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LOST IN THE WILDERNESS

— by Ted R. Blasingame

Chapter 4
Scents and Sensibilities

 

Jon looked across the clearing toward the campfire that had been made for the Furs to gather around and he let out a quiet belch. Avon had sent out a small search party to find the Canis group, following the occasional howls sent up by one of the wolves, and they had returned close to sundown with a bedraggled bunch of canines and two deer for supper.

In a surprise by everyone, including their ursine leader, Dante had taken charge of the fresh meat, giving orders to a few friends he knew would help him prepare a meal for the hungry mob.  Kristen, Michael, Sissy and Yuki sorted through the edible plants they had gathered earlier to go with the meal. There were no knives among the group of wandering Furs, so Dante and others had had to rely on teeth and claws to rip chunks of meat from the deer carcasses so they could be cooked over the campfire skewered on sticks from the forest. Some cooked theirs longer than others, while some ate theirs extremely rare; many on this trip had discovered just how resilient their new digestive systems had become through the changes and tastes had changed with them.

Despite that there were thirty-one Furs to feed, there was plenty of food to go around, and it was likely they wouldn't have to mount another such hunt for a day or two, although they were hoping to be back at the Institute and in their own beds by then.

Avon chatted idly with the other Ursis Furs in quiet remembrance of their lost ursine brother. Despite that Whelan always seemed down and out while they had known him, he had been a good guy and was never judgmental of anyone else.

When the grizzly reclined against a pine tree during a lull of the conversation, he felt a lump at his side and remembered the GPS unit. He pulled out the case and frowned as if he'd found something nasty in his pocket. The others talked on while he powered it up.

He was not surprised when it could not lock in on but one satellite signal, but he could still look over the topographical map that showed the region where the last waypoint had been marked by Jenni earlier that evening.  He gazed at the terrain between that point and the Institute and silently wished that Marcelo's road was marked upon it.

The life of the batteries in the unit was getting weaker, so he shut it down to save it for spot checks along the way.  Why hadn't the director given them fresh batteries?  Was this yet another part of the survival activities they all assumed they were going through, or had he even checked the batteries beforehand? The small energy cells were more efficient than their early predecessors, but they still needed to be infused now and again to be useful. It was apparent these had not seen a charger in some time.

The grizzly looked around at the Furs gathered across the area and noticed that everyone within the light of the campfire had finished eating. A few of them looked drowsy, so he knew he had better make his announcement soon.  Although there had been no formal decision, it was assumed they would camp for the night there at the end of their road, but Avon needed to discuss their next course of action before they bedded down for the night.

He was feeling just as relaxed with a full stomach as the rest of them, so with a quiet grumble to himself, the large grizzly forced himself up onto to his feet and took a few steps into the light of the fire.

“I need everyone's attention, please,” he announced in a voice that was probably louder than necessary. He looked around at the faces peering back at him and did a silent nose count. Satisfied that everyone was present and waiting on his next words, Avon cleared his throat and held up the GPS receiver.

“Well, folks, we're at the end of our road,” he began. “I'm not sure why this one even exists, as it doesn't go anywhere, but apparently we chose the wrong one to follow, even if it was the one that seemed to go in the general direction of home.”  There were murmurs of agreement.  “It's possible that Marcelo discovered the same thing we did and wound up going back to the crossroads. This might explain why we found bus tracks on both roads. Once we've had a good night's rest, we'll need to start back the way we came so we can get back to the intersection.”

“It took us four hours to get here from that crossroads,” Gerard complained. “That's a long way to go to just start over, wasting eight hours round trip.”

“True, but unless you've found where this road picks up again, we don't have a choice.”

“We could go cross country,” Manny suggested. “We could simply take the most direct route instead of meandering around on a winding forest road.”

“Yeah, I think I like that idea,” Gerard agreed. “It might save us a lot of hours getting back.”

“I don't think that's a good idea,” Yuki spoke up. “We might get lost!”

“Right,” Avon replied. “The problem with going cross country is that we can't depend upon finding a safe way through the woods. We're unfamiliar with the terrain and there's no telling what we might fall into out there.”

“How is this different than being dropped in the middle of nowhere on another planet where there aren't any roads at all?” Gerard asked. “We wouldn't even have a handy GPS to use there, but we have one here to guide us through the forest.”

“Do you have fresh batteries in the pocket of your vest?” Avon retorted, holding up the receiver in his hand; Gerard merely looked back at him. “The ones in here were not even halfway charged when Marcelo gave it to me, and they're getting weaker every time we use it. I wouldn't want to rely on it getting us cross country where we'd have to check on it more often.  The road may take longer, but it will eventually get us there.”

“Are we closer to the Institute now than when we were at the intersection?” Jasmine wanted to know.

“Yes, but going on from here is going to be a lot harder to traverse,” Avon replied. “The ground will be uneven, we'd have to step over fallen trees, rocks, go through briars and dense brush, not to mention climbing up and down the mountains and valleys in between.”

“May I say something?” Kim asked, standing up. The lynx wrapped her arms around herself, though she was not actually cold. She wasn't used to speaking in front of a crowd, but her convictions were strong enough to move her.

“Of course; what's on your mind?” Avon said to her.

“Yuki and I have been talking,” she said, “and we don't think we were meant to go back to the Institute at all.”

“Oh, really?” Jenni said in exasperation. She'd heard the sisters' discussion before and was tired of it already.

Avon, however, looked surprised. “What makes you think that?” he asked, raising his bushy eyebrows.

“The director dropped us off out in the middle of the woods without any explanations or instructions,” the feline explained.  “He didn't tell you that we were supposed to make our way back. He didn't tell you anything.”

“The Institute is marked on the GPS,” Michael reminded her. “Why bother doing that or even give us a GPS at all if he didn't mean for us to come back?”

“How do you know that spot's the Institute?” Kim shot back.  “It could very well be an exotic private zoo waiting to lock us up, for all we know!”

“A zoo? If that was true, why are we out here?” Dahlia asked. “Marcelo could have just taken us there directly.”

“To wear us down so that by the time we got there, we'd be too tired to resist,” Kim offered.

“That's just silly,” Dante muttered loud enough for everyone to hear. 

Kim crossed her arms in agitation. “It is not silly!” she exclaimed. “It makes as much sense as Mr. Avonaco's survival training scenario!”

“We're all in training to colonize another world,” Carl piped in. “A forced survival march fits in with the purpose of our transformations. What we've been through already is something we will need to know before we leave the Earth.”

“If we were meant to be abandoned,” Dara said from the shadows, where she'd been sitting out of the glare of the fire, “what would you suggest we do?  If we don't try to make our way to the Institute, what are we supposed to do out here – hike to the nearest town and ask for jobs?  Looking like we do, I'm sure we'd all get hired right away.”

Kim resented the polar bear's sarcastic tone, but she took it as an opening to the idea she and her sister had discussed.

