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LOST IN THE WILDERNESS

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 3
Splits

 

“First off, I'll need to find tracks of a deer or an elk,” Aldo told his fellow canine types with a frown. “I'm picking up all kinds of scents out here, but until I know which ones are associated with what we want, we could chase after anything without it being the right critter.”  He looked up at the grey wolf with soulful brown eyes and shrugged. “I've never gone after elk, but I've seen deer tracks on my family's farm all my life, so I can identify them if I see them. Once I can associate a known track with a known scent, the hunt can begin.”

“With all the leaves and pine needles all over the place, it may be hard to find actual spoor,” Ken Wilder mused, sniffing at the ground on all fours. The red wolf looked back up at the pack leader, awaiting his assessment.

“Okay, everyone spread out and look for tracks,” Carl said quietly. He got down on all fours to put his nose to the ground, and the rest of his party did the same. Although she usually stayed close to her husband, Ellie wandered off in one direction as Carl went another. 

Cheryl looked around and listened for anything that might be near, but with such a large party of Furs back at the road making so much noise in conversation, she doubted anything would have stayed close to that many predator types. Frowning, she tilted the cowgirl hat back on her head and then put her nose to the ground.  

*** 

Arne looked back at his small hunting party and snorted in annoyance. Out of eight felines, his team only consisted of four. Not only did he want to see his group as a provider of food for the whole gathering of Furs, he also saw the situation as a challenge between the felines and the canines of the Institute. Like many cats he had known, Arne fully believed that the Felis were the superior out of all four races that the AHCP had chosen to create out of mankind. It was his intention to prove this to the other houses, but it would be difficult with only half of their numbers.  As a representative of the king of beasts, Arne was determined to win.

“So what's the plan?” Raine asked as their small group followed him through the forest underbrush; they were walking in the opposite direction that the canines had taken and came across a small clearing in the underbrush.

Arne waved his hand casually out in front of him. “We'll split up and start looking for something to catch,” he said in a tone that suggested the cheetah should have already known that. “Give a shout if you find something we can eat.”

“That's not much of a plan,” Dante mused. “It's no different than what we were all doing as a large group.”

Arne's brow furrowed, looking over his shoulder at the white tiger. “It's a better plan because we don't have a whole herd crashing through the woods to scare away the game.”

“You mean like what you're doing now?” Dante retorted in a low voice. “You're bellowing as if you're still in a large group. There's probably nothing left in the area to look for!”

“Yeah, give a shout if we find something?” Raine questioned quietly. “That's sure to scare off anything we do find.”

The lion grumbled deep in his throat and he turned around to glare at Jon. “Well?” he challenged. “You gonna gripe too?”

The mountain lion simply gave him a smile and put both hands into the pockets of his shorts. “Nope, this is your show,” he said in a light tone. “I'm merely here as part of the team.”

Arne's expression darkened. He was sure Jon was making fun of him, but there was nothing in the wording of his response that could be taken that way. He grunted and gave the cougar a nod before gifting Raine and Dante each a glare of his own.

In a quieter tone, he gestured off to the right. “Listen guys, we're out here to find food for the whole gang. Danny, you go off that way and look for something,” he said.

“It's Dante,” the tiger corrected.

“Whatever. Don't go too far, but holler if you find something.” He gestured off the left and said to the cheetah, “Raine, you do the same out that way.”

Dante and Raine exchanged hopeless expressions and then split up as directed without another word. Dried leaves crunched beneath their feet as they moved away on all fours, but Raine noticed and suddenly paid attention to where his pads were landing. With a little effort, he quickly found a footstep pattern where he wasn't making as much noise among the leaves and he smiled to himself in personal satisfaction.

Arne looked back at Jon. “I'm going to move ahead and see what I can see. You hang back around here in case we flush something out and it comes back this way.”

“You want me glued to this spot?”

The lion looked annoyed that Jon was being so literal. “You can move around, but stay in the area.”

“As you wish,” the cougar replied. He remained in place until Arne gave him another hard look before he turned to go. A moment later, the self-proclaimed leader of cats was lost in the shadows and underbrush, but Jon could hear his heavy footsteps crunching on sticks and leaves.

