A Circle of Wolves - Part I

Guest blogging today is Bradley Nettermand.  Brad is a native of Helena, Montana, having lived in Montana most of his life.  He and his wife now live in southern Montana, near Big Timber.  Brad and his wife have four children, ten grandchildren and "so many great-grand kids we can't keep track of them all."  A retired railroad engineer, Mr. Nettermand devotes all his time now to wood carving.  He makes an assortment of wood carvings of bears, antelope, mountain lions and wolves.  In his spare time, he does work around his church and helps as many folks out as he can.  At age 75, Mr. Nettermand says he has no intention of slowing down.

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Well, I guess I should start my story at the beginning.  That's where most stories take place.  So, let's start there!   Despite what you may read and hear, living in Montana can get downright boring at times.  If you are a rancher, it's the same damn thing every day trying to scratch out a living with feeding livestock, worried about the price of beef, finding enough feed for your cattle and just a never ending list of worrying.  That's just the ranchers.  Folks all over Montana struggled back in the 50s when I was a small boy.  But, as you probably could imagine, life can be quite exciting in this beautiful state I have called home for 75 of my 75 years on earth.  I've been to all over this great country.  But, no place can satisfy me like my home state of Montana.  The one thing that 99.999% of folks in Montana have in common is hunting.  Ask someone if he wants to go hunting with you is like asking him if he wants to come over and eat some venison with you.  Of course you want to go hunting!!!  Working my dad's ranch in the western part of the state didn't give me many days of relaxation.  Hunting was the one thing that took my mind off living on a ranch where it was work from the time the sun rose in the east to when it set in the west.  I loved to hunt! Still do and always will.

Back in 1954, at age 15, two of my best friends in the whole world, Billy Waller and Zeke Bateman, and I got time off from our respective families to go hunting in the beautiful western part of Montana.  We rode horses back then the way people do the four-wheelers today to get where they going in the rough country of Montana.  I still say horseback is the only way to get into the rough country.  But, horses do get spooked.  Then just try to find them after they take off.  That happened to me more than once.  It's no fun looking for your horse for an entire day or even longer.  But, back to our hunting trip....we were heading for a place called "The Hanging Bluff."  Legend was that four horse thieves were hung together here back in the 1880s.  If you caught a horse thief back then, no need to go get the sheriff for a trial.  You took care of him yourself if it were your horses.  Our reason for going to The Hanging Bluff was the large number of elk and antelope that were in that area.  It was a good ten miles or so from our respective ranches.  So, we were not going off too far.  We arrived at our destination on a late July afternoon in 1954.  We had our supplies (dried venison, flour, grandma's silver skillets, forks, knives, ammo etc) on three mules trailing behind our horses.  So, we got unpacked, let the horses and mules graze (you always kept them apart as much as possible).  We had some salted venison that we were going to eat that night.  Started up a fire, tossed out our sleeping bags and settled in for the night.

Like all teen boys, the discussion was automatically turned to girls for most of the night after we ate.  Our hormones were in full throttle mode that night.  But, eventually, came time for what is a favorite pastime in Montana, campfire stories.  These are usually legends that can't be verified by any stretch of the imagination.  But, some have a basis in fact to my way of thinking. The favorite legend was always "The Custer Wolf."   That story always came up at every campfire I had ever been a part of during my youth.  The Custer Wolf was legendary because of his incredible escapes from traps and hundreds of hunters who wanted his hide for killing thousands of dollars in livestock.  For nearly ten long years he haunted ranchers in Montana and the Dakotas.  The Custer Wolf was said to have been half wolf and half mountain lion, a true freak of nature so the story goes.  He was said to be as long as 6 ft and well over a 100lbs.  That's a story that always gets your attention around a campfire, I promise you.  Wolves were almost completely eradicated in the 1920s in Montana.  Many say the surviving wolves, to this day, kill in this state due to those long ago range wars with ranchers back in the day.

So, now my story really begins.  

Billy Waller was the best at campfire tales of anyone I knew back then.  That includes the old-time storytellers like Mr. Holenski who was upwards of 80 years or so in age.  No one really knew why Billy was so damn good.  I guess it just came naturally to him.  The thing about Billy's stories, he swears they were all true.  So, after we had our fill of venison, some potato chips (only had the plain kind back in those days) and lots of cold water, Billy started off with his story.  This time it was about Werewolves of Montana.  Billy talked about how some cowboys were taking it easy after herding cattle through this area of Montana back in 1875.  They were all sitting around, having a few hits from a whiskey bottle when out of nowhere, a huge wolf of about 150lbs and 7 feet in length attacked one of the men around the campfire that night.  The huge wolf grabbed the cowboy by the throat, lifted him up and spit out the flesh into the campfire.  Cowboys started popping the, now, apparently Werewolf with as much lead as they could possibly fire.  It was all to no avail.  Only one cowboy survived to tell the tale until he too passed away.  Billy had never told this one before.  Both Zeke and I gave him hell for scaring us like that.  All Billy did was laugh and tell us we were little girls for getting so scared.  He didn't know it at the time. But, those words would come back to haunt him later on that night.