“Let's go back to the clearing where we were dropped off and set up our own colony there!” she suggested brightly.

“Say what?” Norman exclaimed in surprise.

Yuki stood up next to her sister. “They clearly don't want us anymore,” the canine Akita added. “Like Jenni said in the beginning, they dropped us off like abandoned pets! Why waste time traveling to some unknown point on a barely-working GPS when we can just set up our own place out here in the forest? This way we can survive without spending the rest of our time in a zoo or other cages!”

“Why would you even think that?” Norman asked with a snort. “You two are really reaching to get to that scenario!”

“If we didn't try to make it back to the Institute,” Avon said, waving his hands in the air in front of him, “I'm sure the director would eventually send out search parties for us.”

“Why?” Kim asked in frustration. “He wouldn't come after us if he wanted us out here!”

“Maybe he made a deal with the exotic zoo!” Yuki speculated with sudden intensity. “They'll come hunting us with traps and guns if we don't show up at the coordinates!”

“Oh brother…” Travis muttered from his spot by the fire where he had been poking the coals with a stick. “Can we just get back to the discussion over which way we're going back home?”

“You want to be a freak in a zoo?” Yuki asked him incredulously.

“We're already freaks, as far as the rest of the world goes,” the German Shepherd replied dryly. “What I want is to get back to a hot shower after a day like today. We won't have them on this proverbial world we're going to someday, so I want to enjoy them for as long as I can!”

Avon cleared his throat. “I agree with Travis,” he said. “We need to return to the root of this discussion.”

Yuki turned around in a slow circle to look at everyone.  “I know — let's take a vote!” she said suddenly. “Okay everyone. Who agrees that we should form our own colony out here?”  She held up her hand, as did Kim.  Nobody else moved to join them and it got conspicuously quiet with nothing but the crackling of the fire to answer the sisters.  “No one?” Yuki asked with an embarrassed frown. “C'mon, people – this is for our survival!” 

“Sit down, darlin',” Travis said with a sneer. “No one wants to listen to your crazy talk!”

“It's not crazy…” Kim murmured. “It's a valid concern.”

Yuki looked angrily at everyone around them. “Going back is not the thing to do!” she shouted. “They don't want us there!”  She turned back to Avon with an imploring look, but he merely gazed back at her across the fire, his expression carefully neutral.  Seeing that she would get no backing from their leader, she grabbed her sister's hand.  “Come on, Kim.”

The Tanaka sisters both stormed out away from the campfire to sulk in the shadows.  Before they'd completely lost themselves, however, Travis tossed his stick onto the fire and then said in an exaggerated country drawl, “Nowa the crazies are gone, kin we git back to the pint of all this?”

Avon sighed and looked around the campfire. “Once we've all had some rest,” he said at last, “we'll start back up the road back to the intersection and—”

“Hey,” Norman interrupted, “since there's voting going around, why don't we vote on this issue?”

“What's to vote on?” asked the grizzly.

“Personally, I don't have a preference either way,” Norman said, “but let's take a vote on whether we spend our time tomorrow going back the way we came or striking out through the woods on a more direct route.”

Avon frowned and heaved a heavy sigh, but presently he shrugged and looked around.  “Okay, raise one hand if you prefer we take the road back out and find our way to the Institute on an established road.”  The grizzly raised his hand and then counted out more in the air.  “All right, that's thirteen; you can drop your hands.”

“Now, who's in favor of finding our way through unknown territory on a more direct route?”  He looked around and counted raised hand paws.  Neither Yuki nor Kim bothered to vote, both having gone off to pout.  “Sixteen,” Avon remarked at last.  Twenty-eight pairs of eyes looked back at him to see what he would do.

He shook his head and slid the GPS back into its case before putting it into his pocket. “I don't think we're doing the right thing,” he said in a resigned tone, “but we'll go with the majority vote.”  There were several comments of relief, as well as a few groans of frustration.

“I don't want to have to fight my way through briars and brush!” Sissy complained.

Avon didn't want to do that anymore than she did, but he shook it off and took control again. “Now – since we'll be traversing more difficult terrain, I want everyone to help one another get through this. This is going to further resemble conditions on a wild and untamed planet, so we can't afford to lose anyone now any more than we will then. We have no medical supplies, not even a First Aid kit, so let's keep the cuts, scratches, bumps and bruises to a minimum. We don't even have a canteen among us, so we'll need to be on the lookout for running water. Watch your step, watch your head, and stay alert at all times. We can't afford a casual and light journey anymore, so we all need to be vigilant. This is going to take more of an effort than we've had yet, so I suggest that if you're finished eating for the night, you may want to settle down and get some rest before tomorrow.”

Effectively ending the discussion, quiet conversations started up all around the campfire. Avon felt exhausted and looked around for a soft patch of moss off the dead-end road to make his bed.  When he stepped away from the fire, the grizzly saw Jon near the edge of the clearing doing chin-ups on the low branch of a tree.

“You were awfully quiet during tonight's exchange,” Avon remarked in a tired voice.

The cougar looked at him without pausing in his routine. “I didn't feel the need to give my input,” Jon replied in a quiet voice.

“You could have at least voted with me,” the bear said.

“Had I done that, the numbers would still have been stacked against us.” 

“Maybe, but there are those in the group who might have voted with you.”

Jon paused with his chin up near the branch, holding his weight with just his hands. “You're still convinced that I have more pull than I really do,” he said, slowly lowering himself to the ground. “I really don't think the outcome would have been any different.”

“Why did you vote to go cross country?” Avon asked. “I would have thought you would be concerned about getting everyone back safely just as much as I am.”

The cougar looked amused and dusted off his hands. “That might be true if I was the leader of cats you want to make me into,” he said. “I already told you that I'm not the one for the job. I don't want it.”  Avon opened his mouth to reply, but Jon held up a hand and continued. “I'll do my part when the time comes to shoot us out into space and drop us off on an alien world, but someone else will be in charge and make the decisions.”

“Who? Arne?”

Jon made a face. “Yeesh, I hope not! One day out with his decisions was enough…”

Avon tilted his head. “Oh?  What happened out there?”

“Nothing to speak of,” Jon answered, mentally giving himself a smack for mentioning it. “As for my vote, I grew up making cross country hikes through woods like these, so I'm not concerned about the terrain. Sure, it won't be all flat and free of things to go around, but I've no doubt this group can do it.”

“What about the smaller ones like Erin, Kevin and Sissy?”

“You've already covered that,” Jon reminded him, dropping to the ground to begin a series of push-ups. “Everyone helps everyone else on the journey.  As long as the weather holds out, we should be okay,” he grunted.  “Even if it rains on us, we'll be better protected under the cover of trees than on a road anyway.”

