Return to the Library

LOST IN THE WILDERNESS

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 2
March of the Furs

 

Aldo Banner lifted his broad nose toward the sky and sorted out the scents that his sensitive canine olfactory senses picked up. There was something new on the air.

The canine furman had often endured a bit of ribbing for his species choice, but Aldo had grown up on his family's acreage in the Midwest and their St. Hubert bloodhounds had always been his favorite dogs. He'd had several of them as companions over the years and counted them among his best friends. Left alone as a survivor following the North American Heartland's deadliest tornado outbreak in the past century, Aldo had lost everything. His family, pets and livestock had all perished, the barn blown away and the house swept from its foundation by wind speeds that had topped three hundred eighteen miles per hour.

The young man himself had lived through the disaster by ducking into a drainage ditch a quarter mile from his home, miraculously sustaining little more than cuts and bruises from flying debris. His family had made a modest income, but after the funeral services and the estate debts were settled, Aldo Banner had not been left with much to live on. It was while reading through the classified ads of a local paper in a library when he'd found an advertisement promoting the Anthro Human Colonization Program. He had never been interested in fanciful tales of exploring the stars, but the economy hadn't presented him with many job offers and he had ultimately been left with the choice of joining military service or the colonization program.

No matter how well folks got along these days, there would probably always be wars and conflicts across the Earth due to overcrowding and food shortages, but Aldo wanted to do something that would make a difference as well as put food on his table. He had always admired and respected those who volunteered to serve their country, but he had never seen himself as a soldier.

Although he would have to give up his birthright as a human, Aldo knew that helping find a new world where humankind could spread out to ease the overcrowding would be more rewarding to him. When he signed up to join the AHCP, he had no idea what type of critter he would have to become, but he was later delighted to discover that he did have a choice. A bloodhound was not a common selection for Canis volunteers, but as soon as he'd seen it among the available species, he'd chosen it instantly.

Aldo Banner had not been a handsome young man as a human in his late twenties, and neither was he very stately as a human-canine hybrid, but he was proud of what he had become and content with the decisions he had made.

Despite this, he was not an outspoken person and usually kept to himself, but out here in the wilderness for the first time, his extra sensitive nose was picking up new scents. Most intrigued him, but there were some unfamiliar that privately raised the hackles along his back. One such aroma he picked up was new, or at least it was the first time he had detected it since they had been dropped off in this place.

The bloodhound moved with the group on the outskirts of the crowd; he was down on all fours and taking in the scents as he walked. Most of the Furs were still upright as they made their way along the grassy road, but some like him had dropped to hands and feet for more comfortable travel.

He looked up quickly when he thought he saw something out a small distance among the shadows, but when he took a few steps in that direction for a closer look, he stopped abruptly and swallowed with a surprised frown. It was one of the female canines of his class relieving herself behind a bush. Yuki looked up and saw him watching her. She scowled back at him and gestured with a hard wave of her hand for him to look away.  Embarrassed, Aldo ducked his head and continued walking with the group.

The bloodhound stood upright and forgot about the scents he had picked up. He had always had a small bit of crush on the pair of cute Japanese-American sisters who had gone though the transformation with Class Fifteen, and although one became Canis and the other Felis, he still harbored doubt either would ever see him as anything more than a nuisance. Dejected, the canine male stuck his hands into the pockets of his shorts and lost himself in the crowd.

Nearby, Kevin had seen the quiet bloodhound and noticed that he seemed down, but he had troubles of his own. He was miffed at his girlfriend, Rose. They had settled down together the previous night, their arms wrapped around one another for comfort and security in the face of a fearful night, but when he had awoken the next morning, she was snuggled up to Jon instead.

It had taken him by surprise at first, but when he tried to wake her, she pushed him away with a sleepy hand to leave her alone and then she cuddled up closer to the large cougar. Later, she denied any knowledge of the incident, but there were several witnesses who had seen the mountain lion's arms around her as they slept together.  When Rose had sought out Jon for his help, he could only confirm that he had awakened with her right up next to him that morning.