He waited until he could no longer hear the others and then he got down on all fours. He may not have the nose of a bloodhound, but his transformation had enhanced it with an olfactory sensitivity far above what he'd possessed as a full-blooded human. There were scents in the air that he would have missed as the hunter he used to be, but there were many here in the forest. Although remembering that enticing rabbit scent back at the clearing, he had ignored most of everything else since they had been dropped off, but now that he concentrated on them, he found he could sift through and focus in on any one of them. Like Aldo in the other group, however, he was inexperienced and had no frame of reference to match up which scents might belong to what animal in the forest.

Lightly and as quietly as he could be, Jon moved toward the animal trails he could see meandering through the woods that Arne had either missed or ignored. He brushed away dried leaves, twigs and pine needles in areas where there must have been traffic and looked for the tracks of heavy-footed deer or elk. It took him several moments, but when he brushed away at a particularly narrow part of the trail between two bushes, he found what he was looking for.  Elk tracks.

His nose twitched as he associated the lingering scent with the track and then he allowed a smile to cross his features. The track was fresh, not more than an hour or two old.

He looked out into the forest and mentally traced where he thought the large hoofed animal might go, and immediately spied a bit of brownish fur clinging to a briar beside the subtle path. Before he could start out after it, however, he stopped himself.  His instincts as a hunter, both human and feline pressed him onward, but he knew that Arne would rant at him for disobeying an order to his direction to stay put.

He didn't fear the African lion, an obviously uneducated bully who wanted nothing more than to prove himself a leader over others, but Jon had given him his word that he was merely a member of his team.

Jon was certain that he could track down and locate the elk that had passed this way, but he seriously doubted he would be able to bring down something so large by himself. He was smart enough to know that was a quick way to get hurt. It might also take him farther away from the others than was prudent when alone.

No, as much as he wanted to go after the elk, he would follow orders and wait in the vicinity for Arne and the others to return. Once they got back, he could tell them what he'd found and then they could go after the animal, but he had no intention of simply yelling out for them.

Musing quietly to himself, Jon looked up into the trees until he found a horizontal branch large enough to hold his weight. He moved to the tree he'd selected, kicked off his sandals and then climbed it quickly. Jon had always prided himself on his physical fitness, but now he marveled at his new upper body strength and the ability to hold his full weight using the claws of his feet and hands.

He made it to a high branch and then settled down lengthwise along the limb to await the return of his team mates, consciously aware of yet another facet of his transformation that could prove beneficial to his existence on another world.  

*** 

Travis brushed a few leaves away from the ground and peered down at a spot he thought he'd gotten a scent. He knew he had made no real friends since joining the Anthro Human Colonization Program, but he was determined to make his mark among the Furs somehow. He silently hoped it was he who discovered the elk or deer print that Aldo needed, simply for bragging rights. Better yet if he found the animal itself before even the bloodhound could track one down. Aldo may have the best nose around, but he wasn't the only one with enhanced olfactory senses now.

His nose did pick up an unfamiliar scent, but like the bloodhound, he had nothing to use as a basis for comparison for what it might be, so he sniffed at the dirt, leaves and pine needles and followed it out away from the others.  So preoccupied, he wasn't paying attention to where he was going and soon found himself near a thicket of brush up against a stony incline.  There was an opening between the rocks and the bushes, and he stopped suddenly when he neared it. Something behind there had moved.

Licking his lips in anticipation, Travis prepared himself for a kill and lunged into the opening. Right away there was a sharp stabbing pain in his snout, and with a shrill yelp he backed out just as quickly as he had darted in. A pair of dark eyes peered out at him from the brush, but it wasn't the animal's gaze that bothered the German Shepherd. There were two stiff quills stuck into the right side of his nose and they hurt!

The porcupine didn't wait around for the canine to try again and it quickly shuffled off beneath the brush.

Travis' eyes watered from the stinging pain, but when he tried to pull them from his snout, the barbs clung to him with additional fervor. He whined and turned back the way he'd come, hoping the others were nearby. He needed help extracting the quills, but the damage to his pride would probably hurt more when he faced them.  