At the mention of rain, Avon glanced up at the night sky that could be seen through the treetops over the road. He could see wisps of clouds occluding some of the stars, but this didn't herald any bad weather as yet. 

“Taking the wrong road was nobody's fault,” Jon said, rolling over onto his back for sit-ups, “but we wasted the better part of a day. Providing Sissy's forecast hasn't changed since we've been out here,” he said between stomach crunches, “inclement weather may be coming… in a couple of days… and we'll want to be… as close to home as we can… before it gets here…”

Talking while doing his nightly exercises wasn't easy, so he stretched out onto his side and put his head up on one hand to look at the grizzly.

“I think it's in our best interests to go as the crow flies in as straight a line as we're able to get back,” he said, “and as much as I hate to agree with Travis on anything, no one we come across on the road is going to help us. I overheard Marcelo once telling someone that they've tried to keep the real purpose of our Institute a secret from the surrounding residents, so we'd probably be shot on sight by uninformed locals thinking alien mutants have landed or something.”

Avon looked at him in the dim light of the campfire and frowned. He still didn't like idea of leaving an established road, but he was beginning to think that Jon had good reasons for going cross country. The route would not be easy in places, but perhaps they could avoid disaster long enough to make up a lot of lost time.

“Well, we've got a long day ahead of us tomorrow,” he said after moments of quiet musing, “so we'd better get some rest.”

“Good idea,” Jon said with a nod. Avon settled down on the patch of moss he'd found and Jon simply stretched out on a bed of leaves.

The cougar stared across the roadway toward the weakening campfire and let his mind relax in the flickering flames.  

*** 

When the group of Furs started out early the next morning, the ursine cousins volunteered to blaze a trail through the woods for the others to follow. Although the grizzly was the one in charge, Avon granted Aaron and Gerard the opportunity to take the lead, privately in hopes that one of them would prove himself worthy to be assigned as his second-in-command when their assignment to a starter colony finally came about. The leader of a colony was appointed by Stockholm, but Avon's officers would eventually be chosen by him.

If neither Aaron nor Gerard, he may have to consider a Fur from one of the other Institutes that will eventually be sent out with them at the same time. He'd met the bears at the Argentina branch briefly and knew there could be some decent candidates there too. As yet, he'd not met any of the volunteer Furs from the Stockholm branch, but he hoped that he would be allowed to go visit them before long to make acquaintances with those whom he would eventually lead. For now, however, he was looking closer to home for his officers.

Fortunately for their new resilient physiologies, none of the Furs needed to eat much for breakfast that morning, having sated their appetites the previous night with a feast of deer meat and edible plants. A few had roasted a bit of meat for breakfast, a portion of added protein before the next leg of their journey, but once the fire pit had been buried under a layer of smothering dirt, the end of the road had been left behind.

Aaron and Gerard, feeling self-important, led the Furs off through the underbrush, and most everyone seemed encouraged with the animal trail they followed in the general direction they needed to go.  The underbrush was light and presented no real difficulty to get through.

As before, Jon stationed himself at the back of the crowd to make sure there were no stragglers who might get left behind. Several had speculated that the Tanaka sisters might have abandoned the group after their argument the night before, but once the Furs were on the move, both Kim and Yuki were among them. Neither seemed happy about it, but they were smart enough to know the foolishness of leaving the group on their own, especially without having provisions of any kind.

An hour into the journey the ground began to rise, becoming rockier, and forest growth grew thicker, closer together. Although only a few had been walking on all fours since they had departed the road, the rest of them switched to this mode of travel as it was easier with the incline.

Wendy panted in the heat as the day grew warm and humid. Gnats, flies and other bugs had discovered the golden retriever's furry anatomy and swatting at them was no easy thing to do when all four of her limbs were on the ground for walking. She looked over at the white tiger near her and frowned at the sight of his oversized dog collar.

“Hey Dante,” she said, “does that collar of yours repel fleas and ticks?”

The feline glanced at her but shook his head. “No, it doesn't,” he replied with a frown, “but right now, I really wish it did.”

“Be glad it doesn't,” Hank muttered from behind him. “Every Fur here would try to take it from you if it did.”

“I'd outrun you all if it came down to that,” Dante responded with pride.

All of us?” Raine Terrance quipped lightly. The cheetah gave Dante a wide, tooth-baring grin when he looked up at him.

The tiger chuckled. “Okay, you might give me a run for my money,” he said. “Unfortunately for us all, it's just a collar to hold my name tag in case I forget who I am.”

Up ahead of the casual banter, Jasmine and Cheryl had their heads together as they walked, snickering and giggling at some private conversation. Although the hearing of every Fur present had been enhanced by the transformation, they spoke in whispers so low that even those near them couldn't discern what was said.

After several minutes of this, both females increased their pace a little to move forward toward the front of the entourage being led by the pair of brown bears.  Gerard was in the forefront, picking out their route through the trees and underbrush and his cousin Aaron was right behind him making sure the others followed. Right behind them were Alicia and Dara, their black and white furs side by side contrasting starkly. Both looked annoyed when the vixen and Border Collie pushed in between them to move up to the front of the group.

“I'll bet they're going to flirt with the guys,” the black bear complained quietly to her white-furred friend.

Dara's expression brightened with a twinkle in her dark brown eyes. “What's the matter?  Are you jealous?” she whispered.

“You knew I had my sights set on Aaron,” Alicia grumbled. Sure enough, Jasmine and Cheryl positioned themselves right alongside each of the ursine cousins, both of them walking extremely close to the males. Aaron looked amused at something Jasmine whispered into his small round ears and Alicia swiped at a nearby bush in annoyance.

Dara leaned in close with amusement. “We may have to compete for them,” she said quietly, “but in the end we're the only ones who can have their cubs.”

Alicia looked embarrassed. “I'm not interested in having his cubs right now!” she whispered in exasperation. “I just want to be the center of his attention.”

The polar bear chuckled. She planned to make herself familiar with all the ursine males she knew, not just only one like her friend here. After all, there would be more males than females when they left the Earth, so she had her choice of guys to go through.

“Well, he looks like he's enjoying the vixen's attention, but she made the first move. You're going to have to stop being a wallflower and be more assertive!”

Alicia sighed and shook her head. She was a crack shot with a gun, was energetically athletic and self-confident in everything she put her mind to, but when it came to relationships, she was woefully inadequate to deal with the nuances of pursuing someone she liked.

She had become friends with Dara when they'd first been assigned to the same Wing for their transformation over a year earlier, but there were times when she couldn't stand to be around her. This was quickly becoming one of those times. The black bear looked behind and saw the arctic fox walking quietly with a bored look on his face. He was far enough back that he wouldn't have been able to hear their conversation, so Alicia made a quick decision.

“I'm going to talk with Manny for a while,” she told her companion.

“Are you setting your sights on a fox tod?” Dara asked in surprise.

“Not at all… I just wanted to talk to him about the guns in the arsenal we'll be taking with us.”