The young vixen had apologized to Kevin, claiming ignorance about whom she had cuddled up to while asleep, but the tan fennec was in no mood to forgive her just yet. Not only was he miffed at Rose, he was also bothered that one of his good friends at the Institute had taken his girlfriend from him during the night. He wasn't thinking very fondly of Jon at the moment either. Instead of getting the cougar's side of the story, however, Kevin chose to ignore him for now.

The Furs walked along the ruts in the grass for an hour. Conversations had kept most of them occupied during the hike, but when Avon held up both hands to halt the group, it was the first many of them had really noticed the passage of time.

“Why'd we stop?” Hank Danagar called out from the back of the group. The black bear was taller than most and could look over the heads in front of him, but he still could not see what might be on the ground in front of the mob.

“Our road splits in two directions,” Avon explained. “We're going to have to determine which one Marcelo took.”

Carl pushed his way through the crowd and walked up to the middle of the intersection.  The wolf got down on all fours and began examining the ground. He sniffed at the scents on the ground while he looked, but it was his eyes that did most of the work.  The ground was packed in the intersection, but forest grass had been growing unchecked for so long that it covered over everything. It also had the resiliency to spring back into place after being stepped on, so it didn't yield much in the way of revealing tire tracks.

Gerard walked out to help Carl look, but the wolf waved him back, afraid the bear would accidentally walk over some sign they needed.  Avon stood off to the side, his arms crossed as he allowed the lupine furman the opportunity to provide his expertise.  Carl and his wife Ellie had been explorers and adventurers, and it was unlikely there was anyone else in the group with as many life experiences as they had.

Ellie followed her husband out into the intersection, but she knew well enough to watch her steps to keep from walking over some sign they needed. She and Carl examined the separate roads carefully while the others watched quietly.

After about ten minutes, Carl looked up and over at Avon. He pointed along one of the paths into the woods and nodded. “The bus went that way,” he announced.

Raine Terrance rushed forward to see what evidence the wolf had discovered, and without saying a word, Carl simply pointed down to a small patch of dirt in the grass that had retained the recent tire tread of the passing vehicle.

“Bingo!” the cheetah said with a wide grin. He looked back at the approaching grizzly and gestured toward the patch of dirt. “He found a tire print!”

Avon knelt down to examine the evidence as the furman crowd gathered around. Looking back up at the wolf, he smiled and repeated Raine's sentiments. “Good work, Carl,” he said, getting to his feet. He looked at the group around him and nodded. “All right, let's continue,” he said.

Small conversations started up again as the Furs resumed their trek along the road. Although it was taking a while with such a large group moving at a leisurely pace, the weather was good and the going was easy and uneventful. Spirits were high and most had come to think of the situation as nothing more than an outing.

When the trail came to another split an hour later, everyone looked to Carl to show them the way.  Once again, Ellie joined him in examining both trails that led off through the woods, and this time she spotted a fresh tire track in a spare bit of dirt.  She stood up to announce her find, but her husband spoke first.

“I have tire tracks here,” he announced.

Before the crowd surged toward him, she raised her voice and added, “I have them over here too!” Everybody stopped and looked at her. 

“Are you sure?” Jasmine asked aloud in a scoffing manner.

Ellie merely pointed to the ground at her feet. “Come and see for yourself,” she retorted, stung by the vixen's tone.

Jasmine, Gerard, and others walked over to the female wolf to take a look, while Avon and more gathered around Carl.  After a moment on all fours, Gerard held a hand up above the crowd.

“There's no doubt about this one,” he announced.  “The bus came this way.  The track is fairly fresh!”

“Likewise on this one,” Norman Grey called back. “It looks like the bus was on both roads!”

“How can Marcelo have driven on both of them?” Dante asked aloud.  “There was only one bus.”

There were several moments where conversations started up throughout the crowd, but after a couple of minutes, Avon let out a shrill whistle, something not easy to do with a bifurcated upper lip.

“Marcelo must have known we'd follow his tracks,” he said in a voice to carry over others still talking. “He must have driven up one of the roads a little to put down tracks for us to find just to throw us off, and then back up the other one.”