*** 

Dante had found a place where sunshine filtered down through the trees and cast severe light and shadows over an area, thinking his black and white fur might blend in with the mixture to hide him from potential prey. Instead, the harsh light made the white tiger actually stand out among the shadows, his coloring unfavorable to camouflage in the wooded environment. It was something that had not really occurred to the young man when he'd made his choice of felines. He'd always liked white tigers, but now he realized that unless he was in a snowy region, he doubted he'd ever be able to hide from game to be much of a hunter. 

It was fortunate he had turned out to be such a good chef. He might have to leave the hunting on another world to the others and just be there to prepare whatever food they might bring in. It was not exactly a bad prospect since he enjoyed food preparation and didn't have a problem with the task, but he'd hoped to be worth more than a mere cook; most of the colonists would be expected to fulfill more than one duty if needed.

He scratched idly at the oversized dog collar he wore, causing the metal name tag to jingle against its ring, and with a frown he realized that this would also alert potential prey to his presence. Dante sighed and worked with his claws a moment, taking the metal tag from his collar, and then he dropped it into a pocket of the furman robe he wore.

The monochrome feline crouched down behind a large bush and let his mind wander. There were scents all around that were enticing, but he didn’t know what any of them might be. The aromas and smells of the forest completely surrounded his senses; even the leaves of the bush in front of his nose put out a scent that was all their own. He'd never been a hunter, so he didn't even know what to look for other than just seeing some critter that might just happen to come around. He knew that Jon had grown up in a family of hunters and he wished that Arne had let him pair up with his housemate.

He had never watched hunting shows on television, and neither had he spent much time on vids that presented hunting characters. They'd never really held much of an interest to him at the time, but now he wished that he had paid more attention.  Until now, all the classes and instruction they'd received at the Institute had seemed interesting, but now he realized just how much more he needed to know before being sent off to some wild place on another world. There was no Institute where they were going, no soft beds in a room out of the weather, no running water for showers and toilets, no cafeteria to go to for meals and no large screen videos for entertainment.

For the first time since joining the AHCP, he was beginning to realize just what they might be up against, and he had barely had any time out in the wild as experience for this. The weather had been good and they had been able to find food here and there, so this whole excursion had resembled nothing more than a camping and hiking trip with friends. How might things be on this trip if the weather was dark and stormy and they had been unable to find food in the rain to feed their bellies?

Dante sighed audibly and put his chin down on his paws on the forest floor. He had a lot to learn, and it didn't help that he'd also been nursing a headache for most of the day due to his latest round of unremembered nightmares. Would they even have access to aspirin in their colony? he wondered. The night dreams had been plaguing him more often in recent weeks and sometimes he woke up in the darkness with a fear of what might be lurking in his room. Even out here in the forest, he had kept close to Jenni at night, hoping her presence would help keep the dread of darkness at bay. He'd never been afraid of the dark before, but lately it had been a mental strain.

He looked up at a flutter of movement and saw a raven land on the limb of a tree. Had it not been for the flapping of its wings, he might not have seen its dark plumage among the shadows. The medium sized bird looked down at him and tilted its head to the side as if trying to figure out what the big black and white creature below might be.

The tiger stared back into its dark eyes and then he began looking past the bird as the branch behind it suddenly came into focus.  He twitched an ear and then took another gaze into the woods all around him to make sure he wouldn't startle something that might have wandered nearby while he was distracted. Seeing nothing of consequence, Dante walked out from the behind his bush straight to the raven's tree. 

The bird watched him intently until the great feline stood at the base of the tree and looked back up at it. Suddenly sensing danger, the raven gave out a squawk and then flew off into the forest.  Dante didn't care, however. It wasn't the bird he was after.

Climbing the tree on instinct alone, the tiger made its way up the trunk and to the thick horizontal branch he'd seen. Confident it would hold his weight, Dante stretched out along the branch and smiled. He could see the whole area below him and the high branch would keep his monochromatic hide out of direct sight. Anything that wandered through the area would see him only if it happened to look up into the overhead tree limbs.  

*** 

Ellie crouched low beneath the limbs of a blue spruce and waited for the signal. The Canis pack had been following the tracks and scent of three deer for the greater part of an hour and they knew they were closing in. It didn't take their bloodhound's extra-sensitive nose for the she-wolf to smell the strengthening scent of the does as they drew nearer.