The polar bear suddenly frowned. “Ah, guy stuff. Okay, go talk to the gun guy – I'm going to keep my eyes on the guys in front.  Great view from here.”

Alicia didn't answer, but she hung back until Manny had passed her before she began walking again.  Instead of turning to him, however, she simply fell silent and lost herself in her thoughts.

Dara watched her from the corner of her eye, but before she had the chance to worry about her friend anymore, Kristen moved closer to her.

“Is she okay?” the botanist asked quietly.

The polar bear gave the mountain lioness a sidelong glance through her blonde bangs of human scalp hair. The two of them had rarely spoken to one another, although there had been no specific reason other than simple opportunity. Always willing to chat, Dara turned to the feline with a smile.

“She's love-sick,” she explained in a quiet whisper, “and a little jealous of your friend.”

Kristen followed the polar bear's gaze forward and saw Jasmine walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Aaron. The difference in their sizes didn't seem to matter as the couple grinned about some shared comment. The cougar frowned, knowing what it was like to be enamored with someone, but she felt like she was finally moving past her own feelings – at least as long as she didn't think about them.

“I'm sorry to hear that,” she replied. “I'm sure it bothers her.”

“So, what's your spot in the colony you'll be going to?” Dara asked, swiftly changing the subject. “You're name's Kristen, right?”

The feline blinked at the non sequitur, but then smiled at her companion. “Yes, that's right.  I'm a transterrestrial botanist and will likely fill out any other position they happen to put me in as needed.”

“Ah, you're the one who's been helping us find the plants we can eat.”

“Yes, that's me.  What about you?”

“You probably wouldn't know it to look at me,” Dara answered, “but I'm a chemist and geologist.”

“Wow, that's great!” Kristen responded with wide eyes. “I don't think we have either of those career fields among the Felis classes, but those could certainly come in handy.”

“Just like yours, dear.”

They had to fall into single file to pass through a stand of tall pine trees and then around an outcropping of exposed rock, but when they were able to walk side by side again, Kristen looked over at Dara.

“So, what made you decide to become a bear?” she asked casually. “I'm afraid my choice was foolishly based upon a guy I knew.”

 “Jon Sunset?”

Kristen looked at her, but didn't answer. Dara nodded to herself and looked ahead. “I chose a bear because I've always been a big girl and a big animal just seemed right.”

“You were a big girl? So was I, before the transformation slimmed me down. I'm happy to say that I'm no longer as fat as I used to be.”

Dara smiled.  “No, sorry, that's not what I meant.  I was big. I was tall, large-framed, broad-shouldered and what some people would call a bit mannish. I suppose I've always had more testosterone in my body than most women, but I've never had any aspirations of being a guy; I like pursuing them myself too much! However, due to my build, I've always taken part in sports and activities that many women wouldn't bother with, though I never had an interest in body building.”

“Polar bears are the largest of all bears on the planet,” Kristen mused. “How come Avon's bigger than you are?”

“Before the transformation, he was larger than I was to begin with,” the white-furred woman explained. “The genetic changes make us resemble our animal counterparts, but our human makeup is still in there too. I've bulked up due to my ursine nature, but I doubt I'll ever be as big as our fearless leader.”

“Still, even as a hybrid bear, you don't look mannish to me,” Kristen remarked with a critical eye at her companion.  Dara grinned at her.

“Why thank you, dear! That was nice of you to say.”

“You're welcome.  What about your friend Alicia?  Why'd she become a bear?”

Dara lost her smile. “Okay, she did have a weight problem when she first came to the Institute, but that wasn't her reason.  She'd spent a few summers working as a volunteer to a local zoo where she lived and had some experience working with the bears. She was never a handler herself, but she said she'd always liked the animals.”

Kristen was intrigued. “It's odd that an animal lover would be such a good shot with a rifle.”

“Yeah, well you can blame her brothers for that. She was the only daughter in a large family of males and all the guys were target shooters.  I think even her mom was too.”

“Were they hunters?”

“Maybe one or two of them, but she said they mostly only shot up beer cans, clay discs and paper targets on the back lot of their rural property.”  Dara glanced behind her and noticed how miserable the female black bear looked.  “Kristen, we'll have to talk again soon,” she said, “but I think Alicia needs some cheering up.”

“Uh, sure,” said the botanist. “Nice meeting you, Dara.”  The polar bear gave her a nod and then held back so she could join her friend. 

Kristen sighed and looked down at her forepaws on the ground, becoming lost in her own thoughts.  A moment later, she felt someone approach her.  She looked up into the large golden eyes of a cheetah, and despite the sadness that always seemed to be on his face due to the cry-line markings of his facial fur, Raine gave her a cheerful smile.

“Hello,” he said pleasantly. “Mind if I join you?”  Kristen's face lit up immediately. She had talked to Raine Terrance a few times, but had never really gotten to know him.

“Sure, I could use the company,” she told him with a smile of her own. Talking to another guy would help keep her mind off the other mountain lion of the group. After a brief look around, however, she noticed Travis watching her from nearby. He hadn't annoyed her in some time, but for now she preferred to focus on the cheetah for casual conversation.  

*** 

Aldo Banner walked quietly along with the rest of the Furs up a steepening incline through the forest, but he was holding toward the back of the group. His large floppy ears shook as his nose quivered near the ground, attempting to identify the scent of something he kept picking up in the air.

He raised his head after several moments and sniffed at the forest beside him. He was sure something was following them, but without a certain frame of reference, he had yet to say anything to Avon about it.  He wanted to be sure before causing potential alarm, so he simply decided to remain vigilant and continue keeping track of the scents he'd detected.  

*** 

Three and a half hours into their wooded journey, most of the Furs had fallen into the routine of blindly walking along with everyone else. The forest surroundings were unbreaking, the incline was continual and conversations had flourished to keep themselves occupied. Avon silently wondered how they would hear anything they might come upon with so much noise coming from the group, but he saw no real reason to shush them. They still had a long way to go and the discussions would help keep up morale. The grizzly had planned to stop the group in another hour to take fresh reading from the GPS receiver, but Aaron and Gerard had led them on such meandering path across the mountainous terrain that he was no longer certain they were headed directly for the Institute.

Avon looked at the head of the group and saw the cousins flirting openly with the four females that were gathered just behind them. Dahlia, Erin and Jasmine all laughed at some joke that Aaron had quipped to them over his ursine shoulder while Gerard and Cheryl led the way through several dense bushes growing around a large, slate grey boulder.

As the grizzly watched, Gerard and Cheryl suddenly disappeared from view. Cheryl cried out and Aaron reached for her instinctively before even realizing what he was doing.

“Ohmigosh!” Erin exclaimed loudly and Dahlia suddenly clutched her sister's arm.