“What do we do now?” Cheryl asked.

“We may have to split up into two groups, one for each road,” Alicia suggested.

“No!” Avon growled loudly. “We're not going to split up — that would assure that one group would get lost out here.”

“How can we get lost if we stay on the road?” the polar bear shot back. “Even if one group makes it back, they can always send the bus back to get the others.”

“We'd be doubling our chances for trouble by splitting up,” Avon replied. “Listen, we all need to stay together. That's the only way to make sure everyone stays safe, and if any kind of situation does come up, we'll be more likely to counter it if we're all together.”

“How do we choose which way to go?” Arne Kohler asked, the African lion waving his thick arms each in the direction of a road.

Avon reached into the pocket of his garment and pulled out the GPS unit. He pulled it from the case and touched the power button. “We'll get our bearings and see which road heads off in the direction of the Institute,” he responded.

“That's a good idea,” Jasmine said. She'd said it quietly, but the group had fallen silent and her words carried.  There were several mutters of agreement, so all eyes went to Avon.

After several moments, however, the grizzly frowned and then looked up at the branches overhead.  “The density of the trees is still too thick,” he said. “I can't get a good lock on the satellites to get a fix on our location.”

“What good is that thing then?” Travis grumbled. “We've been under tree cover since we left the clearing.”

Jasmine moved through the crowd toward the grizzly. “Let me have it,” she requested, holding out a hand. “I'll climb a tree and get it high enough to get a signal.”

Avon gave the vixen a smile and handed it to her. “Thank you, Jasmine,” he said. “That's a good idea.”

She grinned up at his praise, but then looked sheepish. “Uhm, you'll need to show me how to work it, though. I've never used one before.”

Avon nodded and took a few minutes to instruct her how to get a signal lock and then what to do to mark a waypoint.  While he did that, Jon looked up at the trees around them, his eyes picking out pathways overhead. By the time Jasmine was sure she could remember how to operate the handheld unit and put it inside one of her deep pockets, Jon had made his way forward.  He put a hand upon the vixen's shoulder and then pointed toward a nearby tree off to the side of the road.

“I think that one will be your best chance of getting up above the canopy,” the mountain lion told her. “It has a thick trunk and enough branches to use as hand and foot holds.”

Jasmine smiled at him and held up a clawed hand paw. “I know foxes aren't known to climb trees very well, but I do have these to help me get up there,” she said.  Jon nodded and then gestured toward her tree.

“Good luck, Jasmine!” Sissy called out to her.

The vixen looked around at all the faces peering back at her. Some were amused, others seemed deadly serious, but there were some who looked hopeful; it was these who gave her the proper encouragement. At the base of the tree that Jon had picked out, she kicked off her sandals. While the claws at the ends of her fingers were non-retractable, the ones in her toes were, and it only took a practiced flex of certain muscles to extend them.  She put a hand on her side pocket to make sure the GPS was secure, and then she leapt up onto the trunk of the tree.

Jasmine Fleur had always been a physical type, but it had been a long, long time since she had last climbed a tree, though she had scaled many as a child. She was amazed at the strength and stamina of her new body and discovered that her limbs could hold her weight with ease. The nail polish on her claws would have to be reapplied later, for they flaked off quickly as she dug them into the rough bark of the tree she climbed.

She reached the lower branches and used them as a step ladder on her ascent. She had never suffered acrophobia before, but she wasn't taking any chances by looking down below her. Step by step, handhold by handhold, she ascended. Without checking the ground, she knew that she was already getting high in the tree, and as she passed up through the leaves of the overhead branches, she guessed that she may already be lost to sight from those below.

Concentrating on doing nothing more than getting as close to the top of the trees as she could, Jasmine continued climbing. She was barely winded when her head finally broke through the canopy and she was glad to know that the thickness of the trunk was still sturdy enough to sustain her weight, largely due to something she noticed right away. This particular tree was once much taller, but the top had been blown off by lightning at some time in the past, leaving a shattered top to the tree. New growth was already emerging out from the destruction, so she knew this was no recent event.