So far, everyone had followed Carl's leadership without question, including the ever-sarcastic German Shepherd, despite his wounded nose. Perhaps his hunger had realized that the alpha wolf's world-wise experience was more beneficial than a simple free-for-all in the woods.

Carl utilized the tools available to him as needed, and once he had allowed Aldo to take the lead to find and follow the scents, the wolf had directed the others quietly with pre-selected hand signals so they could advance silently.

If Ellie read the signs correctly, they were slowly surrounding the area downwind of where the deer should be. Carl had planned out an attack scenario ahead of time and everything seemed to be going according to design.

Something in the air caught her attention and she swiveled her ears back and forth until she heard the noise once more. It was extremely faint, for their prey were nearly as silent as the pack was, but there was no mistaking the sound of field grasses torn from the ground by the teeth and lips of several large animals.

Without revealing herself, Ellie peered out ahead of her and looked through the intervening branches between her position and a small grassy clearing. As they had expected, three whitetail deer stood out in full view under the sunlight warming the field where they ate. None of them were especially large, but all were mature females with grey-brown coats; together they could feed the waiting Furs well enough that they wouldn't have to hunt again for another day, maybe two. Even if they only brought down one of them, there would still be plenty of meat to go around.  Ellie knew, however, that the innocent looking creatures would not go down without a fight. They didn't have the antlers of a male, but they could still jump high and kick hard with those hooves.

One of the does looked around in apprehension, as if unsure of a random scent that had wafted around the trees. Something across the clearing caught Ellie's attention and she felt a sudden sense of dread when she realized it was sunlight shining on the light-colored straw hat that Cheryl wore. As she watched, however, the Border Collie reached up and pulled it from her head, as if she'd realized that she was still wearing it at the same moment that Ellie had seen it.

Another of the does looked back in the direction where the hat had just disappeared. Had the deer seen it? There were no other disturbances and after another moment of quiet, the does returned to their grazing. Several moments later, Carl gave the sign.  

*** 

Frustrated and impatient, Arne had to admit he should have had a better plan. Splitting up should have increased their chances for finding something, but the biggest creature he'd seen was a red squirrel that had sounded an alarm about his presence.  After that, the African lion hadn't seen so much as a finch in the bushes.  He had heard nothing from any of his team, so he assumed none of them had had any luck either.

Sure that there was nothing left in the area to frighten away, he roared at the top of his lungs and shouted out instructions that his group should go back to where they'd separated.  Arne cleared his throat and then trudged back through the forest to meet the others.

It took him a little over twenty minutes to find his way back to the small clearing, and when he arrived, Raine and Dante both gifted him with sour looks.

“What?” the lion belted out in annoyance. “You didn't find anything either, did ya?”

Raine stuck out his bottom lip and crossed his arms. “I was sneaking up on a fat river otter beside a running stream and was just about to pounce on it when you scared it into the water with your roar. It wasn't enough to feed the whole group, but two or three of them could have filled their stomachs with it!”

Arne bit back his sharp reply and snorted instead. “Oh, sorry,” he muttered.  He glanced over at the white tiger. “What about you?”

“I fell asleep in a tree waiting for something to come by,” Dante admitted. “I almost fell off my branch when you shouted, but no, I didn't see anything to hunt.”

“You fell asleep… You fell a-sleep!” Arne sneered.  The tiger looked embarrassed, but didn't say anything more.  The lion glanced around and put his hands on his hips. “And where the blazes is that friggin' cougar?” he grumbled loudly. “I told him to stay put, but he can't even follow that simple order!”

“If you would stop shouting everything you say,” replied a quiet voice from the trees, “you might actually discover what's around you.”

Arne whirled around, his eyes searching the shadows of the forest. “Sunset!” he grumbled. “Where are you?”

Raine and Dante exchanged glances and then looked around as well. Jon was nowhere to be seen.  Remembering where he had spent the past hour, Dante looked up into the branches above and suddenly saw a pair of golden eyes peering down at him from an overhead branch. A wide grin spread across the tiger's face, but Jon merely put a finger to his lips.  Dante nodded and assumed a neutral expression just as Arne looked in his direction.

“Show yourself!” Arne bellowed. “This is no time to be playing games and I don't like your attitude!”

“Oh be quiet already,” Jon's voice said in a low tone. “Pretend you know what three dimensions are and just look up above you.”