Avon began pushing his way past a few others just as Aaron pulled Cheryl back into view. She clung to him with wide eyes, but the Border Collie was looking down at something out of the grizzly's sight.

“Gerard, are you okay?” Aaron called out frantically.

“What happened?” Avon demanded when he reached the boulder. The females moved back to let their leader through the brush and when he stepped up to Aaron's side, he blinked in astonishment at what he saw.

They were standing in full sunshine at the rim of a precipice overlooking a sheer cut ravine with a small river below. Gerard had stepped over the edge out into open air and dropped a good fourteen or fifteen feet onto an outcropping of rock barely wider than himself. His foot had caught on a root clinging to the cliff above him and that had likely kept him from rolling right off into space. Had Aaron not caught her fluffy tail, Cheryl would have tumbled out right behind Gerard.

The brown bear below looked dazed, but was keenly aware of his predicament. He managed to extricate his foot from the root and then sat back against the cliff wall, pressing himself away from the edge as much as he could. He looked up over his shoulder when Aaron called down at him again.

“I'm okay,” he managed to say with a dry throat. “Just give me a moment.” He looked out at a dark shape riding the air currents over the ravine and recognized it as a large bald eagle. Had the situation not been grim, he might have felt inspired to have seen the rare majestic bird.

“Take all the time you need,” Avon told him. “Just don't slip off.”

Gerard nodded, but after only a couple minutes he reached back and took hold of the roots above him. Once he was sure he had a firm grip and the vegetation wouldn't pull away from the wall, he used it to help get himself up to his feet. Turning around to face away from the drop off, the brown bear stretched up as high as he could, but even with his ursine height, he could not reach the edge of the cliff above him. 

Aaron dropped down onto his stomach and reached for him, but they could only just touch their claw tips together. There would be no way to get his cousin back up onto firm ground this way.

Avon turned back to the rest of the Furs waiting in the woods behind them. “Folks, listen up.  Gerard has fallen off a cliff onto a ledge below—” there were several gasps of surprise “—but we're unable to reach him to pull him back up.  I need everyone to search around for strong vines or anything else he can use to climb up.  He has the bulk of a grown bear, so it's got to be something strong enough to hold his weight.”  He turned back to the cliff, but out of the corner of his eye he saw most of the Furs were rooted to the spot. 

“Go!” he commanded, “But watch your step. We don't want anyone else going over another cliff!”  

*** 

“What about these?” Ivan called out.  Jon moved swiftly to his side and took a look at what the red fox held in his hands, a thick vine hanging beside the trunk of a tree.

“That's a grape vine,” the mountain lion answered after a brief examination. “I wouldn't recommend it.”

“Huh? Why?  It's nearly two inches thick! That ought to hold any of us.”

Jon took the vine in his hands and put his weight against it. The vine pulled down out of the tree with little effort and snaked to the ground between the two of them.  Before Ivan could comment, Jon picked up the vine and then traced it back to its root in the ground beside the tree. He heaved at it hard and the vine roots pulled free of the rich forest soil. Although it came away of its anchors in the ground and up in the tree, Jon proved how useless the vine was for their purposes when he wrapped it around the tree and then pulled hard on both ends of it together. The vine splintered like frail bark, coming apart in his hands.

Ivan looked at it with a frown.  “I thought Tarzan swung from vines like this,” he muttered.

Jon smiled at him. “Edgar Rice Burroughs never tried swinging from a grape vine,” he replied, dusting off his hands. “The smaller vines are useful for weaving into baskets and wreaths, but not very practical for a rope.  It was a good idea, but it wouldn't hold the weight of a full grown brown bear if I can tear it apart with my hands.”

The fox looked at the remnants of the vine and shook his head. “Yes, I can see that,” he muttered.

“Besides, vines are rooted in the ground and climb up into the trees, not the other way around as they always seem to be shown in the vids. If Tarzan were to jump for one of these vines in the forest, the anchors would come loose above and then he'd be making a long dive into the dirt.”

No one else was having any better luck. Some tried long branches, but without the ability to bend over a ninety degree angle from the Furs on top to Gerard down below, there was no way to pull him up with it. Hank suggested handing a long fallen tree trunk down to the bear so he could climb it, but the ledge he was standing on was not wide enough for it to remain stable enough for his weight.

“Can he climb down into the ravine and then come up elsewhere?” Michael Lynch asked in suggestion.

“No,” came Gerard's voice from over the edge. “The drop is too sharp and I'm not seeing any places I could use as hand and foot holds!”

The group fell silent for a long while as thoughts whirled around, but then Carl began looking around at everyone. Avon saw him and felt his curiosity piqued.

“You have an idea?”

The grey wolf nodded and held up the hem of his furman garment. “Tie our robe tops and vests together into a rope,” he suggested. “If we double them up, it might be strong enough to hold his weight, and there's more than enough of us here to pull him up to us.”

“I think he's got a good idea,” Jon remarked. “There are fourteen of us guys up here.”

The grizzly looked around at the Furs gathered in front of the boulder and didn't see any signs of argument. “Okay, I need all the guys to remove their vests and robes so we can tie them together as a cloth rope. They may not be much use to us afterward, but we can always get more when we get back to base.”

“What about us?” Jenni called out from the back of the crowd.

“You can take your shirts off too!” suggested Travis with a lecherous grin.

Avon turned back to Jenni with a smile. “Keep your shirts on,” he quipped, slipping out of his own large robe top.

The leopard chuckled but shook her head. “Thanks, but I meant to ask if we can do anything else?”  The male Furs were tossing their tops onto the boulder as they shed them. Carl and Ellie started grabbing them to tie together.

“You can help them tie the robes,” the grizzly replied distractedly.  The robe top in his hand felt heavier than it should, so he reached into a pocket and retrieved the GPS inside its vinyl case.  Sissy was close by, so he handed it to her.  “Hold onto this for me?” he asked.

“Sure,” the orange feline said with a smile. “I'll keep it with my PBJ.”

Erin looked over at her as Avon turned back to the Furs tying all their robes together end to end. “Have you tried your PBJ to see if you could get a signal yet?” she asked.

“No!  I'd forgotten all about it!”  Sissy put the GPS into one pocket and then pulled out her Personal Business Juxtapositioner. She opened its bright orange clamshell case and tapped the power button. The unit's twin screens lit up and the smiling face of a classic cartoon kitty filled up the right-hand screen in greeting. A moment later, touch tabs appeared around the perimeter of the same screen and Sissy used a claw tip to tap through the menus to her personal message center.

Erin peered over the feline's shoulder, her large fennec ears causing Sissy's to twitch where they touched. “Aw,” the diminutive tan fox murmured. The device had a good battery charge, but whatever signal it was supposed to have picked up from overhead satellites still seemed to be blocked.

“That's very odd,” Sissy remarked. “Even on another planet, there will be one geosynchronous satellite parked over the colony site for our PBJs to interface with for communication with the Earth.”