The vulpine Fur wrapped one leg around the trunk of the tree, resting that foot on a convenient branch, and steadied herself by planting the other foot firmly on another large branch with her tail out behind her as counterbalance. Once she was sure that she wouldn't go toppling back down to earth, she put a hand on the trunk and then paused long enough to take in her surroundings.

The Adirondack forest undulated across the elevations of the surrounding mountains and looked as lush as a dark green carpet. The trees that stretched off in every direction seemed uniform, the terrain broken only by an occasional lake that stood out in deep contrast. She could see several shining bodies of water from her vantage point, as she seemed to be at an elevation above a great deal of the surrounding area, but nowhere near the highest point of the region.

The sun shone brightly overhead in a mostly cloudless sky and she could see birds riding thermals above the forest. There was only a mild breeze that stirred the leaves around her, and it was several moments before she remembered why she was there. She knew the others were awaiting her return, so she pulled the handheld GPS receiver from its pocket and held it up in front of her at chest level. She thumbed it on and studied its screen, hoping it wouldn't take long in such a location without anything to obstruct the geosynchronous satellite signals overhead. After only a moment, a wedge-shaped arrow appeared in the middle of the display and a tight circle appeared around it indicating a solid location fix. 

Jasmine studied the topographical map displayed and noted the location of the Institute that Marcelo had marked for them. If she read the scale correctly, they were still some ten miles or so from home. Remembering Avon's instructions, she thumbed through the menu selections using a set of rubberized buttons below the display. Once she was at the correct page, she held the unit steadily in place and set it to begin taking multiple sets of coordinates.

She watched the numbers flick and change, but soon realized that it was the same sets of numbers over and over; the changes became fewer while a number in the corner of the screen counted up from zero.

She closed her eyes, feeling the warmth of the sun over her fur, and she was sorely tempted to discard her furman robe top. When she opened her eyes a moment later, the counter had reached one hundred, the number she had been told to watch for.

She tapped a button and the unit stopped recording coordinates, which it then took a hundred sets of numbers and averaged them together. It only took a moment before Jasmine had accurate coordinates to her location.  She set a waymark as she had been instructed and then shut off the unit. She pocketed it and then took a last look around at the vista. Living on the grounds of the Institute beneath the tree cover, she'd never really seen the beauty of the Adirondack Mountains, but she was glad for this occasion that allowed her to experience it with her own eyes.

She took in a long lungful of the fresh air, enjoying the scents of the forest, and then began making her way back down toward the ground.  Her descent took more time than the climb up, but she was not as sure of her footholds as before. She used the claws of her hands and feet, and more than once was glad to have had them to keep her from slipping.

After several long minutes, she heard the voices below rise up when someone noticed her return, and soon she was back on the ground.  Cheryl, Jenni, Kevin and Kristen surged forward to greet her and then the vixen smiled up at the grizzly that approached them.

“Mission accomplished, Captain Sir,” she told him, handing over the GPS.

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Avon replied with a smirk. He thumbed on the unit and waited for the screen to display its information. As before, it could not get a signal lock on the orbital satellites from the forest floor, but the marked waypoints came right up, as did the electronic compass.  He studied it for a moment and then looked up at the furman crowd around him.

“We are approximately nine and a half miles from the Institute,” he announced with a glance back at the hand unit. “There's a large mountain with a broad base between us and the compound; the Institute is in a valley on the other side.”

“Which road will take us in that direction?” Ivan Dimitri asked.

Avon looked over at the male fox and then gestured toward the grassy ruts where Carl had found his patch of tire tracks. “I can't guarantee that it's the right road,” he replied, “but that one heads in the general direction of the Institute.”

“Then we should take that one,” Aaron suggested.

“That would be the most likely,” Hank added.

“If no one has any objections, I suggest we continue on our way,” Avon said. “We still have a long walk ahead of us, so we should make as much time as we can.” He stood up to his full height and gestured toward the grassy road. “Okay, let's go.”  