Arne jerked his head upward, but didn't see Jon right away. Raine stepped up beside him and suddenly pointed up to a thick horizontal branch. Stretched along its length and nearly matched in color was the cougar. Jon flicked the end of his tail and merely stared back down at the African lion without another word.

“You lazy bum!” Arne exclaimed with a sudden stomp of a foot. “We're out looking for food and you're just lying around!”

“I was following your orders,” Jon reminded him quietly. “Your royal highness commanded me to stay in the area and keep a watch in case you guys flushed something back this way. That's exactly what I was doing.”

Arne glared up at him and grumbled something uncomplimentary beneath his breath. Jon flicked an ear and narrowed his eyes back at him, his sensitive hearing having picked up what the lion had said about his ancestry.

“Just before you came hollering and crashing back here,” Jon added, “I was watching a rafter of fat turkeys make their way right beneath my tree. We could have offered them to the rest of the Furs as a tasty meal if you hadn't frightened them away, but they're long scattered by now.”  Arne followed Jon's gaze out into the trees and swallowed hard. This was not going well at all.

Dante, Raine and Arne watched Jon climb back down from the tree with quiet ease, and then drop lightly to the ground. The cougar slipped his feet back into the sandals he had kicked off earlier and then held out an arm and gestured with it.

“Right over there is a set of elk tracks I found in the dirt on an animal trail,” he told them quietly. “From the depth of the tracks in the ground, I would guess its weight would have made it large enough to feed our whole gang back waiting for us.”

Arne suddenly looked excited. “Why didn't you say so?” he exclaimed. “Let's get going and try to catch it!”

Raine moved quickly to the place that Jon had indicated and began brushing aside leaves and pine needles on his knees.

Jon put his fingers lightly on the African lion's arm. “With all the noise you were making, I doubt it's anywhere near the area anymore,” he rebuked. “There's no need trying to find it now.”

Arne sneered at him. “You're loving this, aren't you?” he growled. “We're trying to find food and all you can do is tear me down in front of the others so you can get control of my team!”

Jon drew himself up to his full height, which was about four inches taller than the other feline, and looked down at him with an unblinking stare. “I don't want your job, but your leadership stinks!” he retorted in a low voice. “If you can't set a good example hunting for food, I doubt anyone else will ever follow you again.”

Arne raised his chin with fire in his eyes. “I don't even believe you've seen anything,” he growled. “You're just making it up to make yourself look good.”

“I found the elk tracks!” Raine announced. He said it in a voice meant to be quiet, but still carry to his companions.  Dante dropped to the forest floor beside him and the cheetah spread his hands out on the ground around one of the large tracks. “This guy must weight in around eight hundred pounds to sink a hoof into dry ground like this!”

Arne looked startled, but then pushed his way past Jon to look at the spoor.  He knelt down beside Raine and grunted. He didn't know anything about weight measurements, but even he could see how firm the track was in the dirt. 

Standing up again, he crossed his arms and glared back at Jon. After a long moment, he let out an audible sigh. “Do you want to lead us on a hunt?” he asked with an obvious internal struggle. When he said it, his voice had dropped to almost a whisper, a distinct difference from his earlier vocal volume.

“Does anyone have the time?” Jon asked without answering the lion's query. 

Raine looked down at the leather strap around his wrist and opened up a flap over the crystal of his inexpensive watch. “It's getting close to six o'clock,” he reported and then looked up with a frown. “I didn't realize it was getting so late.”

Jon looked up at the sky through the trees. There would yet be several hours of summer sunlight left, but that still limited how far they could go on a hunt. “We'd better be getting back,” he said at last. “Perhaps the others were more successful in finding something.”

Arne's shoulders drooped, but he nodded. “Yeah, okay. Let's get back to the others so you can tell everyone how I messed up.”

Jon exchanged looks with Raine and Dante and he gave them a subtle shake of his head. “Arne,” he said quietly, “we aren't going to do that.”

The lion looked up at him with a raised eyebrow.  “Why not?” he asked. “I just admitted it was my fault we didn't get anything, didn't I?”