“With all the communication satellites orbiting the Earth, you'd think some kind of signal would bleed over for this thing to pick up,” Erin mused.  “Are you sure it's still tuned to the correct frequency?”

“It's self-tuning,” Sissy informed her. Just to be sure, however, she navigated through the menu selections to the unit's set-up. After looking at the settings, the feline shook her head. “Looks good,” she muttered, “but it is acting like the signal just isn't there to pick up.”

“Maybe it's not the signal,” Erin suggested. “Maybe your PBJ is on the fritz.”

“That's possible. I've had it a while and take it with me everywhere I go.”

“There's a dent in one side of it. Maybe that's the problem.”

The orange cat frowned. “I don't remember hitting it on anything, even in my pocket.”

“Maybe while you slept?  You could have rolled over on it over a rock.”

“Perhaps.” Sissy rubbed a finger over the indention and sighed. Had she ruined their chances by breaking her PBJ? Everything else seemed to be functioning on it okay.  Her eyes lit up for a moment, but then she frowned again.

“What is it?” Erin prompted.

“I knocked a potted plant off the window sill in my room a couple nights ago, but it fell onto my bed. I just remembered that my PBJ was on my bed too.”

“Do you think it might have landed on it?”

Sissy peered at the dent and nodded. “Probably. It was the same night Marcelo got us all up out of bed to get on the bus.”

“There, that should hold him,” Aaron's voice announced. 

Sissy and Erin looked over at the group by the boulder and saw the brown bear holding up a knotted length of multicolored fabric. He looked over at their leader and Avon nodded.

“Okay, we need the biggest and strongest Furs up here, please,” the grizzly said loudly. Naturally, most of the bears surged forward to get a place in line behind him and Aaron.

Aaron dropped one end of the robe-rope over the edge to his cousin. Gerard clutched at the lifeline with relief and noted that a loop had been formed on his end.  He threaded an arm through it for extra leverage and then waited for those on top to begin pulling.

“Ready?” Avon called down to him.

“More than ready.”

“Okay then, everybody, heave!”

The makeshift rope went taut as strong arms pulled on it and Gerard felt himself being lifted from the narrow ledge. Almost immediately, however, several of the bears felt the fabric begin to pull apart beneath their fingers.

“Hold on!” Avon shouted, motioning with his head toward the ledge. “This isn't going to work!” The bears eased off and Gerard's feet touched back down on lichen-covered rock.

“What’s wrong?” he called back up to them.

“You're too heavy, cousin,” Aaron answered.

“We doubled up on the robes and vests,” Hank muttered, “but this fabric still isn't strong enough. It's a loose weave so our fur can breathe, and that makes it weaker.”

“We only need get him up to the ledge and then we can just pull him up by his arms,” Alicia remarked.

Avon nodded, but with a deep frown. “Yes, but can we even get him that high?” he replied.

“Add another layer,” Jenni suggested from behind the line of bears. When the ursine furmen looked back at her, she and Cheryl stood before them with their own robes held out in their hands toward them. Both females were now topless, but they possessed ample fur to cover their chests.

The grizzly felt his cheeks flush beneath his facial fur, but he knew they were right. Gerard's only hope of rescue might depend upon the extra layer of furman robes. 

“Okay,” he said after a moment, “we'll need at least six or seven more donated robes to add another layer to our rope.  Alicia gave Jenni a smirk and pulled her top off before she took the two they offered. 

Sissy gave Erin a brief smile and took the GPS out of her pocket. She made sure the case of her PBJ was secure and then checked the zipper around the vinyl case of the GPS receiver. With both devices protected, she laid them both on the ground beneath a bush where they wouldn’t be stepped on. Sissy pulled off her robe top and then Erin pursed her lips a moment before she shrugged her shoulders.

“What the hey,” she quipped, taking off her short robe. She felt self-conscious about being topless in front of so many at once, but no one was really looking at her.  However, before she handed her top away, she removed a small paper-wrapped bundle from the garment pocket and transferred it to the one in her shorts. Erin's large ears went back against her head when Sissy recognized her menstruation supplies, but neither of them said a word.

Nearby, Yuki watched the proceedings with a frown, but when she saw Sissy put down her electronic devices, an interested look crossed her features.

Ellie, Jasmine, Kristen and Dahlia also donated their tops to the rope, but the rest of the females were reluctant to follow suit, especially since Travis was leering at them all with rapt attention; none of them wanted to give him anything more to fantasize about unless it was completely necessary.

Kristen, however, simply didn't care anymore. Despite her misgivings when she'd first come to the Institute, she was more comfortable with herself than she had ever been in her life. She was still covered with her fur, so she never felt completely bare anymore.

“Aren't you going to give them yours too?” Kevin asked Rose.  The vixen gave him a stony stare, still a little miffed at him.

“Why, so you can ogle my chest?” she retorted. She turned away from him and added, “I'm not baring myself to you unless Gerard's life depends upon it!”

“What are you worried about anyway?” Kevin grumbled. “Your fur hides everything.”

Rose crossed her arms across her chest and turned her back on him, swishing her tail back and forth in agitation. “How would you know how covered up I am? Have you been peeking into my top?”

Kevin snorted in annoyance and fell silent. He hadn't intended to stir up more trouble between them, but it seemed that no matter what he said or did, she was going to stay upset with him.  It wasn't fair… she was the one who had abandoned him that night and slept curled up to Jon instead.

While the extra garments were being tied into the rope, Jon, Dante, Ken and Michael joined the line with the bears. There was hardly room for them all to grab hold of the material, but they alternated on sides so they could all lend their strength to the effort.

“I appreciate the help, guys,” Gerard called up, “but can you hurry it up? This ledge is weathered and a little slick with the stuff growing on it. I don't want to slide off before you get around to helping me up!”

“Just a moment,” Aaron responded. “Don't go anywhere.”

“Uh huh, right.”

“Almost done,” Alicia called down to him. She pulled hard on the final knot to cinch it into place and then spread out the rope to all the hands that would help pull on it.  Aaron flipped the loop end down once again and Gerard readied himself as before.

“Okay, once more,” Avon told his troupe.

The makeshift rope went taut as numerous arms pulled on it. Gerard felt himself being lifted from the narrow ledge, but this time the fabric seemed to be holding.

“Holy cats, Gerard!” Michael exclaimed after a moment. “Just how much do you weigh anyway?”

“Two hundred ninety-five and gaining at the last time Dr. Lacross gave me a checkup.”

“Good grief, haven't you ever heard of a diet?”

“For my kind,” Gerard grunted, “that's normal.” He tried to walk up the wall as he was being lifted, but there was nothing to dig his toe claws into but bare roots that only held their places tenuously.

“I think my arms are stretching!” Dante gasped. “After this, I won't have to bend over to walk on all fours!”