*** 

The troop of Furs had rested twice over the four hours they had been walking, but Avon felt they had made good time despite how slowly such a crowd moved together. The day had been uneventful, broken only by some grumbling over finding food. Kristen and her crew had dispensed the edibles they had collected, but spread out over a large group their pockets they would soon be quickly depleted. Still, the plants had taken the edge off their hunger, but they would have to hunt for real food soon.  There was the scent of water somewhere near, but the grizzly had been reluctant to deviate from the road to go looking for it, although the time might be near to stop for supper. They still had plenty of daylight left, but despite their bodies' greater endurance, he was seeing fatigue in some of their faces.

Avon was the unofficial leader of this group, simply because he'd been currently undergoing leadership training for the Ursis starter colony that he hoped would get its assignment soon. He had heard rumors of what might be planned, but there was secrecy involved that had kept a lid over anything official. Despite being in charge, he had begun to lag somewhat in his physical place in the crowd so that he was no longer leading them along the grassy road. The lag had to do with casual conversations he had struck up with individuals as they walked, using the time to get to know everyone.

There was a sudden commotion as something went tearing through the woods parallel to them. Avon looked up with anxiety, but instead of the Furs reacting in alarm, some were laughing and others were talking excitedly among themselves.

The grizzly eased up behind the gathered group to see what was going on. Something was zigzagging through the underbrush, not at all concealing its progress, and it was a moment before it came back into view. Avon recognized Dante's black and white striped bulk and he couldn't help but chuckle at the sight of the big cat chasing down a frantic red squirrel common to the area. The little tree rat was fast, but it only took another moment for the claws of the tiger's hand paw to snag it and forcefully pin it to the pine-needle strewn ground. Dante's broad head bent down quickly and he took the critter in his jaws. He shook the squirrel back and forth with a growl and then there was sudden applause.

Dante looked up at the furman crowd, the limp squirrel hanging from his jaws as he panted around the red fur.  Without releasing his prize, the white tiger grinned at his audience, but then he turned around so that they were behind him. He clamped down on his prey, breaking its skin and its body, and then without ceremony began to devour it raw.

Voices were animated, but Avon heard more than one comment regarding food. With a large group of predator-types, he knew that Kristen's edible sticks, leaves, berries and bark would not satisfy growling bellies much longer, and although fish from a nearby stream would sustain them, it would take more than that to quell the appetites of this group.

He thought about it for several moments and he was about to act upon a decision when a small group approached him through the crowd. Carl, Ellie, Cheryl, Travis, Ken and Aldo – all canine Furs.

“May we have a moment?” Ellie asked him.

Avon continued walking with the crowd and the canines fell into step beside him. “What's on your mind?” the large bear replied, already suspecting he knew what they wanted.

“We want to go out hunting,” Carl informed him. “We think we can work as a pack and take down something large enough to feed us all.”

“Yeah, and with this guy's nose,” Travis added, hooking a thumb back at Aldo, “we should find something right off.”

“I'm not so sure breaking up the group is a good idea,” the grizzly replied, but before Travis could retort with the remark already on his lips, Avon added, “but you're right. We need enough to feed us all. One small squirrel isn't going to satisfy anyone's bellies, even for one successful tiger. We've got to have more and a smaller hunting party should have better luck tracking down a deer or elk than the whole mob.”

“Then we have your permission?” Cheryl asked with a smile.

Avon nodded. “Let's see if anyone else will join you,” he said.

Carl shook his lupine head. “If you want to send out another group, that's fine, but I think we need to keep our pack as-is so that we can sneak up on our prey; a larger group will scare it off before we can get to it.”

“Where's your other two Canis members, Wendy and Yuki?”

“They aren't interested in going hunting,” Ken answered. “I don't know what they plan to do once we get out to an untamed world; wait on the cafeteria, I suppose.”

The bear pursed his lips, but finally nodded. “Okay,” he said. “Go on and round us up some dinner. How will you let us know if you've made a kill?”

Ellie smiled a wolfish grin. “We'll howl for you, of course.”

“Of course.”

Before the canine pack could depart, someone began calling out for Avon. He looked at those with him and then pushed his way through the crowd toward the front of the group.  When he stepped out into the open, he saw Aaron and Gerard standing at the end of the path they had been following.