We got enough of storytelling and called it a night around about 11PM that night.  We stoked the campfire with as much wood one last time before getting some shuteye.  It still gets cool at night in Montana even in July.  So we all got as close to each other as we could for warmth and protection from any critters that might show up.  'Round about 2AM (according to my old railroad watch I borrowed from my dad), I woke up.  Both Billy and Zeke were still snoozing away.  I just got this bad feeling for some reason.   I felt like something in the darkness was watching us.  The fire was just mostly flickering embers by now.  I reached over to stoke it with a stick when I heard an unholy snarl from just behind me.  Thinking it might be a wild dog or possibly even a coyote, I reached for my Winchester .22 rifle.  This time the snarl became a deep-throated growl.  It was enough to wake up the two sleeping beauties.  "What was that?" Billy asked.  I didn't answer.  I was looking around our camp that night to see if I could see exactly where the growl was coming from.  Suddenly, the growls were all around us.  All of us grabbed our weapons now, not knowing they would be useless at the time.  We all went back to back with each other to prepare for whatever was about to come forward.  The fire was stoked, but was just flickering.  As I looked around us, I saw at least 8 sets of red eyes glaring intently at us.  Zeke was petrified, as was Billy.  Me, hell, I was just thinking this isn't normal for any kind of coyote.  It damn sure wasn't wild dogs.  This was something else.

The red eyes were moving in a circle around us now.  The growling began to intensify.  It seemed to rattle our bones at times.  Closer and closer the eyes came toward us.  Finally, I fired a shot at one set of red eyes. There was no howl, no shriek of pain or any such thing.  Instead, the set of red eyes I shot rose upward to a standing position.  And it came closer to me.  These were not coyotes.  These weren't wild dogs.  They appeared to be wolves.  But, to my knowledge back then, wolves did not stand on their hind legs like a man. I fired my Winchester at this thing point blank as did my two compatriots at the wolf closest to us.  It barely even acknowledged the slugs entering its body. This wolf-man leaped completely over us and landed next to Billy.  Bill screamed in pain.  It had lifted Billy up in the air with the huge teeth in its mouth!!  I then grabbed a stick out of the fire and hit the wolf-man with it.  Now, the lead wolf screamed with the pain of fire burning its fur.  The other wolves then came in to the campfire to attack.  I told Zeke to grab a stick out of the fire and help me fight them off!  Zeke grabbed one just before another wolf-man made a leap toward him.  Zeke, if I remember correctly, took the fire stick and stuck it right in the outstretched mouth of the wolf!  Another unearthly howl.  I looked for Billy and the wolf that had him in it's mouth was standing over Billy as he lay writhing in pain.  I started grabbing anything I could find to throw at the onslaught of wolves, sticks of fire, stones....and then I grabbed my grandma's silver skillets that she gave to my sister (who didn't know I had them at the time).  Instead of throwing the silver skillets at the wolves, I banged both skillets together as hard as I could, hoping this would scare the wolves away.  That loud "clanging" got their attention.

All 8 wolves stood and looked at me with an anger that makes my soul rattle to this day.  They then disappeared into the night from whence they came growling as loudly as you can possibly imagine.  I looked at the carnage before me in complete shock.  Zeke had been bitten on his left leg.  Billy's arm (his left) was dangling by ligaments.  Before I tried to assist both of them, I threw the remaining firewood onto the fire.  Zeke was screaming in pain.  Billy appeared to be in shock.  I was worried about Zeke, but Billy was my more immediate concern.   I was convinced that Billy was going to bleed to death before I could get him home.  But, how was I going to do it by myself?  I looked to see if the horses were still around.  They and the mules had obviously ran off.  We were in big, big trouble.  I had two boys who were hurt, one seriously.  Something totally unlike I have ever imagined had attacked us.  I took all the blankets and threw them around both Billy and Zeke.  I had to stop Billy's bleeding.  Zeke had deep bites into his knee.  But, the bleeding was not all that much.  I took two handkerchiefs (we wore those around our necks back in the day), tied them together and made a tourniquet to stop the bleeding just above Billy's left elbow.  That seemed to stop the bleeding.  But, Billy appeared unresponsive.  He was very obviously in shock now.  Zeke helped me as best he could.  He was hurt also.  No way he could walk home.  Home.  That was ten miles from here.  No way in hell I was going to try to make it in the dark.  Especially with those wolf-men out there.  But, it was not quite 2:30AM.  Billy would bleed to death if I waited that long.  Even if he lived to daylight, there is no way he could walk the ten miles or so home.  I had to go find those horses, at least one horse or mule in the dark.  Both the lives of Billy and Zeke depended on what I would do next.  They would either live or die by what I did.  That all depended, of course, on whether or not we got any further attacks that night from the wolves or whatever the hell they were.
Part II

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