“Listen, hunting for food out in the wild isn't something that any of us have been trained to do,” Jon said to all of them. “This is probably what Marcelo was trying to show us by dropping us off out here. Up until now, all of our classes and training have been things we've needed, to be sure, but we all need practical experience in surviving out in an unfamiliar environment.”

“You've been a hunter before,” Dante mused aloud. “This is nothing new to you.”

“Yeah, and look at the size of you,” Raine added. “You could probably take down anything you went after!”

Jon shook his head. “This is nothing like what I used to do, guys. It's true that I know how to look for the signs and tracks of prey, but I've never had to go out with nothing but the equivalent of teeth and fingernails before.  I went out hunting with baits, bottled scents and calls, camouflaged gear and either a gun or a compound bow, usually accompanied by others equipped the same as I was.”  He gestured toward the tracks and the animal trail leading off into the forest.  “I found signs of an elk that passed by here, but without a rifle or bow I doubt I would have been able to take it down on my own. No matter what my own past experience, I still would have had to rely on you guys to help me take down whatever we tracked. That's why we need to work together as a team.”

“That still doesn't answer my question,” Arne said, quietly subdued.

Jon looked at him, suddenly feeling pity for a guy who had held nothing but animosity for him earlier. “What good would it do?” he replied. Then, looking over at the others, he said, “Let's be sensible here. We're going back empty-handed, so when they ask us about our experience this evening, we'll simply tell them we didn't find anything. Even if we'd all been quiet as mice, we still might not have seen anything being so close to the noisy gathering of the rest of them.”

He looked up at the tree he had been in and nodded toward it. “While I was up there being still and quiet, I could hear their voices in the distance. You'd think they were having a block party back there without us.”

“Maybe they are,” Raine said with a frown. The cheetah looked at each of his companions and added, “Maybe the canines brought something back already.”

“I don't know about that,” Jon replied. “They were going to give a howl if they caught something, but I've not heard—”

“You mean like that?” Dante interrupted suddenly.  Jon fell silent and then they all heard it. Somewhere far in the distance was the unmistakable call of the wolf. Wild wolves were nocturnal and it would be too early for them with as much daylight as was left presently. All four of them knew it must be their Canis pack that had gone off to hunt.

“Well, that tears it,” Arne grumbled. “We may as well go back now and welcome the victorious hunters back with the rest of the gang.”

Without waiting for a response, the African lion started making his way back toward the main Fur group. Raine and Dante exchanged excited looks. They might have had no luck at all bringing in game, but both of them knew that the canines wouldn't have issued their call unless they had something worth bringing back.  It would be time to eat soon.

Jon hung back and allowed the others to go ahead of him, silently noting in amusement that at least Arne was headed in the right direction to take them back to the others.  

*** 

One of the deer looked around in apprehension, unsure that a random scent wafted around the trees represented danger or not. It was an odd mix of scents, even if it was just one scent of itself, as if the creature that emitted it wasn't sure what it wanted to be. The doe peered into the shadows around the small clearing, but the only movement it saw was a quick flash of brightness behind one bush that was likely just a bird diving for a choice bug.

Another of her sisters looked back in the same direction, but neither of them could discern anything to cause alarm. After several moments of quiet, both returned to grazing with their remaining sibling. The grasses in the clearing were tender and moist, and soon there were no thoughts on anything but filling their bellies.

None of the deer saw any of the predators that slowly encircled them. Most kept downwind, but soon even the upwind side of the clearing would be closed off to escape, though not until the leader of the canines had given a sign to his pack.

A she-wolf peered through the branches of a bush, her brown, grey and white fur blending in with the shadows that kept her hidden. She waited perfectly still, but then something tickled at the back of her mind and she shifted her gaze to the left ever so slightly. A hand paw much like hers rose above another grove of underbrush and silently made a subtle movement that corresponded with a prearranged signal.  It was time.

Ellie shifted her eyes again and saw another movement beyond the sunlit grasses of the clearing. It was the red wolf closing the gap upwind just as the light breeze faded. One doe looked up again, her ears flipping around in search for the repeat of something she thought she heard. It was a single footstep, heavier than that of a squirrel or porcupine but not hooved like her own.

While her sisters continued to graze, the largest of the does stood unmoving of anything but her eyes and ears. She tested the scents on the air but was still unsure about what she smelled. Large predators usually didn't come out this early in the evening, but that didn't mean one wouldn't alter its patterns once in a while.  The doe did not think of this as conscious thought, but instinct and experience controlled her actions.