“What's up, guys?” the grizzly asked.

“We've run out of road to the emerald city,” Aaron explained, making a reference to a beloved children’s book.  “The yellow bricks have vanished.”

Avon looked around. “Are you sure?”

“We ran out of tire ruts a long time ago,” Gerard told him, “so we've been following a path through the trees large enough for a bus to pass through.”

“The path just ended,” Aaron corroborated. “It didn't turn to the left or right. It simply just doesn't go anymore, except by way of some animal trails.”

“There's forest underbrush on all sides,” Avon confirmed what they told him by looking around. “There's not even enough room for a bus to turn around to go back.”

The entire group fell silent for a moment before Yuki finally exclaimed aloud, “We took the wrong road!”

“Maybe we bypassed another turn,” Jenni suggested.

Gerard shook his head. “No, we've been keeping an eye on both sides of the road. It hasn't branched off since Jasmine took our last GPS reading. This is the same road we've been following.”

Avon looked around. “I think we should take another waypoint,” he said.  “Jasmine, do you want to do the honors again?”

“I'll take care of it,” the vixen replied from the far side of the group.  She weaved her way through to his side and took the unit from the grizzly once again.  “I'll be back shortly,” she said, looking back at Jon for his help. The mountain lion was already examining the overhead avenues and simply pointed to the tree he thought she should climb. Jasmine pocketed the GPS receiver, leapt into the tree and began scaling it upward.

While they awaited her return, Avon gave the remaining Furs a brief explanation on what Carl's group had suggested. The thought of fresh meat to a group of hungry predator types brought out smiles to many of them. There were a few who had yet to give in to their animal natures, but edible plants were just not that satisfying. Even Kristen salivated at the thought of meat.  Incidentally, however, few of them actually considered whether or not the meat would be cooked over a fire as their morning fish had been. Either they were unconcerned or they simply hadn't thought of it yet.

With a nod from the grizzly, Carl gave Aldo a go-ahead sign and then the small canine pack followed the bloodhound out through the trees. 

Arne Kohler walked up to Avon and smiled at him.  “Can I put together a pack of cats to go out hunting too?” he asked.

The grizzly looked at the African lion and shrugged. “Sure, we could stand to have another hunting party out there. Let me know when you have a group of volunteers and then you can head out in another direction.”

“Volunteers?” the lion asked with raised eyebrows. “I thought you selected the group you wanted to go and then just told them.”

“No, the canines had already discussed it among themselves. I didn't appoint anyone.”

“Hmph... I probably won't get many volunteers, then,” Arne grumbled.

“I'll go with you,” Dante piped up. He had cleaned up by licking his muzzle and paws after his small snack, but the white fur near his lips was still lightly stained with red.

“Count me in too,” Jon added.

Raine Terrance stepped up beside Jon and gave the lion a nod. “And me,” he added.

Kristen, Jenni and Sissy were also standing nearby, but when Arne looked at them, Kristen glanced briefly at Jon and then shook her head. “You go on ahead. Jenni, Sissy and I will scout around for a few more edible plants as garnishment for the meat.”

“Not a bad idea,” Avon remarked.

“I'll take a Caesar Salad with Bleu Cheese dressing,” Dante said with a smile.

“With bacon bits!” Raine added, licking his lips.

“You'll have to provide the bacon yourself!” Jenni countered. “Go catch us a wild pig!”

Sissy grinned at them and simply waggled her fingers as she, Jenni and Kristen departed.

Arne looked at the felines that had gathered beside him. Feeling self-important to be leading such a group, he put his hands on his hips and looked them over. When his eyes rested on Jon, he frowned.

“You going to give me trouble?” he asked with a dark expression.  Jon looked back at him in puzzlement.

“I wasn't planning on it,” he replied in innocence.  “Why?”

The lion narrowed his eyes at him. “Everyone sees you as a leader-type, but this is my hunting party!”

Jon raised an eyebrow and then gestured with an open hand. “Your party, you lead. I simply volunteered to join you -- unless you'd rather I didn't go along.”