Little by little, inch by inch, the brown bear neared the top of the ledge, not daring to look down into the ravine below him. His heart was racing from the anticipation and he had to swallow several times to get down the lump that was lodged in his throat.

The brush surrounding the large boulder obscured the view from the rest of the Furs waiting in the forest. Kristen moved from one foot to the other in expectation and Sissy couldn't keep from chewing on her lower lip.

Gerard's ears finally reached the level of the ledge and Aaron took a chance by letting go of the rope to drop to his knees. He reached out for his cousin's arms as the others continued to pull and he managed to get his hands under Gerard's armpits. 

The Furs in line heaved harder to get him up over the edge, and just as he was almost up high enough, Avon could feel a knot in the robe beneath his hands start to slip.

“Quickly!” he exclaimed to the bears at his feet. “It's coming loose again!”

Aaron got a better hold on Gerard's arm and heaved back with him.  His cousin finally came up all the way over the edge of the cliff and then scrambled to safety.

“All right!” Dante called out for the benefit of those out of sight. “He made it!”  Sissy and Erin applauded, both of them jumping up and down as they did.

The rescuers backed out through the brush surrounding the boulder, and when Gerard finally came into view, Cheryl rushed forward to wrap her arms around his thick neck. Ken dropped the length of makeshift rope and approached the brown bear.

“Are you hurt?” the physician asked.

Gerard started to reply in the negative without thinking, but stopped to think about it a moment. “I think I jammed my left wrist when I fell,” he answered truthfully, “but otherwise I think I'm okay.”

“Here, let me take a look at it.” 

Gerard extended his hand and Cheryl stepped back to give them room. Ken took the large hand paw gently, but turned it several directions while also feeling of the actions beneath the skin.  Gerard winced when it turned a specific direction, but it was only a minor twitch.

“Doesn't feel like it's broken,” the doctor said at last, “but we may want to wrap it up with one of the robes to keep it from moving around too much.”

“Whatever you say, doc,” the bear replied.

Back through the brush surrounding the boulder, Jon crept forward on all fours until he was right at the edge. He lay down on his stomach and then peered past Gerard's ledge over into the ravine. A moment later, Carl lay down beside him to do the same.

“What do you think?” asked the grey wolf.  “I would guess it's about two hundred feet down to the river.”

Jon shook his head with a frown.  “As Gerard said, there's no way to climb down this cliff so we can climb up again on the other side. We're going to have to go around it upriver. That's going to take time and throw us off course.”  The cougar backed away from the edge and then stood up again on two feet. “It's a good thing Avon has that GPS receiver, but he said the batteries are getting rather low. He'll have to turn it on sparingly until we can get back on a straight course.”

Carl stood up beside him, idly scratching his bare chest fur. “If I'd known we were going to be coming out here,” he said in a low, gruff voice, “I could have brought a compass from the stuff in my room. Even a cheap plastic one would have been useful on this trip.”

The pair of them turned back and pushed through the brush. On the other side, Ellie, Cheryl and Jenni were attempting to untie the rope.

“What'cha doing?” Jon asked, stopping between the leopard and the Border Collie.

“Well,” Cheryl murmured as she tried to work her claw tips into a tight wad of material, “we thought we'd get these untied so we could put our tops back on.”

“Gerard's weight really fixed up these knots tight,” Jenni added.

“Avon said a knot he held was slipping out,” Jon remarked. “Perhaps you should start there.”

“That's the one I've got,” Ellie supplied, looking up at the mountain lion. “Without Gerard's weight on it now, the knot's secure. I'm sure it would hold even your weight now, Jon.”

“Here, let me have it,” Carl said to his wife.  He took the rope of material from her and then draped it over the boulder. “Grab it from the other side, Jon.”

The cougar moved forward, picked up the rope, and then both males braced a foot up against the rock. At a nod from Carl, both of them pulled against one another. The rope held. Jenni stepped up behind Jon and added her strength to the pulling at the same time Ellie did behind her husband. What started out as an even-handed attempt to slip a knot turned into a game when Carl suddenly gave Jon a smirk and pulled harder. The cougar chuckled and wrenched back strongly on the rope, almost pulling the wolf onto the boulder.

The game of tug quickly escalated as each team tried to pull the other up to the rock and it attracted the attention of several others. No one else knew what was going on, but Manny and Ivan grabbed the rope behind the wolves as Dante and Michael joined Jon's side.

Several others started to move in to help, but the game abruptly ended when a knot near Carl's hands pulled free. Both teams tumbled backward in a crowd of laughter. Jon was on his back up against the bushes, but when he turned onto his side to get up, he planted his chin hard up against Jenni's chest, knocking her backward into Dante. In turn, the monochrome feline bowled over the swift fox behind him and they all collapsed into a pile of chuckles.

“Wow,” murmured the tiger, “now I know what a domino feels like!”

Carl disentangled himself from the pile of bodies on his side of the boulder and sat up with a grin. In the thrill of the sudden game in tug, he had forgotten their original purpose. One of the knots had separated, freeing the ends of six rope tops, three doubled up on each end.

“Well, that's a start!” Ellie remarked with a smile. Despite how hard it had been to separate this knot, the tug-of-war must have slipped up others in the process, for they were able to pull apart more knots with teeth and claw tips.  Once the first robe top was free, Cheryl shook it out twice and then slipped it on.  The material was stretched far beyond its original shape and although it was roughly the size of top that the canine originally wore, this one now hung loose, low and baggy on her.

“That's a good look for you, Cher,” Travis observed aloud. “It's a cross between cowgirl, tramp and homeless!”  More than one pair of eyes glared back at him for that remark, so he held up his hands with a laugh and backed away into the shadows of the forest. Before he lost himself, however, he took a quick look around and was relieved to discover that Kristen was engaged in a conversation with the cheetah, Raine and was far enough away that she hadn't heard his remarks.

Despite the German Shepherd's comment that had meant to upset her, Cheryl couldn't help but agree with him. With a mere shrug, she pulled it off and tossed it on top of the boulder. “He's right, y'know,” she said to the surprise of those around her. “The material's so pulled out of shape that it covers up nothing. I think I'll be better off with my own fur coat!”  Of all the women in the group, her long-hair fur was amply thick to cover her feminine assets with extra to spare. With a smile over her shoulder at the guys looking at her, she tipped her western-style hat and hiked up on the back of her shorts that were binding on her fluffy tail.

“Now that's a good look for her!” Michael whispered aside to Jon.

Ellie held up another robe top she had loosened from the rope and she held it up in both hands with a frown. “I'm afraid she's right,” the wolf remarked. “We might hang onto these for wraps if anyone gets scrapes or cuts out here, but as garments they've outlived their usefulness.”

Carl gave her an appraising look. “You don't mind going topless?” he asked.