Then the light breeze picked up again and another scent touched her nostrils.  The doe lifted her tail instantly and snorted to get the attention of her siblings. Danger!

All three deer began looking around frantically, trying to spot the threat, unconsciously moving together to the center of the clearing and away from the shadows. All three had their tails raised in alarm, and each shifted from hoof to hoof in agitation.

A large grey timber wolf slipped out of the shadows, its head down, tail up and its movements cautious as it advanced toward the deer. One of the does panicked and leaped toward the opposite side of the clearing, only to stop short as another wolf with auburn fur appeared and blocked her way. Although she could not know this, red wolves usually did not get as large as their grey wolf cousins, but this one was impossibly larger than average and possessed the intelligence and cunning of a human, one of Earth’s most successful predators.

The doe's eyes were ringed in white with fear when the red wolf rose up on its hind legs and then raised both of its front legs high in the air. Frightened as she had never been of a predator, she leapt backward and landed up against one of her sisters, sending them both sprawling to the ground.

In the scrambling confusion, predators leapt out of the shadows on all sides. One of the does bleated in terror when three of them converged on her. Two of the wolves jumped for her neck from both sides at the same time that a large black and brown dog went for her back legs. The deer kicked out blindly, just missing the German Shepherd's gut; that incensed the canine to grapple with her back legs using its forelegs with a growl and then bite down hard with sharp teeth that tried to tear out hunks of flesh.

One of the wolves bit and clawed at the deer's neck while the other did something the animal kingdom had never experienced before. The male grey wolf wrapped his forelegs around the doe's neck and tried to twist it hard. The deer bleated again and bucked for all she was worth, nearly flinging the canine grappling her legs, but the dog held on tight and tore at the animal's tendons with fervor.

The red wolf leapt upon another doe, and using a similar tactic as his alpha, he wrapped all four of his legs around the deer's neck and immediately began to twist hard. The hoofed animal bucked and thrashed, one of her back legs lightly connecting with the head of a black and white canine. The hardened hoof hit the back of the Border Collie's head only in a glancing blow, but it was enough to spin her around twice before she dropped to the forest floor.

Another canine jumped from his hold-back position in the trees and raced to the fallen dog's side, frantic to pull her out of the way before one of the thrashing deer stomped at her on the ground. The bloodhound picked her up as quickly and gently as he could, and then trotted back to the safety of the shadows.

Aldo was no doctor, but he hoped that Cheryl was only dazed by the blow as he eased her to the forest floor. She looked up at him and blinked rapidly, but gave him a small smile as thanks for coming to her rescue.  Once the bloodhound was sure she was out of danger, he turned back to the clearing to enter the fray. As a domestic canine, he didn't have the teeth and ferocity of the wolves for killing like they did, and as such had been directed to wait on the sidelines, but with Cheryl temporarily out of commission, he didn't think twice about going to Ken's aid.

The red wolf was holding on tight to the doe's neck, simultaneously trying to break her neck and bleed her out from multiple bite wounds, but the grass-eating deer was strong and thrashing around for her life. Ken's arms were aching, and his and the doe's heads had cracked together more than once, making the physician nauseated with all the leaping about.

Aldo didn't know what he could do to help, but he leapt in without thinking and tried his best to hamstring the animal with what teeth and claws he had available to him.

The other deer under assault had tried to run for the cover of trees, instinctively knowing that if there was any chance at life, it would be away from the openness of the clearing. Unfortunately for her, the German Shepherd had done considerable damage to her back legs despite that she had tried to kick him numerous times.

One of the wolves was still hanging onto her neck, twisting hard again and again, and the other wolf was tearing at her throat with teeth and claws.  Despite the deer's natural strength, she was weakening and none of her attackers were backing down. She made a last ditch effort to bolt for the trees, but when she turned her head to see where she was going, the male wolf twisted hard in the same direction to follow her movement and there was a sudden loud crack beneath his arms.  The doe's neck broken, she collapsed instantly, taking the predators down with her.

