The forest settled around her as the darkness deepened, and Maggie felt a sense of peace wash over her. Small, nocturnal animals went about their business as they became comfortable with her presence in their home. She’d always been comfortable with solitude and silence, two things that made tasks like this one pleasurable instead of a chore, and Maggie quickly lost track of time. Eventually, the sounds around her changed. The ambient noises of the small creatures moving through the brush hushed to a near whisper. The sudden, eerie, silence caught Maggie’s attention, and she listened closely for some indication of what had caused the change. Moments passed before she heard what had quieted the forest. Something large was lumbering through the trees. With an economy of motion, Maggie pulled out her camera and checked her speed and flash.
She saw the fur first, dark, nearly black in the muted moonlight. But it seemed too far above her line of sight to be a wolf. And the townspeople had said that the wolf was gray, not dark. Fear trickled up the back of her neck as the furry blur moved closer and became larger. It didn’t take long for the dark form to pass clearly into Maggie’s line of vision. A bear. Panic welled deep in her throat; she prayed the bear had neither seen her nor caught her scent. She moved her hand slowly toward her pack, toward her gun, when her elbow knocked over the Thermos of coffee. Its roll into the leaves sounded to Maggie like a cacophony of drums, and as she watched, horrified, the bear turned his head toward her. Forgetting to move stealthily, she scrambled for her gun with one hand and fought with the zipper on her sleeping bag with the other.
She cursed and prayed as she tugged at the sleeping bag, but the zipper didn’t budge. The bear advanced on her. She realized he wasn’t fully grown yet, but from her seated position on the forest floor, he looked huge. She raised the gun with trembling hands, afraid she’d only enrage the animal in her attempt to protect herself—but perhaps since he wasn’t fully grown, she might be able to inflict enough pain to scare him away. At least long enough to get this damn sleeping bag off and get to her car. Her hand steadied as she took aim, waiting for the bear to get close enough for the gun to be effective but also close enough to hurt her with one well-placed swipe of his massive paws.
“I’m so sorry.” She whispered as her finger flexed on the trigger. Without warning, a gray blur streaked into her path, and Maggie instinctively lowered the nose of the gun. A wolf had placed itself between her and the bear. He growled low and threateningly at the bear. The bear grumbled in a loud, grumpy tone. The wolf continued to growl, slowly pushing the bear back until, finally, the bear turned and disappeared back into the night. Though the entire episode had taken only minutes, for Maggie, time had slowed. Sweat puddled in the small of her back, and her mouth tasted like her palm often smelled after gripping copper pennies for too long.
The wolf was magnificent. His fur was a rich, dark gray. He was taller than any wolves she’d seen at the zoo, and the breadth of his shoulders was impressive. She didn’t wonder at the bear’s decision to find his meal elsewhere but sensed the wolf posed her no threat. Instead, she felt protected.
The wolf turned to her then, his head cocked as though asking a silent question. She had a crazy urge to explain what she was doing in the forest stuck in her ancient sleeping bag. But Maggie gasped instead as she looked into his moss-green eyes—eyes that possessed a breathtaking clarity and intelligence. Eyes that assessed her in an entirely too human manner, and, unless she was sorely mistaken, eyes filled with derision. He seemed to look her over dismissively before ambling into the bushes. She heard him settling down a few yards from her, out of sight but not out of reach. She imagined him preparing his bed much as her best friend’s dog did. Circling a favored spot over and over, primping it with the front paws before dropping down to rest. She wondered how long he’d stay there and suspected he’d be there as long as she was. That he’d appointed himself guardian of the woman foolish enough to venture into a bear’s domain.
Maggie knew her thoughts fantastical, wondered if they were the aftereffects of the terror and adrenaline that had left as quickly as they had surfaced. She wondered why she didn’t call it a night—hell, call it a trip, and just go home. But she knew that the wolf she’d heard so many stories of, the wolf she was here to write about, was the brave animal that had just faced off against a black bear and was, even now, nearby. She planned to be there come dawn to see if those moss green eyes looked any different, staring out at her from the face of a man.
“Shit!” Maggie swore as she shoved the gun back into her pack and picked up her forgotten camera. “Goddamn it! I can’t believe I didn’t get one single picture. Not one.” She heard what she could only describe as a soft, breathy chuckle from the area where she sensed the wolf had settled and, without thinking, furiously whispered back, “Go ahead and laugh, I’ll still be here at dawn, camera-ready.”
The forest slowly came back to life as Maggie calmed herself the only way she knew how. By writing. With quick strokes, she recalled in print the scene as it had unfolded before her. The absolute terror of watching the bear approach and waiting until he was close enough to hurt her before taking aim. The wolf leaping into the line of fire, both hers and the bear’s, then forcing back the hungry beast in a display of superiority. Even what she told herself she’d imagined seeing reflected in the canine’s eyes and the huff of breath she’d convinced herself was a chuckle.
The adrenaline-fueled writing slowed, and when she scribbled the last word, a weariness swept over Maggie. Before long, she was sound asleep, bundled into the threadbare sleeping bag that had nearly cost her life.