Arne snorted and then shook his head. “Nah, come on then. We can use the help.”  Jon simply nodded his acceptance of the other cat's position, but he forced himself to keep his thoughts private. Jon had done nothing to gain his ire, but Arne seemed to be going out of his way to make sure everyone knew that he was in charge of this party. Jon had no problem with this, but the other male's attitude was like a sour scent on the air.

The lion looked up at Avon and nodded. “We'll let you know if we get anything,” he said.  Then with an exaggerated wave of his hand, he said to the others, “Okay, let's go.”

As the felines moved off through the forest underbrush on the opposite side of the road than where the canines went, Avon pursed his lips and shook his head. He'd known Arne for two years and the male lion had never changed. He knew that Arne was hoping to be selected as the captain of a feline starter colony, but Marcelo had already told Avon in private that such a thing would never happen. He might have the necessary drive to lead others, but his personality was too abrasive. Although he'd never done anything untrustworthy, there were few who would trust Arne to lead them, feline or not.

He stared off into the shadows where the Felis group had gone, although they were already lost to view. There was nothing more any of them could do but wait until either of the hunting parties reported back in, and he allowed a small smile to cross his feature when he wondered how the cats would alert them if they were successful. He doubted if any of them had the necessary vocal cords to howl if they made a kill.

A few of the remaining voices raised in alarm. He looked back toward the group saw several of them duck when a branch and a few broken sticks fell from the tree cover above, landing in their midst. 

Several moments later, he could see Jasmine climbing back down the main trunk of the tree she had climbed. She looked a little dazed, but she managed to make her way back down to the ground.  The vixen's sisters gathered around with queries about her health, but once she'd assured them she was okay, she made her way to the grizzly bear.

“Here's the new waymark,” she told him, pulling the GPS unit from her pocket.

“What's the matter?” Avon asked. “You look shaken.”

Jasmine put a hand up to her sternum and swallowed. “I put my full weight on a dead branch and almost came down a lot quicker than the climb up,” she informed him. She held out her arms and sighed. “I did fall several feet, but I landed on several crisscrossing limbs that had grown together between two trees.”  Avon looked at her proffered arms and noticed several red welts on the undersides of them both that were easily seen through her fur.

“Are you okay?” he asked in concern. “I'm afraid both of our physicians are away; Ken left with the Canis group to hunt down some fresh meat and Jenni is out with Kristen looking for more edible plants.”

“I'll be okay,” she told him. “Neither of them brought a First Aid kit with them anyway. If there's some water nearby, I should probably wash out the cuts, though.”

“I thought I could smell water a little while ago,” Dahlia said from her sister's side. “If the others have gone out in search of food, we could probably do a search for the water, too.”

“Good idea,” Avon told her. “Try not to wander too far, though. I don't like the idea of our group splitting up so much, but it's all for good reasons. Take two or three with you, though. Don't go alone.”

“I don't think it was that far,” Dahlia told him. “We shouldn't be gone long.” She, Rose, Erin and Kevin walked away with Jasmine back along the road that they had already traversed, each of them making sure the vixen wasn't hurt any more than she had admitted.

The rest of the Furs milled around the end of the road, some of them sitting down with their backs up against trees. Without anything else pressing at the moment, Avon thumbed on the GPS receiver to take a look at the waypoint that Jasmine had just marked.

After several moments of study, he frowned to himself. They had been traveling in the direction of the Institute, but obviously the road they had chosen was not the one that Marcelo had taken on his return drive. The GPS receiver had a topographical base map that only showed major highways, but unfortunately the road that the director had brought them in on was not marked on the map. Avon could only assume that the other path was the one they should have taken, but that was four hours of travel time ago.

He studied the elevations marked on the unit's small screen and his frown deepened. There were valleys and the sides of mountains between them and the Institute. To go cross country would be foolish, but it seemed such a waste to simply turn around and walk another four hours back to the split in the road.  No one would be happy with either decision, but he would put it to a vote once they all had food in their bellies so that none of them would have to worry about hunger along the way.

NEXT CHAPTER

Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.