As soon as he'd heard the loud cervical snap, Carl had pushed off and rolled away to safety. Ellie dropped with their prey, but landed hard on top of the animal with a grunt.  Travis was surprised by the sudden cessation in the deer's struggles that he went down in a tangle amongst the doe's legs. One of the hooves found his gut in a last kick that knocked his breath out of him, but otherwise caused no damage. He rolled away from the body and lay on his back, gasping for air.

Despite that he was tired and aching, Carl got up onto his feet and rushed for the other deer under siege. Ken and Aldo had their hands full with this one and it didn't look like either of them had the upper hand.

“Ellie!  Travis!  Cheryl!” Carl called, “We need numbers!”  Then without waiting for a response, he mustered his remaining strength and jumped up onto the deer's back when it was cantered to the side, sending it off-balance from his weight. The doe stumbled, but maintained her footing. More predators were now coming at her and she tried to bolt for the woods, but her way was blocked by a black and white canine that seemed unsteady on her feet. She bleated in renewed terror when another canine body-slammed into her legs.

The doe went down and the predators swarmed over her, biting, clawing, kicking and pounding.  The red wolf still struggled to break her neck, but his strength was waning, so the larger of the grey wolves pushed his arms to the side and sank his teeth into her throat while simultaneously pressing his knees up against her wind pipe. She let out a final weak bleat and then the deer became still, her breath gurgling in her throat as her lifeblood escaped from the rip in her throat.

The sounds of battle in the clearing were suddenly replaced with heavy panting by each of the Canis pack as they all fought to catch their breath.

Ellie rolled off of the deer's back and lay on her side in the grass, while her husband sat back against the animal's chest. Ken stumbled away from the doe and then lay spread-eagle on the ground facing up to the sky, his arms weak and shaking. Aldo merely sat down in the grass to get his wind back and Cheryl put her head down in her hands.  Although winded and exhausted, Travis chuckled between gasps of air. The others looked over at him and he gave them all a triumphant grin.

“Wow!” he exclaimed. “What a rush!”

Carl sat up on his haunches and then looked around at everyone. “Is anyone hurt?” he asked.

“Cheryl got clocked in the head,” Aldo replied wearily.

Ken immediately got up on all fours and then padded over to the Border Collie. He ached all over, but his bruises were nothing compared to what a cranial concussion could be.  He looked her over and peered into her eyes, but despite the headache pounding between her ears, her sight looked clear and she gave him a tired smile.

“I think her hoof just grazed me,” she said rubbing the back of her head, “but I saw stars for a moment.”

Ken reached out to her and lightly pinched the end of one of her fingers. She flinched and the red wolf nodded in satisfaction. He did this to several other extremities to make sure she had proper feeling everywhere, and he finally brushed her brown scalp hair from her forehead with a gentle smile.

“You seem to be okay for the most part,” he told her. “I imagine the bells are still ringing upstairs, but I'm afraid I don't have anything with me to combat the headache.”

The others gathered around and Cheryl looked up with an embarrassed grin. “I can live with the headache for now,” she replied.

“Anyone else?” Carl asked in concern.

“Bumps, bruises and tired muscles,” Ellie muttered, “but otherwise I'm okay.”  The rest of the pack gave similar responses, so the alpha wolf grunted in satisfaction.

“We brought down two mature whitetail deer,” Carl told them with a smile. “The third probably ran away just as hard as she could, but we should get enough meat off these two to feed the whole bunch.”

“I do see a problem, though,” Aldo remarked.  “None of us have knives to dress the kill before we take them back.”

Carl thought about it for a moment and then tilted his nose to the sky. In as loud a voice as he could muster, he gave up a howl to the sky that would make any lupine pack proud. Afterward, he cleared his throat and shrugged. “I'm hoping that will carry back to the others. Perhaps they can send someone out here to help us drag the carcasses back to the group.  In the meantime, we can rest a bit, but then we'll need to see if we can find anything in the woods to fashion a couple of travois for them.”

“We might also scout around to see if we can find a nearby stream to clean up before anyone arrives,” Ellie suggested, looking around at each in turn. “Most of us have blood all over our faces and hands.”

“Yeah, we might scare the townsfolk. Wearing what's left of his furman clothes,” Travis remarked in amusement, “Carl looks like the classic werewolf who's just eaten a villager!”

NEXT CHAPTER

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