Ellie smiled and shook her head. “I'm not so hung up on my looks to be embarrassed anymore,” she told him with a pat on the cheek. “This is just one more link to my human past that no longer means what it used to. Yes, I'm still part human, but I have enough fur to cover myself too.”

Across the boulder, Jenni was grinning. Having been raised by a family of openness, she was no stranger to walking around at clothing-optional resorts. The only difference was that with a natural fur coat, she was now wearing more on top than she usually had on while growing up. The irony amused her and she tossed the fabric still in her hands up onto the rock.

“Well, I certainly don't need to wear one of these baggy things,” Jon said with a shrug. “My fur keeps me warm enough at night.”

Avon had not witnessed the tug-of-war over the rock and was oblivious to the conversation afterward. Assured that Gerard would survive his near-death experience with only a sprained wrist, he looked through the crowd for a certain orange-striped cat.  He found Sissy and Erin sitting on the ground discussing the day's events so the feline could write it down later for her daily news. She would be unable to broadcast her report until they returned to the Institute, but the fennec fox had assured her friend that they would remember everything together.

“Hi,” Sissy said with a smile when the huge grizzly squatted down beside her. “Is Gerard okay?”

“He fell on his hand, but Ken says it's just sprained,” Avon replied. “I'm afraid we're going to have to go around that ravine, so I'm going to need the GPS to plot out a route for the next leg of our journey. May I have it, please?”

“Sure,” the cat responded with a smile. She reached for her pocket only to remember that she wasn't even wearing a top anymore. With a snicker, she looked around and saw the nearby bush where she had stowed the electronic devices. She got up, walked over to it, and then squatted down to retrieve them.  The GPS was lying on top of its vinyl case beside her PBJ and she scooped them all up in her hands, absently sliding the global positioning system back into its cover. She handed it to the bear before she sat down again beside Erin. Now that she had her personal unit, she could go ahead and type up all they had discussed.

Avon thanked her for watching it for him and then pulled it out of the case as he walked away. A cold shiver trickled down his spine when he looked at the GPS receiver's screen, a claw tip poised above the power button that he had yet to touch.

Presented across the small display was the message, “Low Battery – Recharge or Replace Now,” but then before he could do anything with it, the screen went dark. The grizzly swallowed hard and pressed the power button, but the display remained blank. He turned it over, opened the back of the unit, and then spilled out two batteries onto his other palm to make sure their ends were not corroded.  Clean, he put them back inside one by one, hoping to get at least a little more juice out of them, but when he tried the power button again, there was no response. The batteries were completely drained.

The last time he had used the GPS was a little over an hour earlier, but he was sure he'd turned it off before sliding it back into its case.  Out of frustration, he shook the hand unit, even knowing this was nothing that would recharge its batteries.

Sighing heavily to himself, he put the GPS receiver back into its case and zipped it up. He put it inside one of the pockets of his shorts and then stormed away, mad at himself.

Not far away, Kim and Yuki exchanged a look of satisfaction.  

*** 

Fifteen minutes later, Avon brushed aside the discarded vests and robe tops that had been used for the rope and then climbed up on top of the boulder.  He put his large hand paws together, and although the sound of his clapping was different than what he could previously do with human hands, it got everyone's attention.

“Okay, folks, please gather around. I'm afraid I have some bad news for you.”

All those who had scattered about in the woods in casual conversation drew closer to Avon's rock. Once he was sure everyone was present and accounted for, the grizzly put his hands together and rubbed them against one another nervously.

“For those of you who haven't taken a look at Gerard's ravine, let me tell you that it's too deep and the walls are too steep for us to climb them down to the bottom,” he told them. “In order to proceed, we're going to have to go around it, and the best way is to follow it upstream to a place where the river that formed it isn't too deep. With a little luck, we'll be able to cross it at a shallow spot and then find our way back to the Institute.”

“That's not too bad,” Manny remarked with a shrug. “It'll take us longer, but at least it's a viable plan.”

Avon rubbed his hands together some more. “The bad news is that the batteries in the GPS receiver have given out completely,” he told them, purposely omitting the fact that he might have left it turned on himself. “Without the GPS, we're going to be walking blind back to the Institute.” Several voices started up, but he held up a large hand and continued as if he hadn't paused.

“Once we find a place to cross the river, we'll have to guess on the direction we'll be taking, but it won't be certain and there's no guarantee we'll be able to walk straight back to the Institute. We can hope to get in the general vicinity and it's possible we can look for the lights of home at night to lead us in the rest of the way, but for now our primary plan is to get to the other side of the ravine where we can continue on.”

“Even on the other side,” Ivan wondered, “how are we going to know where to continue on from?”

“We're going to hang up the scraps of some of the ruined robes on the ledge where Gerard went over. When we finally get to opposite side, we can use that as a line-of-sight flag as a spot to continue from.”

“What if we get lost just trying to find our way around the ravine?” Yuki asked. “We'll be aimlessly wandering these woods and mountains forever!”

“We should have gone back to the clearing!” Kim added. “Why don't we just retrace our steps back?”

“We aren't going back, not even to find the road again,” Avon said in annoyance. “We're moving forward.”

“Let's take a vote on it!” Yuki called out with a hand in the air.

No,” Avon said with an authoritarian boom in his voice. “We aren't voting this time. It may take us longer to get back without a GPS, but we'll get back. I'm sure of it.”

“You're sure of that?” Kim mocked. “Have you been out here before?”

“I'm no more familiar with this place than you are,” Avon growled, “but I'm in charge and in the best interests of this group, we are going onward!”

The Tanaka sisters both looked taken aback at the forcefulness of his words. The large grizzly had always seemed like a pushover, but now he was taking his leadership seriously.

Feeling awkward in the midst of an argument, Sissy lifted a hand demurely. Avon shifted only his eyes to look at her, as if silently daring her to take up Kim and Yuki's cause.

“Sissy?”

The orange striped feline hesitated under his piercing gaze, but she held out her personal electronic device to him. “I… I volunteer to donate my PBJ so you can power the GPS with its batteries,” she said in a small voice. Avon's expression softened almost immediately.

“Thank you, Sissy,” he said in a gentler voice, “but the batteries of a PBJ are only made to come out by taking a panel of the case loose by removing several small screws. I've had to change out the one in mine before. Unfortunately, we don't have any tools among us, and I doubt your PBJ's internal rechargeable battery is the right kind anyway.”

“So what do we do now?” Dara wanted to know.

Avon gestured toward his left. “Upstream of the ravine is that way,” he said. “We still have a lot of daylight left of today, so we'll continue walking upstream until we find our way across the river. That's our only plan right now, so I suggest we start walking again. I'll take the lead this time and will try to keep the ravine out from beneath my feet.”

No one had anything more to say, so the grizzly hopped down off the boulder and gave them all a reassuring smile before he started to make his way through the forest in the direction he had indicated.

NEXT CHAPTER

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