prolonged howl of a solitary wolf. Not his wolf though.
Past the valley lay more mountainous hills. The snow was gone for now and the wind had calmed its frosted bites.
Under the climbing moon, new life entered the world.
Inside the large abandoned burrow of a badger family, the wolf pushed and snarled in pain until her work was done. Four tiny cubs, their frail bodies coated in stickiness and blood, squirmed towards the warmth of their mother and felt for her teats. They each nestled in her delightfully warm fur as the wolf licked them clean.
As she reflected on it, she knew she was lucky to be giving birth to these perfect little creatures. Back in the valley gorge, where her life nearly ended, the younger human had fired the gun. But he did not hit her. He aimed at the rock wall and shot that instead. The distraction caused enabled her to escape. The dog had been too obedient to follow, and the other human too enraged to give chase.
The squealing of an indignant wolf cub dragged her from her thoughts. She looked down at its tightly shut eyes, the quivering nose and the questioning expression as if it could already see.
If she were a cat she would have purred in contentment. These were her cubs. Her future. Herself.